Boris Vishnevsky on the 'foreign agent' law: Getting charged with 'politics'

posted 1 Feb 2016, 02:28 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Feb 2016, 02:37 ]
25 January 2016

By Boris Vishnevsky

Source: (info)

Original source: Novaya gazeta
Changes to the law on non-profit organisations, thought up in the justice ministry, have made it possible to call just about anyone a foreign agent.

The justice ministry’s working group has come up with amendments to the law “On non-profit organisations”, clarifying the concept of political activity that is used to label a non-profit a “foreign agent”. It would have been better to keep it vague: now almost anything can be termed “political activity”. Any non-profit that evaluates the actions of the authorities or pays attention to them can be labelled a foreign agent. To complete the picture this principle only needs to be applied to citizens as well.

More than 100 organisations (including those concerned with the environment and human rights) have been included on a register of “foreign agents”, and often enough for absurd reasons. For example, the Glasnost Defence Foundation has been included for publishing a critical piece by the writer Boris Akunin.

Last autumn at a meeting of the Presidential Council on Human Rights the practice of labelling organisations as foreign agents was heavily criticised. Vladimir Putin was forced to announce that the definition of political activity according to the law “should not be vague or elastic”, and that it “should not be customised to suit the whims of the relevant authorities”. The result of the meeting of the Human Rights Council was the setting up of the justice ministry’s working group, which, as we have already noted, has only made things worse.

The current version of the law on non-profits defines activity as political if it is carried out “in order to influence the development and implementation of government policy and the formation of public opinion to this end,” regardless of the founding aims laid out in an organisation’s own charter. This includes providing financial support to such activity. The clarification proposed by the justice ministry now defines participants in political activity as “anyone who tries to influence the decisions or actions of state bodies and local authorities”.

Since almost any issue that a non-profit works on can be linked in one way or another to the decisions and actions of state bodies and local authorities, then surely “political activity” encompasses virtually anything. Indeed, the only way of solving such issues is for non-profits to work with governmental bodies since they have the right to take legally binding action.

What is more, it has been proposed that the concept of political activity be further defined by drawing up a list of all the various forms it can take. This list captures practically everything that a non-profit does. It includes: participating in organising and carrying out rallies, gatherings, demonstrations, marches and pickets, as well as public discussions and speeches; public appeals to state bodies, local authorities, and their representatives, and other actions affecting their activities, including those aimed at the adoption, amendment, or repeal of laws or other legal acts; distributing assessments of the work of government authorities and their policies; and the implementation of activities aimed at shaping social and political views and opinions, including through the publication and carrying out of public opinion polls or other sociological studies.

If these proposals are accepted, then even attempts to improve one’s own back garden will be judged to be political activity. Not to mention the work of organisations seeking to protect the historical centre of St Petersburg, or those who fight for patients’ or students’ rights. And to this end, non-profits are constantly turning to the authorities, holding rallies and pickets, demanding changes in government decisions and involving citizens in their work.

“You have misread the law”, its authors assure us. They remind us that politics does not include activities in the fields of academic research, culture, healthcare, social support, the protection of the environment and animals, etc. And yet the law states that all of these activities can be political if their aim is to influence the decisions and actions of the authorities…

However, in all this there is one redeeming feature. Since politics has been defined as any involvement with the authorities or influence on them, perhaps many social activists will stop declaring that they are far removed from politics (something that we often see). They will understand that even if they themselves don’t engage in politics, politics will engage them.

Translated by Beatrice Blythe