April 22, 2016

New Foreign Agent Bill Hits Close to Home


New Foreign Agent Bill Hits Close to Home

Russia’s law on foreign agents may be getting increasingly draconian. In the law's latest iteration, any charity could be deemed a political tool of international forces – whether a US-funded NGO providing condoms to HIV patients, or a Russian expat’s PayPal donation to an orphan back home.

But first, let’s back up. The foreign agent law was introduced in 2012. Its aim was to restrict NGOs from receiving international funding and engaging in activity that could be considered “political.” So, how was “political activity” defined? The answer: very broadly. Meaning that any organization engaged in advocacy or human rights work could face fines if it failed to register as a “foreign agent.”

And what was so bad about that label? In Soviet speak, “foreign agent” (inostranny agent) was basically synonymous with “spy” or “traitor.” Meaning that groups ordered to take on such a label voluntarily were all but committing professional suicide.

But, as if that were not enough, the label entails a level of constant auditing and inspections so as to make doing business impossible and economically non-viable. Plus, "foreign agents" are required to preface any public statement with a disclosure about their classification.

In the first hunt for foreign agents, particularly hard hit were groups that focused on issues like voters’ and constitutional rights, anti-discrimination, freedom of information, and perhaps most visibly, LGBT equality. As of March 2016, according to Human Rights Watch, the official list of foreign agents now includes 99 groups – down from 122 after several ceased receiving foreign funding or were shut down (often because they ceased receiving foreign funding – a quick path to bankruptcy).

This latest bill, recommended for adoption by the State Duma Committee for Public Associations, would possibly subject charitable organizations that have no "political" activity whatseover to the same type of classification. 

Many philanthropic groups receive a very small amount of funding from abroad – but that’s all it takes. If the group is involved in official interaction – say, attending a roundtable with government officials or explaining legal rights to disabled people – that fits the bill for political activity.

A few examples of groups that are in the crosshairs:

  • The Gift of Life (Podari zhizn’) foundation, which helps children with cancer, receives 2.18% of its funding from abroad. But according to politicians the organization is just trying to “hide behind children.”
  • Another group "hiding behind children" is the Learning Center for Refugee Children in Moscow. Those children, many from the Middle East, see the Center as the only bright spot in Russia.
  • The HIV-prevention NGO Sotsium has helped provide syringes and condoms to drug addicts. These actions, says one lawmaker, are “destroying our traditions and our national values.”
  • The election-monitoring group Golos has been fined 1.2 million rubles ($18,000). Activists call it an intimidation campaign.
  • Perhaps most famously (and affected by earlier rounds of the foreign-agent hunt) is Memorial, a civil rights NGO documenting abuses during the Soviet period. This historical work, according to the justice ministry, amounted to “political activities to influence Russian public opinion.”

Potentially, even something as innocent as a Russian living abroad donating a few bucks over the internet would be enough to earn the recipient the ominous “foreign agent” label.

It could be that this new move is an attempt to impose further political complicity in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections in August, weeding out opposition groups that actually are involved in political activity, as well as organizations whose charitable acts seem to be a threat to Russia’s increasingly rigid definition of morality.

Those organizations, you might think, wouldn’t include groups helping orphans, building hospitals, providing crutches to the disabled, or handing out a free meal. But what happens when the bill reaches the next stage of voting remains to be seen. We can only hope the Duma will be more charitable when it comes to charities, rather than becoming increasingly embroiled in the linguistic quagmire of political activity, foreign agents, and isolationism.

Image credit: Human Rights Watch

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