State of Fear
Several civil society activists have recently fled Russia because of threats or fearing prosecution. But how are those who stayed managing?
November 2015, Saint Petersburg. Published in Pervaya Liniya, a Saint Petersburg State University newspaper
“Civil society in Russia is non-existent,’’ Vitus Media, spokesperson for the St. Petersburg based NGO Civic Control, says bluntly when I tell him that I want to talk about the state of the civil society in Russia. The aim of the organisation is to increase public accountability of state officials. According to another prominent human rights NGO, Russian civil society is undergoing a long period of stagnation. At the same time, it’s becoming more professional. Vitus is calling those who carry on “madmen”.
Human rights organisations have been continuously criticising Russia for its “deeply negative climate” with regard to human rights — especially since 2012. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly denounced the Russian authorities for “intensifying its crackdown on civil society”. “They are not launching a crackdown on civil society, but on its shadow!” Vitus Media almost shouts.
During the interview, Vitus Media repeatedly referred to aggressive social conditions and legal framework as key factors preventing its development, not the policy of the state. The organisation was included into the list of foreign agents a year before for their involvement into politics while using foreign funding. They deny this involvement.
The battle has been ongoing for at least a decade. One such instance was the Federal Registry Service, set up in 2004. Along with the Ministry of Justice, it oversaw NGOs. This subjected them to additional oversight, audits and endless paperwork. Ultimately, it was repealed under former President Medvedev in 2008, a move welcomed by civil society activists. “The hand was raised but no hit followed,” says professor Sungurov, the Head of the Department of Political Science in Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.
Another major problem arose when the Federal Tax Service imposed fines on several NGOs for not paying a profit tax — which nonprofits were not supposed to pay. The fine hindered the work of the NGOs. As reported by one interviewee, employees of the FTS were incentivised by the amount of fines imposed, an allegation a source inside the Tax Service calls “absurd”. It took years in litigation to overturn accumulated multimillion-rouble fines. The damage, however, had already been done.
These were the main reasons why between 2006 and 2011 the number of registered NGOs in St. Petersburg dropped by 26 percent. In a 2012 article, Sungurov identifies “unfriendly legislation” as one of the principle reasons for the sharp decline. When I ask him about that, he says, “Yes, unfriendly. But that was before the law on foreign agents.”
Under the law introduced in 2012, nonprofit organisations have to self- register into the list of foreign agents if they are conducting political activity and receiving foreign funding. They also have to indicate their status in all the materials they distribute. A fine for non-compliance is up to 500,000 roubles. Several human rights organisations challenged the law, but the Constitutional Court upheld it on the grounds of being desirable for sovereignty of the state and not being discriminatory. It rejected the claim that the words “foreign agent” in the Russian language have strong espionage connotations.
The organisations on the list must also submit additional paperwork to the Ministry, give up more control over their financial operations, and undergo an audit — the cost of which is reported to be an unbearable financial burden. Arbitrary inclusion into the list by the Ministry of Justice is usually challenged in court which brings additional legal fees.
“To speak about Civic Control, [the law] is a targeted contract on a handful of ‘bothersome’ organisations, and there is a political direction to do everything to make their functioning impossible. In that sense, [the government] is looking for any excuse to impose a fine and overwhelm the organisations with litigation cases. This is a kind of ‘soft annihilation’ of the human rights organisations.”
Out of 100 organisations on the list of foreign agents, eight are based in St. Petersburg, compared to over a reported 226,000 NGOs registered in Russia. “The number is insignificant quantitatively, but is significant qualitatively. This number shows the real number of human rights and civic organisations which are working effectively,” says the Civic Control spokesperson. “Not many, but the most active ones and those closest to decision making,” Sungurov agrees.
One of the major concerns of the civil society is that the Law on Foreign Agents does not define “political activity”, which allows for a broad interpretation by the state, often exclusively at the expense of “unwelcome NGOs”. The Russian word politika means both policy and politics. For the latter — mostly pertaining to elections — participation of the foreign- financed organisations should be minimal. “It’s hard to imagine political parties financed from abroad being welcomed in any society,” says Vitus Media. In terms of policy, those NGOs have an advisory role and it is up to the discretion of the state whether to follow their advice or not.
In 2014, an NGO called Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg — a watchdog for the human rights for conscripts and military men — was included into the list by the Ministry of Justice after publishing on their webpage a call for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The organisation immediately asked the Ministry of Justice to be excluded since they stopped receiving all foreign funding the previous week. The response they got? There is no legal procedure to exclude an organisation from the list. It took two years to adopt amendments to the law to fill the legal void.
When asked about state pressure on civil society organisations, Aleksandr Peredruk, spokesperson for Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, said that before they had been previously forced into the list, they had to undergo audits by the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor’s Office, the anti-extremism and anti-corruption departments of the police, and a fire inspection — overall more than 10 audits in a year. Subsequently, their time as a foreign agent was calm — no more audits except for the one by the organisation’s own request. “My guess is that the instruments have changed. You can no longer surprise NGOs with audits,” says Peredruk.
TINKER TAILOR FOREIGN AGENT
Since the Soldiers’ Mothers gave up their foreign funding, they now rely mainly on state support. While presidential grants for NGOs only cover short-term projects, substantial change in the society requires at least a three-year project, according to human rights activists.
“Between the two previous grants awarded by the state there were two months the organisation was in conservation mode, working for free or paying small wages from private donations,” Peredruk adds. It was barely possible due to their private fundraising system and the government subsidy to pay the office rent. They were one of only three foreign agents to receive a presidential grant this year.
But the worst consequence of the law is the stigmatisation associated with human rights organisations and the nonprofit sector as a whole. “The organisations that have never been included into the list of foreign agents — and never will — they are still in fact there because of this stigma,” says Peredruk.
After finding themselves on the list, organisations are facing ever-decreasing cooperation from government bodies. As an illustrative example, the Soldiers’ Mothers demanded public statistics about the deaths in some army dislocations, only to be refused on the basis that they were foreign agents — among other reasons — and were repeatedly excluded from roundtables by the Ministry of Defense.
Peredruk and I are talking just the day after they learned they were no longer considered to be a foreign agent. Not without drama: the Ministry of Justice made this decision a week earlier, but the organisation remained on the list throughout the week. If you are confused, you get the idea.
However, the Soldiers’ Mothers are afraid that it is not their legal status but rather the perception of them as a foreign agent that is going to last, further harming future cooperation with state bodies.
A NOD TO THE CANON
“Should I speak about the bad media effects or the good ones?” asks Peredruk. The Soldiers’ Mothers’ relationship with the media is complicated. Sometimes the media — especially state-controlled — applies “troublesome pressure”, filming smearing reports and visiting the employees of the NGO at night. Reports are often biased and information misrepresented, but they are still capable of doing balanced, quality reports. Peredruk believes that “the question of bias boils down to whether there are political implications for the topic at the moment.”
However, Vitus Media says that propaganda is not to blame, but the lack of critical thinking: “To fill an empty pot, the pots must first be empty. The problem lies with the emptiness of the pots, not with what is being poured inside.”
At the same time it is the independent media who have helped prevent the complete stigmatisation of foreign agents. Media hype is the likely reason the Soldiers’ Mothers was not fined for not self-registering as a foreign agent — a striking exception to the general rule.
Another problem civic organisations are facing is an aggressive social environment — like a civil war within the civil society. “The [patriotic] consolidation of the public after the events in Ukraine [2013 Maidan and Crimea] gave voice to those who wanted to express in public what was inappropriate before,” Sungurov explains.
Civic Control is not aware of any threats against them or its workers. Vitus Media, their representative, says he was receiving threats while previously working in the Russian LGBT Network, “but the motives were different.”
At the same time, in the Soldiers’ Mothers “virtually every employee of the organisation received personal threats, but they are likely unfounded and were made just for intimidation,” says Peredruk.
“I would say I was feeling more fear for my family, to be honest. My family sometimes also receives those. I came from a quite leftist, anarchist background, that is why I was never taking those threats seriously, but my relatives perceive them differently,” Peredruk adds.
At the end of the interview Vitus Media says he can only speak about the present. “I am not going to make any predictions [about Russian civil society]. You can only make predictions for states under the rule of law. In Russia you can only do fortune-telling.”