Go and breed rabbits!

Sergei Smirnov, 06/07/12

Source: HRO.org

· Freedom of association  · Articles by human rights defenders  · Persecution of activists  · Public protests

And so, the law on non-profits organisations has passed its first reading. No matter which report you look at - the authors of this unpopular draft law [1] cite foreign precedent. After all, they say, you only have to look at the USA where a similar law was adopted in the distant past. And indeed the American Foreign Agents Restriction Act (FARA) [2] appeared on the statute books as far back as 1938. However, these two laws have very different histories. It is no secret why the US Congress passed FARA. Back then Congress was worried about the rising tide of Nazi propaganda in American society and the target of the Foreign Agents Registration Act were pro-Hitler agitators. The aim of the Russian draft law is to make life difficult for a small category of legal entities defined as non-profit organisations (NPO). The real reasons behind it are also well known: the public protests against the gross violations committed during the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections. It is no coincidence that this draft law is being examined in great haste and that the Golos election monitoring association is the most frequently named target.[3]

So who currently is affected by the American Foreign Agent Registration Act? Let's take a look at the report produced by the American Department of Justice.[4] For example there is the Austrian Tourist Office, which represents the national body for the development of tourism in Austria. It informs Americans about tourism in this European country and provides contacts with airlines. In a word it works as a tour operator. "Enterprise Estonia in San Jose" provides consultations to American citizens on questions of investment and trade in the Estonian economy, no prizes for guessing that this organisation provides assistance to the Government of Estonia. In July 2011, the firm "Quinn Gillespie & Associates" helped the Indonesian Embassy organise a cultural festival. "Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates" work for the Government of Kenya: when called upon they organise important meetings with American politicians and journalists. The notorious legal firm "Covington & Burling" provides legal consultancy services to the Government of Lichtenstein. And so on and so forth. At the time of writing there were 381 companies or organisations registered under FARA, which represent some 521 foreign interests (mainly those of governments or embassies).[5] Several of these "clients" were Russian: the Government of the Russian Federation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gazprom, the Rodina (Motherland) Party[6] and Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire owner of Bazovy Element.

Today the Foreign Agent Registration Act does not affect American non-governmental organisations, which defend human rights, engage in environmental issues, fight against corruption or violations of electoral legislation, and so forth. However, United Russia's draft law, on the contrary, has these very types of organisations in its sights. When one looks at the history of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, one could assert that the parallel between FARA and the new draft law proposed by United Russia's deputies is like comparing Russian human rights non-profits with Nazi propaganda agitators, and Russia with a state that is on the threshold of war.

Are things really this bad? Are capitalists arming a "fifth column" to destroy our country as we were constantly being told during the cold war? In a recent article a correspondent for the Moscow Times recounts that in private conversations Russian officials regularly confide their belief in the existence of a secret American plot against Russia.[7] This phobia undoubtedly exists and the image of the enemy within is a popular one in contemporary Russian society, but the Kremlin's policy is much more pragmatic than this. Kremlin officials are fanning the flames of this phobia amongst the Russian public, and against a background of public incomprehension and resentment they are conducting a war against the most active non-profits under the guise of ensuring their greater transparency.

The mechanisms to guarantee this transparency, including financial transparency, are well known and have been in operation for a long time. It is unlikely that any of Russia's current leading non-profits is going to insist on concealing their sources of funding. They openly allow these checks and investigations. And these checks are regularly made on them. Is there a lack of transparency? Well if you think that's the case, then non-profits should indeed be forced to indicate their sources of financing in their publications and on their websites. This sounds fairly reasonable. "This brochure was published as a part of Project A with funds provided by Charity B". Many of my colleagues are already doing this and several have been doing it for a long time already. But wouldn't it be more appropriate if this requirement were applied to all non-profits including those that receive financing from the Russian state budget and not just based on "the particular source of the funding". Unfortunately, as Georgy Bovt noted in a recent article, what is important here is the application of a label.[8] The very same label of "Foreign Agent" that our Russian legislators have copied from the Foreign Agent Registration Act.[9] Even on internet and social networking sites, which reflect a relatively strong liberal mood and where after the stolen "elections" people have begun to have a more sober regard for and judgement of the events that are taking place in our country - even here there are plenty of users who despite bearing no great love for Russia's "crooks and thieves" nevertheless regard money coming from abroad to pay for "foreign agents" with unconcealed aggression. And we are not even talking about the multitude of people whose main source of information regarding civil society is the propaganda disseminated by state television. These are the sort of people for whom the term "foreign agent" practically equates to the word "spy".

This draft law has been designed to exploit this phobia.[10] Its first and most obvious consequence is to increase the number of people who will come to mistrust or even hate the leading structures of civil society. The draft law aims to portray the toughest and most coherent critics of the authorities as subversive elements for the whole of Russian society and will oblige these "agents" to place a "warning sign" on everything they publish. In order to ensure that these "warning signs" stick - the punishments for anyone daring to be disobedient are unusually severe: fines of up to one million roubles and imprisonment. The statements made by another United Russia member, Andrei Vorobyov [11], to the effect that the draft law will play into the hands of non-profits because it will help them to become more transparent were evidently made for the benefit of complete simpletons.

The actress Chulpan Khamatova and her charity "Give the gift of Life" is not likely to face serious problems as a result of the new draft law. In my opinion, all the talk about this in the press is just an attempt to squeeze a new angle out of the whole story. By the second and third readings the Duma deputies will probably have worked out a wording that will allow a significant section of Russia's non-profits to breathe more easily. Including many public figures who currently receive foreign grants or other help form foreign donors. The authors of the draft law will ensure that the "right" organisations are left in peace - i.e. those who are not engaged in politics. United Russia's definition of political activity is going to end up being practically any attempt to influence public opinion. Organising groups of volunteers to clear rubbish from city parks of a Saturday - is a creditworthy activity and nobody is going to argue with this? But writing an article criticising the local government for allowing the park to be turned into a tip already has a whiff of "political activity" about it. The media has widely quoted an anonymous Kremlin source who shooting straight from the hip said: "30% of the activities carried out by environmental organisations... are directed at rabbit breeding programmes or protecting some rare animal or other. The remaining 70% of these environmentalists' activities are politics."[12]

The non-profit community is by its nature a multifaceted and very lively one, and this is a good thing. But any spin doctor who is set the challenge, will easily be able to find several colourful examples in the motley bag of non-profits, which will allow them to define and contrast the sheep against the goats. To split them into "ours" and "theirs" is yet another (already traditional) objective that government officials set themselves when dealing with non-profits. I remember the time very well when two Committees of Soldiers' Mothers might exist in one town. One would be "the right sort" not making any unexpected actions or declarations and sometimes they would even be under the protection of the local Army Recruiting Office. The second sort were the "opposition" who were constantly criticising the leadership of the armed forces. The members of the first type of committee would collect money to help soldiers in their detachments. The members of the second fought for the abolition of conscription, freed students who had been rounded up by illegal press gangs and defended the rights of those who wanted to do "alternative" national service in the courts. No prizes for guessing which of these two non-profits gave the authorities the bigger headache. Which of them they considered to be constructive and which of them they didn't? There is a good reason why Vyacheslav Nikonov stresses the fact that the number of organisations affected by the new law is very small, something like 0.4% of the total number of non-profits in Russia. The percentage of civil organisations that have been "marked out by the American State Department" seems to be so negligible that one could just ignore this tiny group...

The Americans with their Foreign Agent Registration Act do not need foreign support for their own non-profits: the USA already has a sufficiently developed culture of philanthropy. To put it more simply, the Americans support their human rights activists themselves. Russian society is not prepared to finance non-profits that defend human rights. You can still breed rabbits with minimal seed capital of this kind, like Father Fyodor from The Twelve Stools. But it is nothing like enough to pay for lawyers to defend the rights of people who are beaten in police custody. (And cases of this sort are by no means isolated incidents in our country)[13]. And it is not enough to force the government to pay compensation via the courts to the families of soldiers tortured in their military detachments as a result of hazing while their commanding officers look on and take no action. [14] The membership contributions that this 0.4% receives are evidently not going to be enough for this huge mountain of work. Russian entrepreneurs and businessmen are not in any great hurry to support the country's human rights defenders either. (Naturally it's not the human rights activists that they are afraid of but the "harassment" they will face from the authorities for providing such support). Non-profits help those who are in need by using the money that they have at their disposal. Often this money comes from foreign donors. The draft law being proposed by United Russia not only fails to follow common worldwide practice but on the contrary impedes the development of public support for non-profits of the type that exist in developed democratic countries. The number of people who can and want to support human rights and environmental organisations (and there weren't that many to start off with), will be even further reduced when civil activists are forced to label themselves as "foreign agents".

In the queue at my local chemist an elderly woman in front of me was buying her medicine. A lot of medicine. Very carefully she counted out the thousand rouble bills on the shop counter: one, two, three, four, five, six. They were clean and crisp like the ones you get from the bank. "My whole pension comes to nine thousand roubles," the woman confided to the middle-aged chemist, sensing a sympathetic ear and perhaps a kindred spirit. "That covers my medication and apartment. But what have I got to live on? It's a good thing that my daughter helps, she sends me money from England..." In the context of the thoughts that were swirling around my head about the draft law on non-profits I couldn't help thinking: what's happened to all the Russian money that could have ensured this pensioner dignity in her old age? Which unnamed "agents" have been hiding this money in their pockets?

[1] The text of the draft law and all the accompanying documents can be found on the website of the State Duma: :http://asozd2.duma.gov.ru/main.nsf/%28Spravka%29?OpenAgent&RN=102766-6&02

[2] The Foreign Agents Registration Act: http://www.justice.gov/nsd/fara/links/indx-act.html (in English)

[3] See for example: http://www.ria.ru/politics/20120702/689592825.html

[4] http://www.fara.gov/reports/FARA_SAR_063011.pdf (in English)

[5] http://www.fara.gov/quick-search.html, to search for foreign principals in the country (in English.).

[6] But not the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, as Vyacheslav Nikonov United Russia Deputy and one of the authors of the draft law reported (http://ria.ru/society/20120703/691151168.html).

[7] Georgy Bovt, "Why I Trust Foreign Agents More Than the State", The Moscow Times, 3 June 2012 .http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/why-i-trust-foreign-agents...

[8] Georgy Bovt, "Enemy Voices 2.0", Gazeta.ru (http://www.gazeta.ru/column/bovt/4653805.shtml)

[9] In the English language "foreign agent" is not a label that automatically casts suspicion on an organisation or person. Agent is only a person or organisation acting with someone's support, on behalf of someone or in someone's interests.

[10] The authors of an anonymous propaganda site set up to support the draft law, (which incidentally has no references regarding its sources of financing), have been frightening their readers with quotes about the "billions of dollars" that have been channelled into "destroying the peaceful existence of Russia's citizens". And here is an example of the sort of sturm und drang propounded by Communist Party Deputy Vyacheslav Kashin: "We must defend our homeland, like a sanctuary, from the darkness of organisations that in recent years have invaded Russia under specious pretexts and insinuated themselves into state structures waiting for the appointed hour to obey their instructions". (http://www.rosbalt.ru/main/2012/07/06/1008192.html)

[11] http://www.ria.ru/politics/20120703/691178504.html

[12] http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2012/07/02/n_2416765.shtml

[13] Cases involving the use of torture by law enforcement agents that have been passed by human rights organisations to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation: http://hro.org/tortures

[14] Mother's Right Foundation: http://mright.hro.org