You mustn’t call yourself a "foreign agent"

7 May 2013 

Source: (info)
Grigory Okhotin, from the OVD Info project in Moscow: "I was surprised to find that a huge number of level-headed people do not understand the point of the campaign to ‘identify foreign agents.’ The question most frequently question by friends and colleagues is: ‘So why not register as a "foreign agent?’ The point of the campaign is not only and not so much about discrediting anyone. Personally that kind of discrediting doesn't really frighten me, NTV viewers and the readership of the Izvestiya newspaper hold little interest for me, because my project is not political and I myself harbour no political or electoral ambitions. In our activities, which are important regardless of the size of our audience, we rely on a narrow circle of educated and knowledgeable people. 

The danger for us in this campaign lies not in being discredited in the minds of people with totalitarian leanings (we will only run up against them once we ourselves become part of the mainstream), but if our activities are ‘criminalised.’

It is simply wrong to be labelled a foreign agent, and this is not a matter of semantics. The aim of this campaign is to shut down leading non-governmental organisations, and that is not speculation but simply an understanding of the ‘laws.’ The Dima Yakovlev law, which you all got so upset about, is not directed against children, who hardly pose a concern to the authorities, but against us.

Under this ‘law,’ any organisation whose activities are deemed to be political and who receive grants from the United States, can be shut down by the Public Prosecutor's Office in the space of a single day.

So once your activities have been classified as political, which is a prerequisite for being labelled a ‘foreign agent,’ your organisation could be closed down on the very next day.

The second most frequently asked question is: ‘Why do you need foreign funding and why don't you turn down American grants?’

The answer is simple: why should I turn it down? If today I refuse to work with US foundations, then tomorrow I may be forced to refuse European funding, and the day after that I may only be able to get hold of money after it has been approved by the Third Department 3 of the presidential administration.

The ‘independent’ political parties already went through all this at the beginning of the 2000s.

This campaign is designed to impose total control over the activities of NGOs, and that type of control makes a complete nonsense of those activities.

The third most frequently asked question is: "Okay, so it's a hassle, but how are you going to defend yourselves, they're telling the truth, aren't they?"

My reply is this is not the truth, it's a lie.

We really aren't engaged in political activities. That isn't an excuse for the Public Prosecutor's Office, that is our firmly held and well thought-through position.

OVD Info is not an opposition project. The right to freedom of assembly affects everyone, not only those who don white ribbons, and not only members of The Other Russia, but also those who are fighting for their social, gender and cultural rights, and those protecting their forests or their parks.

The right to freedom of assembly affects the Nashi youth group, and we are writing at a time when they are being held in check, and United Russia.

In our activities we show no preferences towards any particular political force: in the same way that we try to distance ourselves from government bodies like the Public Chamber and the Police Ministry, so we try to keep our distance from the Coordinating Council and specific movements.

And this right, the right to freedom of assembly, has nothing whatever to do with national politics, whether government politics or party politics.

It is an international right, which has been declared by Russia at the level of the UN and the Council of Europe.

It is because this issue is on the international agenda that international foundations are willing to finance similar projects.

Believe me, the issue of Russia's internal political life is of very little concern to the voters and politicians of other countries.

There is no reason to believe that we are being pushed into opposition activity.

We are being harassed because we are providing clear evidence of something which everyone already knows: that the Russian authorities are violating their own laws and international obligations.

What affects Memorial in general, and us in particular, is the fact that the Memorial Human Rights Centre was pounced on because of us was really just a coincidence, serving at most to highlight the direction of the campaign.

Finally, confusion arises because of our Soviet-Russian linguistic, philosophical and political inexperience.

There is politics and there is politics. We are not involved in political activities in the sense of a struggle for power. I have an equal dislike for any authority, including the Coordinating Council and the future opposition president, if it does not observe the laws and rules of the game, and helping anyone assume this kind of power is not something either I personally or OVD Info is going to get involved in, there is not even any possibility of that happening.

On the other hand, any deliberate social activity is also 'political,' and not only targeted public actions, like helping cystic fibrosis patients or sick children, but also choosing particular clothes, creating the daily environment in which one lives, public poetry readings, joint visits to churches, mass viewings of films – all this is 'political.'

So in this sense we are involved in 'political activity,' which we manifest openly, believing our primary forerunners to be not human rights campaigners or dissidents, but the philosopher Michel Foucault and his Prison Information Group.

Much less often people ask: so what can you do exactly? The answer is simple: win.

The law on foreign agents should be abolished and non-governmental organisations left in peace.

There is nothing impossible in any of this, and if together we don't achieve it, then we can forget straight away about other, significantly more difficult aims of other people and organisations, such as preserving the remnants of a free press, election monitoring or regime change through peaceful and lawful means.

And not just forget, but never even speak about them, either in the kitchen or on Facebook.

The right for non-governmental organisations to exist is the first condition of democracy, and the only way of achieving it in Russia."