‘Living with a stigma: how non-profits are surviving after inclusion in “foreign agents” list’

posted 27 Oct 2014, 04:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Oct 2014, 10:42 ]
18 October 2014

Source: HRO.org (info)
By Stepan Opalev, Farida Rustamova, Anastasiya Mikhailova [an abridged version of an article published by RBK]

Soon four non-profit organizations in the list of foreign agents will close down. The other ‘agents-against-their-will’ are trying to continue their work, but suffer from problems with financing, prosecutors’ inspections, tax claims and numerous court cases.

First victims

By the end of this year Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms (JURIX) will close down, Anita Soboleva, the leading expert of the organization and member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, told RBK.

This will happen because of the enforced inclusion of the organization in the list of ‘foreign agents’ in July, Soboleva said (the Ministry of Justice was given this power in the summer).

The organization specializes in court cases relating to violations of constitutional rights. For example, the group’s lawyers lodged appeals with the Constitutional Court on the rights of voters to appeal against the outcomes of elections, and also has taken cases of Russian citizens to the European Court of Human Rights.

JURIX will not reregister in another form, Soboleva said. ‘We have lost the ability to attract funding, to conduct activities, to publish books, to hold training schools for students, since we do not want to put the stigma of ‘foreign agents’ on the reputation of respected academics and experts. Under the ‘foreign agent’ law we must announce this fact everywhere,’ she explained.

The July notice issued by the Ministry of Justice against JURIX did not specify exactly which of the organization’s activities had been found to be political in nature.

The Kostroma Centre for Civic Initiatives, the Centre for Social Policy and Gender Studies, and the Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information Foundation have also begun procedures to close down, their representatives told RBK.

The Kostroma Centre does not have the means to pay the fine for not entering the register, the chair of the organization Nikolai Sorokin said.

The Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information will exist in a new format, said the chair of the organization’s council, Ivan Pavlov, whose wife, a US citizen, was deported from Russia for ‘creating a risk to national security’ in August.

The first non-profit to decide to close itself down was the Golos Association for the Protection of Voters Rights in June 2013. However, this did not result in the ending of its activities since the founders of the organization reorganized it into the Golos Movement for the Protection of Voters’ Rights.

This, however, did not stop the Ministry of Justice in July 2014 including in the register of ‘foreign agents’ both the association itself and one other legal entity linked with it – the Golos Public Organization for the Protection of Democratic Rights and Freedoms (registered in Moscow, the organization continues to operate).

The Saratov charity Partnership for Development, added to the register on 2 October, because of legal procedures that have been taking place, has almost ceased functioning since last summer, said Aleksei Glukhov, a lawyer acting for the organization. He did not exclude that the organization would be forced to close down if it were to be fined.

The law against funding

Adoption of the law on ‘foreign agents’ in the summer of 2012 brought about a reduction in the level of funding for non-profits from abroad the following year, RBK has calculated. The funding from abroad of nine of the organizations included in the register of ‘foreign agents’, whose accounts are accessible on the website of the Ministry of Justice, fell by 1.2% in 2013 in comparison with 2012 (from 201 million roubles in 2012 to 198 million roubles in 2013). At the same time in 2012 there had been a 12% rise from the previous year (179 million roubles in 2011). The figures for 2014 will be available at the beginning of 2015.

It is impossible to know exactly how many organizations in total have closed down as a result of the law on ‘foreign agents’, says Pavel Chikov, chair of the Agora Human Rights Association which defends non-profit organizations in court, because the reasons for closure are not indicated in the documents. By mid October the Ministry of Justice had managed to include 15 organizations in the register. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, in his report to the upper chamber of the Russian parliament reviewing the year 2013, said prosecutors had identified 24 non-profits that were ‘foreign agents’.

On the edge

The Russian Memorial Society is also under threat of closure this October as a result of an application to the Supreme Court by the Ministry of Justice. The case is to be heard on 13 November. The Ministry of Justice does not like the fact that the names of most regional organizations that are members of Memorial do not include the phrase ‘branch of the Russian Memorial Society’. Only 17 organizations out of 56 are officially designated by name as branches of the national organization, and this is not a large enough number for an organization to have the status of a ‘national’ organization.

If the court rules in favour of the Ministry, the Russian Memorial Society will be obliged to reregister, and 17 of its branches will have to close down, human rights activists believe.

On Thursday Memorial asked the Ministry of Justice to withdraw its suit from the Supreme Court since the Society plans to hold a conference with the participation of its regional branches on 20 November for the purpose of resolving the issues pointed out by the Ministry. Meanwhile, one of the most influential branches of Memorial, the Memorial Human Rights Centre based in Moscow, has been added to the register of ‘foreign agents’.

A third of the organizations included in the ‘foreign agent’ register will close down of their own volition in the near future. As a rule, these are small groups that have now lost funding and are obliged to end their existence.

Larger and better known groups such as Golos, Agora and Memorial Human Rights Centre will be forced to reregister or to contest the decision to add them to the register in the courts.

Last year the non-profit organization For Human Rights headed by Lev Ponomarev came under threat. In July 2013 the organization was evicted by force from its Moscow office in Maly Kislovsky Pereulok. However, by September the group had succeeded in reaching an agreement with City Hall that enabled it to rent an office for the next 49 years. In March 2014 the Ministry of Justice suspended the operations of For Human Rights for six months on similar grounds to those brought against the Russian Memorial Society. In May the organization held a congress, but the problems were ironed out only in the middle of August, Lev Ponomarev told RBK.

Non-profits added to the register of foreign agents in the summer must, by October, provide financial reports on the third quarter of the financial year to the Ministry of Justice. This is causing considerable problems for them, Pavel Chikov says. ‘The Ministry of Justice itself does not know itself how the documentation they have created for reporting should be filled out, and the organizations will be obliged to send them ‘zero-activity accounts’ since de jure they have not been closed down (this process is only under way), but de facto they are no longer working. Soon this register risks being transformed into a ‘register of “dead agents” ’, Chikov says with irony, since there is no mechanism in practice for an organization to be taken off the register.

Without money

After the latest in the series of measures against non-profits, Golos was forced to completely refuse foreign funding, says its co-chair, Grigory Melkonyants. Now Golos is funded by presidential grants and donations from the public, but, according to Melkonyants, these sources only provide one third of the funds that Golos was receiving before it decided to do without foreign funding. It is hard for Golos to plan for the future because grants from funding competitions are given only for projects that last no more than a few months. The lack of funds makes it hard to support regional branches.

Moscow Helsinki Group also exists only on presidential grants, says its chair Ludmila Alekseeva. The budget of the Moscow Helsinki Group has fallen several times over in comparison with the period when it was receiving foreign funding, she says. In the new conditions the organization was forced to reduce its staff from 17 to five. Having rejected foreign funding, Moscow Helsinki Group succeeded in avoiding inclusion in the register of ‘foreign agents’.

Those organizations that have succeeded in maintaining foreign funding without being included in the register are facing problems with getting funding in the regions. These difficulties are being faced by Memorial. ‘Previously many regional branches were getting foreign grants, and now they have difficulty in obtaining them. Most foreign funding is focused in Moscow,’ says Arseny Roginsky, member of the board of the Russian Memorial Society. He characterizes the proportions of foreign and domestic funding in the budgets of organizations as 3 to 1. Memorial does not intend to refuse foreign assistance, he says.

Stuck in the courts

Apart from the obligatory reporting, so-called ‘foreign agents’ have to spend a lot of effort on the court cases, representatives of non-profits say. Just in the last year, according to Pavel Chikov, Agora’s lawyers have taken part in more than 30 legal cases related to non-profits, from district courts in the regions to the Constitutional Court, and a joint application has been made to the European Court of Human Rights.

The main legal case in which human rights defenders placed their hopes has been the appeal lodged against the law on ‘foreign agents’ at the Constitutional Court. However, the Court ‘found no contradictions in the law’ and merely lowered the minimum level of fines.

Following the judgment of the Constitutional Court, courts dismissed appeals by a number of non-profits against rulings by prosecutors ordering them to register as ‘foreign agents’. Those who lost appeals included Memorial Human Rights Centre, Golos, JURIX and Public Verdict Foundation. ‘The court hearings take up a lot of time and hinder the organizations from doing their work,’ says a lawyer with Agora, Ramil Akhmetgaliev. ‘Even when the non-profits hire outside lawyers, their staff still need to take part in the preparations for the hearings.’

In the near future cases will be heard that non-profits have brought against the Ministry of Justice challenging their inclusion, against their will, in the register of ‘foreign agents’. According to Pavel Chikov, organizations appealing against the Ministry of Justice’s decisions are Public Verdict Foundation, Memorial Human Rights Center, EcoDefence and Women of the Don. Agora, which has also been included in the ‘foreign agent’ register, shortly intends to lodge an appeal itself against the Ministry of Justice.

In addition, five non-profits are suing the tax inspectorate in the commercial courts for a total of 30 million roubles, Pavel Chikov says. Tax inspectors believe that foreign funding means that these resources are not being used for socially useful purposes, and therefore cannot be considered tax-free donations.

Even once they have got through the courts, the bureaucracy, and found funds to do their work, non-profits face problems with carrying out their work. In September on the eve of voting day the Central Electoral Commission issued a statement that the presence at polling stations of observers that are from ‘foreign agents’ will ‘discredit the institution of election observers. As a consequence, independent observers accredited with Golos were not allowed into polling stations in four regions.

Formalizing inequality

At the annual meeting President Vladimir Putin holds with his Human Rights Council which took place last Tuesday the issue of the pressure being put on non-profits was not discussed. On the eve of the meeting Council members told RBK that the agenda is determined by the presidential administration. According to Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Council, the ‘law on non-profits must be completely rewritten, it has outlived its usefulness.’

At the meeting Mikhail Fedotov raised the question of creating a new law on non-profits that would provide for additional benefits and stimuli for the support of socially-oriented non-profits.

Earlier the secretary of the Public Chamber, Aleksandr Brechalov, had proposed dividing non-profits into two groups, social and political, in order to provide systematic support for the first group.

According to political scientist Tatyana Stanova, Mikhail Fedotov is seeking to seize the initiative from the hardliners who want to tighten the screws. ‘Fedotov is proposing banning foreign funding for political parties and their surrogates, organizations such as Left Front, Young Guard, United Russia and so on, while including human rights groups and organizations such as Golos in the group of socially-significant non-profits. It is possible he is trying to protect non-profits from yet more severe restrictions,’ Tatyana Stanovaya said.

Source: This is an abridged version of an article published by RBK