Natalya Taubina on the register of so-called ‘foreign agents’

posted 25 Jun 2015, 08:27 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 25 Jun 2015, 09:39 ]
22 June 2015

By Natalya Taubina 

Human rights defender and director of Public Verdict Foundation Natalya Taubina explains the position taken by her Foundation and the debates concerning the official removal of NGOs from the register of ‘foreign agents’.

Following the latest developments concerning foreign agents and the debates that have arisen on social networks, I think it is important once again to express in summary form the position which is both that of Public Verdict Foundation and me personally:

1. From the moment the idea of the law on foreign agents first appeared, Public Verdict took the position that it would in principle reject any labelling as a ‘foreign agent’. The reasons are simple: we are no agents, our work is in the interests of Russia and its citizens, we ourselves develop the projects based on the reality we face, the problems that we see and our ability to make a  contribution to resolving these problems.

This label is consistently associated in the public mind with spies, traitors and enemies of the people. We are none of those things.

In response to the arguments of the law’s authors about the need for additional transparency, we said that, in the first place, we are all for transparency; secondly, this is in any case ensured by current regulations; and thirdly, if even more detailed reporting is required for those who receive foreign funding, then so be it, then name the register ‘NGOs that Receive Foreign Funding.’

We are ready to take on additional reporting responsibilities. And we are ready to provide these reports as necessary. At the same time we shall consider the question of the disproportionate approach separately and we shall seek to obtain the application of the same excessive demands, for example, to those who receive government funding.

I personally consider that the expenditure of government money should be maximally detailed and public, and include the tax declarations for those who receive pay and fees in such projects. But that is something of an aside here. But what is most important in our position is the principled rejection of the label.

2. The Ministry of Justice included us in the register against our wishes, and at the very moment when we were contesting the prosecutors’ notice, and had lodged our appeal against this very dubious notice.

3. In accordance with the position set out in Point 1, we do not recognize this label, we do not apply it to ourselves, we are contesting the decision in the courts, we meet the reporting requirements.

4. As a matter of principle we do not reject any legal funding, whether foreign or Russian. It is important for us that the process of decision-making for providing support to our projects should be transparent.

5. That is the reason why, for example, we only began to take part in competitions for presidential grants when the NGO Civic Dignity became one of the operators of the grantmaking process, since only this operator ensured minimum standards of transparency in the process of allocating grants.

6. I am convinced that the civic sector in Russia was created to a great degree thanks to the support of foreign charitable foundations in the 1990s. With experience of a great many projects behind me, I can say that not once since 1992 and up to the present time have I met a situation when someone from outside dictated the conditions for realizing one or another project. The conditions for work have been simply ideal: you think up the project yourself, you carry it out yourself, and you are yourself accountable.

7. Each person is free to decide to what foundations and institutions they ask for support, and also to decide whether to accept foreign funding or not.

8. A refusal to accept foreign funding as a result of the threat or reality of being added to the register of foreign agents (I can even say: at the time of being added to the register) I consider, at the very least, to be a retreat from the principle of freedom of association and believe that this has a negative influence on the realization of the universality of support for civil society initiatives, and in essence is evidence of a view that something is not quite right with these foreign foundations.

9. Public Verdict Foundation holds that our independence is ensured by deriving our funding from a variety of sources, institutional and private, Russian and foreign. As of today the budget of Public Verdict Foundation is made up from federal government funds, foreign charitable foundations, charitable foundations of intergovernmental bodies and private donations.

10. I believe that the procedures laid down for leaving the 'foreign agent' register are based on a negative approach: refuse to accept foreign funding, and you get the right to be removed from the register.

Moreover, based on the provisions of the law, organizations can be entered into the register on two grounds: political activity and foreign funding. However, exit from the register is for the time being only (if leave out closing down) possible on the basis of an absence of foreign funding, an approach which only serves to entrench the other reason for registration, namely alleged political activity.

I would be only too glad to change my point of view if I see at least one example of exclusion from the list on the basis of ‘an absence of political activity in the presence of foreign funding.’

11. At the same time, I do not exclude that the procedure of being taken off the register could be used, but it must be in terms of a campaign for the purpose of testing whether it is possible to leave the register on the basis of ‘an absence of political activity’ (in the terms of the law) in the presence of foreign funding.’ But here other issues need to be considered.

12. Public Verdict Foundation will continue to work in the form in which it was set up and on the basis of the same principles. If we are burdened with fines for refusing to accept the label of 'foreign agent' we shall be forced to close down our legal entity, but the team will remain and our work will continue.