Uncertain future for NGOs in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo by: Sebastian Derungs / CC BY-NC-SA

A number of human rights advocates in Russia seem to be at a loss on what to do with the ongoing scrutiny of foreign-funded aid organizations in the country.

There seems little room for success in filing a complaint to the very office that launched the inspections.

Visits from the Russian public prosecutor’s office have been going for almost a month now. Human rights groups consulted by Devex expect the probe to continue for weeks, a scenario that could further burden organizations already struggling in a tough environment.

As of last week, 80 NGOs had reportedly been investigated. Well-known human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Moscow Helsinki Group, were not spared.

Reasons for the searches came in vague terms. Sergei Nikitin, head of Amnesty International’s Moscow office, told Devex he was only given a one-page document on March 25 stating that the visit was to check the premises and whether the organization was complying with Russian laws.

“There was no specific explanation, like, no complaints on our work whatsoever,” he said in an interview.

Visited aid groups were asked to provide copies of certain official documents like registration papers, rent payments, employees’ contracts and financial reports sent regularly to the Russian tax agency.

The visits usually came with a surprise media coverage from a TV network largely considered pro-Kremlin, leading aid groups to believe the searches were staged.

Nikitin, who had to leave for a U.N. conference in New York prior to the visit, said he was “pretty sure” that the Moscow office had “all kinds of bugs” and telephones were tapped.

“I made very clear to my staff [before I left] that if there is a visit, if there is an inspection from the prosecutor’s office, refuse to show them anything, because all the documents are in a safe, and the safe is locked, and the code is known only to the director, and the director is away,” he narrated.

Those conducting the inspections didn’t come that week. They arrived on the first day he came back to Moscow.

The inspections, which many see as a crackdown on foreign-funded human rights organizations, come just a few months after new legislation passed in November that requires NGOs getting overseas funding and are involved in political activities to label themselves as “foreign agents” in Russia.

Not a single NGO agreed to register on a list that to this day remains empty, according to Nikitin. No aid group would want to be called a “spy” in Russia, he added.

But it could be this very circumstance that fueled the government to launch the inspections, which started a few weeks after President Vladimir Putin said in a meeting with federal security service officials on February 14 that laws governing NGO activity in Russia “must, without a doubt, be fulfilled.”

Many of the visited organizations stongly believe these actions are part of a wider campaign to “harass” and “demonize” human rights organizations before the Russian public, who Nikitin said have “very little understanding of what human rights are and what human rights organizations’ work is.”

Groups like Amnesty International wanted to introduce human rights education in Russian schools, but gave up after numerous attempts.

Today, many Russians, Nikitin said, would find the term “human rights” negative and a Westen concept imposed on Russia.

A number of countries have voiced concerns over the ongoing inspections. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the searches “worrisome” and “troubling.”

“They seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society activities in the country,” she said in a statement March 26.

The case is proving to be very difficult for the international community, whose actions need be accompanied with caution. It is not like in Egypt, where the United States could make use of aid money to sway circumstances in its favor.

Russia is a wealthy country with an emerging donor status and where the U.S. Agency for International Development closed shop last year following a government order.

But this should not hinder other countries from continuing its criticism on the concerning situation, Nikitin argues.

“This violation of human rights defenders is absolutely unacceptable; it’s not a civilized way of dealing with civil society. But I think that this is not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning,” he said.

For many in the aid community, Russian legislation has been changing for the worse, and Nikitin said he would not be surprised if authorities apply to critical NGOs the now-broader definitions of high treason and espionage in the country, in an attempt to close them down.

Anyone can now be accused in Russia of high treason if he or she provides information to an organization found out to undermine the state, regardless of if the person gave the information unknowingly.

These laws raise doubts as to how human rights groups can operate in such a restrictive environment. While some Russian NGOs are planning to file complaints to the prosecutor’s office  demanding the reason behind the inspections a number of international organizations are still weighing what to do.

“We have not decided what our actions will be,” Nikitin said. “We are negotiating what sort of next steps we can undertake and trying to weigh whether we should do something or not.”

A month after the inspection, the prosecutor’s office has yet to inform concerned aid organizations if any violations were found. While a number of aid groups are confident of their operations, the future remains uncertain.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some NGOs would be accused of violating legislation, or might be asked to pay penalties or fines,” Nikitin said.

But he too is uncertain about what’s going to happen next. He speculates some NGOs might reconsider their policies and stop applying for foreign funding “just to be on the safe side.” Others may be forced to leave.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.