President Vladimir Putin maintains that Russia does not prohibit the activities of civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as long as these abide by the country’s laws, refrain from meddling in internal politics and inciting extremism and civil disobedience in the country.
He told Russia’s state-owned TASS News Agency in an interview for the project titled “20 Questions with Vladimir Putin” that any non-governmental organizations operating on Russian territory, including religious ones, must necessarily respect and comply with the Russian law.
The seventh part of the interview series on March 3 focused on civil society and ‘foreign agents’. The transcript was published on the Kremlin’s website. The 20 Questions with Vladimir Putin project is a series of interviews with the Russian President on the most topical subjects of social and political life in Russia and the world.
The purpose of the law on non-governmental organizations including media and religious groups is simply to protect Russia from external meddling in its politics. Significantly, such organizations were often not very eager to declare that they were involved in domestic affairs and were doing so using money from foreign sources.
“While some countries prohibit the activity of such organizations, we don’t ban it. They are free to keep working. By the way, this practice is a well-established one. They continue to work, but they are required to report if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in internal political activity. Nobody’s rights are infringed on here whatsoever. There is nothing that runs counter to international practice,” Putin stressed in the interview.
He however explained that “Some may be reluctant to say: yes, I am involved in domestic political affairs and I am doing that with the money I get from a foreign source, with foreign money. But that’s not fair. They’d better admit it and continue their activity.”
“We need to have a very clear idea of what internal political activity is. We need to ensure that there are no misconceptions. And we need to ensure that no other activity – involving humanitarian matters, for instance, public health or environmental protection – is used as a disguise to engage in domestic political affairs,” he added.
Last December, Putin also spoke during his customary year-end news conference about the law on foreign agents aimed at restricting foreign intervention in internal affairs of Russia.
“As far as individuals are concerned, what is this all about? When the law emerged concerning organizations that receive money from abroad and in fact address domestic policy issues, each state, let me stress this, takes measures to restrict foreign intervention in its internal affairs. Our law has precisely this aim,” Putin said.
He pointed out that individuals getting money from foreign sources for internal political activities were obliged to declare this. “The one who pays sets the tune,” Putin said.
Putin recalled that legislation on foreign agents was first created in the United States back in the late 1930s and has been actively used ever since. It stipulates different penalties, even incarceration. In the meantime, in Russia only administrative penalties for this type of violation are in effect.
The Federation Council at the end of November approved a law making it possible to award the foreign agent status to individuals. Currently any mass media outlet declared as a foreign agent is obliged to abide by all restrictions and obligations established under the NGO law. Furthermore, they face similar responsibility for legal violations.
The newly adopted law stipulates that the status of foreign mass media outlets acting as foreign agents can be assigned to individuals if they spread [disseminate] content [including that in the internet] meant for an unlimited range of persons and receive financing from outside the country. This concerns cash transfers and other assets obtained from foreign countries, their official agencies, international and foreign organizations and foreign individuals or Russian legal entities that receive cash from the aforesaid sources.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NGOs in Russia and in Eastern European bloc began to function actively with the enormous grants they received from the United States and other European countries. Funding came from organizations such as Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie, Ford and many others. However, foreign funded NGOs and their activism created much resentment in Putin’s administration.
The law “On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent” was a law passed by Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, in July 2012, and which was approved by Putin.
Punsara Amarasinghe, a former Research Fellow at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and now a PhD Candidate in International Law from Scuola Superiore Universitaria Sant’Anna di Pisa in Italy, says many of these NGOs and foreign media organizations have had heavy-handed restriction on their activities in the Russian Federation.
This act has described the organizations functioning in Russia under external donations as foreign agents. In fact, the phase “foreign agents” has left a doubtful and hostile impact under the influence of cold war and still the term foreign agents refers to espionage in Russian socio-political context.
Given the situation that Russia has entered a troublesome era with the West after Crimean crisis in 2014 and Putin’s deteriorated relations with EU now, NGOs in Russian Federation are facing a darker chapter, explains Amarasinghe in an interview with IDN.
He says that “Putin’s repeated sentiments professing a need to protect Russia’s sovereignty further support this idea. In his speeches, he often makes remarks such as Russia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are unconditional. These are red lines no one is allowed to cross” and thus “further marginalizes foreign media and NGOs”.
Alexander Podrabinek, a Russian researcher and media practitioner, told a gathering of academic experts at London-based Chatham House that there have been various constraints and pressures on media and NGO activity in Russia. His topic for the discussion was “Under Pressure: Media and NGOs in Russia”.
Podrabinek explained that Russian authorities use various methods to exert pressure on media and NGOs. In fact many of them continue facing tightening of varying controls from authorities. The authorities do not want to destroy society completely, but to control largely the public sphere.
As a result, members of the media and NGOs are forced into making a choice between accepting loyalty to the state, or expressing their opposition and face great professional and personal difficulties and, potentially, the risk of prison. The majority resist at first but ultimately choose to give in to the authorities’ demands, thus compromising their integrity. This has been the case with many NGOs that came up against the “foreign agents” law.
Similarly, Alexander Artemyev, Media Manager of Amnesty International Russia, acknowledged to IDN that many legislative initiatives have severe detrimental impact on the already restrictive environment for media freedom and activities of NGOs.
“The foreign NGOs working field has been consecutively narrowed in Russia over the last 10 years. The passing of the undesirable organizations law has sent chilling signal to many of them and the banning of 10+ organizations – including American IRI, NDI and others – effectively put an end to activities of many in the country,” he told IDN in emailed comments.
He added: “Our understanding is that the Kremlin chooses to persecute foreign NGOs providing any kind of financial support of national civil society organizations and activists. The organizations that don’t provide such substantive help in terms of finances and resources, like Amnesty, haven’t faced such rush resistance and pressure but still deal with many limitations. The Doctors Without Borders have issues with the registration of their new director within the Ministry of Justice, that effectively made the work of this NGO vulnerable.”
“Please be sure, if any NGO, Russian or foreign, violates any kind of the Russian law, they will face consequences and severe retaliation from the Russian authorities immediately. This retaliation will come even if no law is violated nonetheless,” concluded Alexander Artemyev.
Many international organizations have been critical about human rights abuses as well as restriction imposed on them. The U.S. based Freedom House says that “democracy is under assault” and that “the effects are evident not just in authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Iran, but also in countries with a long track record of upholding basic rights and freedoms.”
According to the latest report by the Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2020, assesses the political rights and civil liberties of 210 countries and territories worldwide. The report focuses on developments that occurred between January and December 2019. The official launch of this report took place on March 11, in Washington DC, in the United States. Freedom House is an independent organization which monitors the state of democracy, freedoms and human rights worldwide.