Commentary by the Memorial Society on the so-called prosecutorial inspections

26 April 2013 

Source: (info)
Since the beginning of March a wave of "comprehensive prosecutorial inspections" of non-governmental organisations has been rolled out throughout the whole of Russia. To date around 600 organisations, associations, independent resource and expert centres, non-state educational institutions etc., in at least 50 regions have been subjected to inspections.

The "comprehensiveness" of the inspections means that the Public Prosecutor's Offices are not acting alone but in collaboration with representatives of various government departments: justice departments, the tax service, sometimes bodies of the Interior Ministry, the Emergencies Ministry, the FSB, the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), the fire service, etc. And under the auspices of the prosecutor's inspections each department carries out its own specific checks of the organisation undergoing scrutiny.

In violation of the Law on the Public Prosecutor's Office these inspections are being carried out without any external causes. The wordings of the decisions to conduct inspections are not consistent with one another; usually these directives simply state, "for the purpose of verifying compliance with existing legislation," that is legislation in general without naming any specific laws.

All organisations are being asked to produce documents relating to all aspects of their lives and activities: charter documents, transcripts of reporting and election meetings, the minutes of all meetings of the management bodies, reports of audit committees, all financial documentation, materials verifying the organisation's substantive activities, all documents related to labour agreements, etc. down to record books of measles vaccinations for the organisation's permanent employees (this last one is not an anecdote, it really happened during the inspection of an organisation in St. Petersburg). The total volume of requested documents runs to many hundreds (and often thousands) of sheets of paper per organisation. How the Public Prosecutor's Office will be able to examine all this material and still have time to do be involved in other activities, such as fighting corruption in government institutions, remains a mystery to us.

In some cases the inspectors not only request documents, but also try to "examine" the organisation's premises and "interrogate" its staff, actions that are completely unlawful unless they are backed up by the appropriate resolutions, summonses or other documents set out in the legislation.

Simultaneously, propaganda support for the operations has appeared on several central television stations: reports, talk shows and other programmes have been broadcast with the aim of discrediting NGOs.

The reason behind these events is clear enough. The General Prosecutor's Office ordered its regional departments to launch a mass inspection of non-governmental organisations shortly after President Putin addressed the leaders of the law enforcement agencies in February. Putin was unhappy that the new laws on NGOs were not working. Only recently, Vladimir Putin openly confirmed that he was referring to the law on foreign agents and the fact that not a single Russian NGO had asked to be registered under this law.

This demonstrates how everything else, tax compliance, the fight against extremism, fire safety and measles vaccinations, are just for show, a cover for the operation to destroy (or at least publicly discredit) those non-governmental organisations whose activities the supreme leadership does not approve of.

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In its activities Memorial not only upholds the value of freedom but also the need to respect the rule of law. We strive to comply with all the requirements of the law, even those we consider absurd. (However, we're definitely not going to register as a "foreign agent" even if we are instructed to do so, as the law on foreign agents blatantly contravenes the Constitution and also craftily substitutes one concept for another; together with other NGOs we are now challenging this law in the European Court of Human Rights). We try as far as possible to comply with the countless regulations issued by government agencies, who for whatever reason have been tasked with monitoring civil society. We act and will continue to act exclusively in compliance with the law and the Constitution, where necessary appealing to the courts.

Here is a recent example: immediately after we gave the Public Prosecutor's Office all the documents that had been requested during the inspection, we submitted an appeal to the district court challenging the legality of the inspection itself, as well as the legality of individual actions of the prosecutor's office during the carrying out of the inspection.

However, violation of certain points of law on the part of the Public Prosecutor's Office is just one side of the case, and not the most important one. There is another, far more important, aspect.

The authorities in Russia have always regarded independent society with a greater or lesser degree of suspicion, and often with outright hostility. The make-up of the Soviet regime was inextricably linked not only with eliminating political opposition and suppressing freedom of the press, but also with destroying or totally subordinating to the state any independent non-governmental structures: artistic associations, scientific societies, religious and philosophical circles, special interest groups, and so on. In particular, all social movements and organisations were either eliminated or brought under the control of the state, from members of co-operatives and local historians to chess clubs and literary societies.

Everything that remained was subjected to unification: various independent groups working in the same field of activity were forcibly conjoined into a single structure, completely under the control of the state. That is how "artistic unions" were created in the Soviet Union – unions of writers, artists, architects, composers, etc. Before that the same thing had happened to the trade union movement, driven into the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions.

During these years the propaganda machine tirelessly peddled into the collective consciousness the primitive two-sided myth of the external enemy, the capitalist encirclement, and the enemy within, a counter-revolutionary underground acting inside the Soviet Union, directed from abroad. This propaganda reached its zenith with the Great Terror of 1936-1938, during which time the annihilation of civil society was essentially carried through to its conclusion.

It was not until 1960 that the first attempts were made to revive any kind of independent collective initiative in the Soviet Union, be it civil, cultural, human rights, religious, charitable, etc. These attempts, known throughout the world as the "dissident movement," were met with extreme hostility by the authorities, who immediately denounced the dissident community groups for being nothing more than political opposition in disguise, directed from abroad. In this reaction, the antagonism of the authorities to the very idea of civil independence, which was formed back in the 1920s, united with the mythology of the Great Terror of the 1930s. It was not long before repression returned, admittedly not as harsh as during the Stalin era, but still quite severe. Dozens of activists from independent public associations, among them members of the SMOG literary artistic union and authors of the uncensored anthology Metropol, members of the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights and the Moscow Helsinki Group, and activists from Solzhenitsyn's Russian Public Foundation, were exiled or sent to camps and asylums. Meanwhile, the Soviet press condemned the renegades and hirelings of the West with the same outrage as they do today, only in those days they did it in a more amicable way.

History is repeating itself. When at the start of the 2000s the present authorities started conducting an inventory of the country under its jurisdiction, they were somewhat concerned to discover that within its vast expanses there were a significant number of independent groups engaged in various activities: public awareness, educational and scientific projects, human rights defence, public scrutiny of various government initiatives, environmental monitoring, the problems of migrants and prisoners, election monitoring, etc. At the time these activities did not cause any undue concern, nor did the fact that the work of many of these groups was made possible because of sponsorship from foreign charitable foundations. What was, however, perceived as a problem, even then, was their independence and the lack of state control over them.

The first attempt to deal with this problem involved a reapplication of the old recipe of the 1920s-1930s: efforts were made, if not to integrate non-governmental organisations into the state vertical, then at least to turn them into an additional resource for the government, into "transmission belts" to be used at the will of the state. This proved to be all the easier since nearly all non-governmental organisations were sincerely trying to engage in constructive collaboration with the government, including, of course, responsible criticism. Unfortunately it soon became clear that all this had nothing to do with real cooperation, that the authorities still interpreted criticism not as an integral part of collaboration, but as a manifestation of political opposition, and that what was needed from civil structures was above all an assurance of their good intentions.

Romance between civil society and the authorities failed to blossom on these terms. The majority of non-governmental organisations did not want to swap their independence for a certificate of good conduct.

Shortly afterwards, the era of colour revolutions in neighbouring countries began and in the upper echelons of power the view of civil organisations was conclusively established: they were a "fifth column," financed by Russia's enemies from abroad.

In the public mind the following simple idea began to take hold: all activities of NGOs who are involved in what are considered 'hot' areas, such as election monitoring, the environment, defending the rights of migrants, making the penal system more humane or the fight against corruption, and who rely on foreign funding are nothing more than a screen for secret preparations for an Orange Revolution and the overthrow of the existing government.

This propaganda campaign, borrowed wholesale from the experience of the 1930s, led predictably enough to the authorities themselves believing in the horror story that they had invented. From the middle of the 2000s, a host of amendments to the existing legislation and even more numerous by-laws were introduced, leading to a sharp increase in the number of state agencies monitoring NGOs, and the number and frequency of the various forms of accountability NGOs had towards these agencies. It appears, that a mouse would not have been able to squeeze through such tight regulations, and many smaller social and cultural organisations in the regions, who posed absolutely no threat to the authorities and were of great benefit to the public, collapsed under the weight of the additional bureaucratic burden that was placed on their shoulders. But not the slightest trace of any foreign funding for an Orange Revolution in Russia was ever identified, anywhere.

The direct cause of the current widespread attacks on independent civil groups is also obvious: the disproportionate panic that gripped the ruling elite after thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow, demonstrations that started in December 2011 and continued throughout the whole of last year, eventually spreading to several regions of the country. The explanation of the authorities to the events in Moscow, both to the general public and probably to themselves too, was the same old story: foreign intrigues implemented through civic organisations. The government simply cannot bring itself to believe that mass demonstrations are nothing more than a reflection of a growing level of civic consciousness and a genuine prevalence of protest sentiment in Russian society. That is the origin of the mythical billion that allegedly has been pumped into NGOs from "the West" in just four months, and the "law on foreign agents," and much else.

The federal authorities have never been able to understand the specifics of civil society. On anything related to independent civil activity they display gross incompetence. The only thing they are capable of doing is putting as many obstacles as possible in the way of civil organisations carrying out their work, any work.
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Everything that has been described so far is a reflection of more general problems.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, little by little, the executive authorities, in close cooperation with the State Duma, have gradually created a legal environment for Russian NGOs in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to operate and exist.

Like our colleagues in other non-governmental organisations, we have to contend with the fact that a significant proportion of our energy and funds, given to us by our sponsors (both Russian and foreign) in order to carry out important work of benefit to our fellow citizens, is having to be spent on satisfying a huge number of bureaucratic requirements.

Meanwhile, it is high time a few simple truths were said out loud, which have somehow been forgotten, not only by our antagonists but by ourselves also.

Freedom of association, provided this association is not targeted towards clearly criminal intentions, is one of the most fundamental civil freedoms. The right of citizens to collective initiatives (regardless of type, political or non-political) within the framework of the law, carried out by voluntary agreement, is the basis for the civil existence of a nation. It should not have anything to do with the state, unless it wants to support them financially, morally, or by offering them some kind of preferential treatment, etc.

A state which places unjustified prohibitions or restrictions on the activities of non-governmental organisations, or tries to regulate, impede or interfere with their activities in some other way, is not a democracy, it is a police state. 

The sources of funding of non-governmental organisations should be of no concern to anyone other than the organisations themselves (provided of course the organisation pays its taxes as set out by the law, and where we are not talking about the laundering of money gained through criminal means; it is only those cases which the state can and should investigate).

Of course NGOs should be transparent to the public. And that is precisely what they are. Their reports of how much money they receive, and where they got it from, as well as reports on their activities, is published on the Justice Ministry website and publicly available for anyone to see. The issue of where they got their money from and what they spend it on is a matter for the organisation itself and its sponsors, no one else. The only time the state can and should get involved in monitoring these expenditures is if the state itself is acting as the sponsor.

If the authorities are really concerned about the development of civil society, then they should first provide a better system of preferential treatment for charitable activities, specifically in the form of tax breaks for those who supply funding to NGOs for addressing socially important tasks.

A state that attempts to divide NGOs into sheep and goats based on their sources of funding is not a democracy, it is a police state. 

The internal life of a civil association, the rules that govern its life and the question of whether or not it is complying with these rules is the concern of the members of that association, and no one else. In their internal life, non-governmental associations are not accountable to the state or to any government departments, but only to its own members, to whom the leadership of the association should be held responsible. Our activities, the proceedings of our boards, how we spend our money and our time, how our agencies are structured, etc. should not be any business of the Public Prosecutor's Office or the Justice Ministry.

Laws that allow the state to interfere in, demand reports on or regulate the internal life of non-governmental organisations, are not the laws of a democracy, they are the laws of a police state.

The space in which non-governmental organisations live and work is an independent and self-regulated territory. Public officials may only enter this space barefoot — boots must be left at the entrance.

The point is not about whether specific government agencies carried out unplanned or scheduled inspections of a particular organisation. There should not be any preventive inspections at all. Inspections should only be allowed in those instances where a specific criminal offence or other violation of the law is being investigated. But in that case they are called investigations not inspections and they should be carried out in accordance with the relevant legal procedures.

There is little hope that the prohibitive legislation and unlawful restrictive practices will be replaced overnight by regulations that ensure constitutional freedoms. This will only happen when there is a fundamental transformation in the relationship between society and the state in Russia. When the state authorities finally realise that society should not be accountable to the state, but the other way round, that the state should be accountable to society.

The only way we and other other non-governmental organisations of various persuasions can bring this transformation a step closer is by continuing our everyday work, just as we have been doing for the past 5, 10 or 20 years. That same work which so much effort is being put into today to prevent us from doing. 

The Board of International Memorial Society