Chair of Human Rights Council Fedotov on dangers of broadening definition of “political activity”

posted 22 Feb 2016, 03:53 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 Feb 2016, 03:56 ]
15 February 2016

Source: (info)
The most recent issue of the journal Ogonek has an article on a precedent: for the first time a court, in responding to a suit by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, has taken a decision to close a non-profit organization, for, allegedly, breaking “the law on foreign agents”. This refers to the Agora Human Rights Association which was set up and since been headed by Pavel Chikov, a member of the President of the Russian Federation’s Council for the development of civil society and human rights.

The Council reports that, on the day the decision to close down Agora was taken, it had held a special session with representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Duma deputies and experts to review the amendments to the law which were intended to narrow the interpretation of ‘political activity’ and take socially-oriented and human rights organizations out of its remit.

The Chair of the Council, Mikhail Fedotov, spoke to Ogonek’s correspondent, Olga Filina, about the discussion of the amendments. In his interview, Fedotov emphasized that the new amendments which were presented to the Human Rights Council not only fail to resolve the problem but actually create even worse problems:

“Instead of narrowing the definition of ‘political activity’, the amendments broaden it. It is now proposed to include as coming within sphere of ‘political activity’ all that relates to state and federal structures, the guaranteeing of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia, legality, law and order, security, and the defence of the country; also included are foreign policy, the integrity and stability of the political system, the socio-economic and national development of the country, the functioning and structure of state institutions and of local self-government, and the regulation of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen.

“It turns out, for example, that a non-profit organization, which is opposed to the building of a well on 2nd Autumn street in the village of Upper Vasyuki and lodges its objection with the local administration, is already – according to the Ministry of Justice’s logic -- engaged in ‘political activity’. At our meeting I gave an example of a particular NGO whose concern is the safety of road transport. It participates in international projects (receiving foreign funding), works in the sphere of safety and lobbies for the introduction of certain laws in Russia – this means that today it may be put on the register of ‘foreign agents’. At the very least, it meets those criteria – sphere of work, activities, and aims. However, I assume that the state is not interested in curbing the activity of this kind of NGO – why then create the obstacles?

“I proposed that ‘political activity’ should be defined as engagement in a struggle for power, and not as influencing government policy, which is the Ministry’s view. It is important to distinguish these two concepts: the struggle for power – that means supporting particular candidates in elections, financing electioneering and propaganda during election campaigns and such like. Influencing government policy – that’s a field open to absolutely all NGOs, and one that does not separate them into different categories.

“Dozens of NGOs attended the meeting with the Ministry of Justice, and expressed their concerns. There were those well-known organizations such as Vera, the association for assistance to hospices, the Centre for Curative Pedagogy, Chulpan Khamatova’s foundation ‘Give Life’, and they and many others recognized, honestly, that under the new amendments they could be categorized as ‘foreign agents’. If they have not yet been placed on the register, it’s not because the law is well designed, it’s because they have been lucky. And that is of course an abnormal situation.

“The recent interpretation of the law, in practice, by the Ministry of Justice, rings alarm bells. A few organizations have recently turned to us whom the Ministry has labelled ‘foreign agents’ for a very strange reason: one of their individual donors works in a Russian company which generates income abroad (say, for example, it carries out investments or sells oil abroad). This individual makes a donation to the Russian NGO, but the Ministry of Justice considers that his money (he is a Russian citizen) is of ‘foreign origin’. And, on that basis includes the NGO in the register! I am anxious to point out that we are not talking of just one case but of several that have come to us. In other words, we cannot talk of a misunderstanding but rather of a definite policy.

“We have come up against something amazing: according to the law, the Ministry of Justice, which surely is very well aware of the laws, should have put its proposed amendments on the relevant site for public discussion. However, the document was wrongly listed as going through a process of evaluation by independent experts in terms of anti-corruption legislation. Only experts, specially accredited by the department, can participate in such an exercise, and this excludes, obviously, most NGOs. All the same, the Ministry notified us that it had received many responses from ‘the public’ during the internet discussion of the project. Strangely, as of today, not a ‘single’ response is accessible on the site. It would seem that we have a long discussion ahead of us.”

Translated by Mary McAuley