Russia names first 'undesirable' as civil society crackdown continues

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo by: / CC BY

Undesirable No. 1: National Endowment for Democracy.

It may sound like a Ministry of Magic announcement from a Harry Potter movie, but the Russian government announced Tuesday that the Washington, D.C.-based foundation — largely funded by the U.S. Congress — will be the first on its list of “undesirable” groups that will be completely banned from operating in any capacity in the former Soviet nation.

“The National Endowment for Democracy, in particular, participated in the recognition of the results of illegitimate election campaigns, the organization of political campaigns in order to influence decisions taken by the government, discrediting the service in the Armed Forces of Russia,” a statement by the country’s deputy prosecutor general said.

And more international organizations are expected to be officially included in the official list of undesirables in the coming weeks.

While government officials have been quick to justify NED’s suspension, noting that the move was done on the grounds of national security but that it will not compromise democracy or human rights, the foundation was firm in saying that this new policy “limits the freedom of Russian citizens.”

“The law on undesirable organizations is the latest in a series of highly restrictive laws,” NED said in a statement. “It contravenes Russia’s own constitution as well as numerous international laws and treaties. The true intent of these laws is to intimidate and isolate Russian citizens.”

Passed two months ago, the law allowed authorities to designate international organizations it deems to be a “threat to the foundations of [Russia’s] constitutional order” and “national security” as undesirable. It is just the latest in a series of laws that seem to curtail civil society operations. In 2012, the government passed a law requiring local Russian organizations to register as a “foreign agent” if it received funding from overseas donors or is deemed to be working on or engaging in “political activities.”

Several experts agree these laws are harming the health of civil society in Russia. The current administration’s need to impose seemingly draconian measures reflects its own weaknesses and paranoia, they added.

“The new laws … are first and foremost an expression of the Russian government’s paranoid fear of its own people and its own weakness,” Susan Corke, Freedom House’s director of Eurasia programs, told Devex. “We believe it is a purposeless endeavor to declare organizations … ‘undesirable,’ for the root cause of problems Russia is facing clearly lie internally within the government and not with [nongovernmental organizations].”

The Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, released a “patriotic stop-list” early this month containing the names of 12 international organizations it sees as “undesirable.” Since then, some organizations on that list — including the MacArthur Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation — voluntarily shut down their operations.

When asked about why the MacArthur Foundation decided to close its office in Moscow, Igor Zevelev — who until last week was the organization’s country director in Russia — only confirmed to Devex that the foundation will indeed shutter operations. He also pointed to a statement released July 21, where MacArthur President Julia Stasch said being included in the stop-list made the foundation feel “unwelcome”

Stasch further noted that the foundation — which has been in Moscow since 1992 and has awarded more than $173 million in grants to further higher education in Russia, advance human rights and limit proliferation of nuclear weapons — is “entirely independent” of the U.S. government and does not receive funding from it. It has “never supported any political activities” as well.

Freedom House is on the list as well, but the advocacy group declined to comment on whether it plans to see it out or leave Russia.

Restrictions enacted to stifle dissent

While officials have been firm in saying these laws were enacted to protect national interests and security, several experts are convinced their swift implementation was due to the government wanting to prevent “any critical position regarding the Kremlin policy.”

Tanya Lokshina, program director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, told Devex the crackdown is meant to stifle public protests and prevent Western nations, such as the United States, from meddling in domestic affairs. The undesirables law, among other restrictions, includes a total ban of operations in Russia and its territories.

“It means not only the [international] organization will have to terminate its presence [in the country], but any publication material or press statement from that group will also be banned, so they won’t be able to enter Russian territory,” she said. “Russian media will also be prohibited from reprinting those materials. They get a total ban.”

Galina Arapova, director of the NGO Mass Media Defense Center, explained to Devex that this kind of ban is essentially a “dead end for any kind of initiatives for cooperation with Russian NGOs.”

Local organizations and individuals, meanwhile, are prohibited from dealing with these “undesirable” organizations in any way, Lokshina explained. Those found to still be working continuously with these blacklisted groups will pay a hefty fine for the first and second offenses, be slapped with a six-year prison sentence if caught for the third time.

These restrictions come on top of sanctions on local NGOs that are required to register as “foreign agents” — something that Arapova was quick to criticize.

“It’s not about the language but the result of being one,” she said. “For Russian NGOs being a foreign agent, we totally don’t agree with that and it sounds like [these NGOs are] spying in the service of foreign government, which is not true. It sounds really bad.”

According to a Human Rights Watch report, over 70 organizations have been required to register as “foreign agents.” Groups in that list that fail to register as foreign agents will be fined up to $16,000 each, with their leaders slapped with an additional $10,000 fine.

Moving forward

Can organizations appeal the ruling once they get included in the “undesirable” list?

Yes, Arapova said, but it will be “useless.” The media lawyer explained that “no one will listen to [them] because there’s no procedure for appeal” — the official that releases the running list is the government’s prosecutor general.

She also said that there is no clarity on how organizations make it on that list, as it is “based on subjective perception so [government officials] don’t even explain why they have reached this decision” — and the government looks to be under no pressure to be transparent and accountable about the whole process.

How will this affect civil society in the country in the long run? Lokshina said it is clear that one of the law’s key objectives is to marginalize Russian groups even further by cutting its connections to funding and international partnerships.

“These groups believe they’re doing good and that they’re supporting civil society but the Russian government believes it’s a political activity and harmful for national security,” Arapova concluded. “The international community on all levels can probably address [this] by raising alerts.”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.