Prosecutor General's Office proposes its own definition of 'political activity'

posted 21 Jul 2013, 10:40 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 Jul 2013, 10:43 ]
19 July 2013 

Source: (info)
The Prosecutor General's Office has put forward amendments to the law on ‘foreign agents’ that define political activity as 'activity aimed at gaining political power', reports the Agency for Social Information (ASI) via Russian Business Consulting (RBK). 'Political activity' is one of two elements required for a non-profit organisation to become a 'foreign agent'.

Currently, political activity is defined as attempting to 'influence change in government policy.' The Prosecutor General’s amendments have already been approved by Andrei Klishas, chair of the Federation Council’s Committee on Constitutional Legislation, Judicial and Legal Affairs, and Civil Society Development. According to Klishas, the amendments of the Prosecutor General's Office are 'substantive and will aid the detailed regulation of NGO activity in Russia.' ASI asked a number of experts whether they thought the situation for NGOs would change if these amendments were adopted. 

Elena Zhemkova, executive director of International Memorial Society, considers the phrasing suggested by the Prosecutor General is clearer, but still too vague and does not provide an adequate legal definition. 

'It is extremely important for the legal process that these sort of issues are clear. Then everyone will be equal before the law. If these issues aren't clear and give rise to different interpretations, then all sorts of non-legal factors start to interfere. Previous experience of the law's application has shown this,' said Zhemkova. She remarked further that these amendments are, nevertheless, a 'real move towards settling the situation.'

Pavel Chikov, chair of Agora Human Rights Association, gave the following comment on the initiative: 'This definition is far more concrete and satisfactory than what we have at the moment. “Influencing change in government policy” is far too broad a phrasing. Unfortunately, our law enforcement practice is largely dependent on interpretation. Even with the suggested wording, prosecutors, should they want to, could still seek to prove that a human rights organisation was attempting to gain power.' Chikov highlighted that the phrasing was very important, but that its interpretation by law enforcement agencies was the key issue.

Elena Topoleva, a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation and the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, believes that the proposed new wording is tolerable, but requires more precise definition. 'The definition is not particularly eloquent. We need a more scholarly definition. It needs to be more precise. But the 'gaining of power' – that means the struggle for power. So on the whole I agree with this definition,' said Topoleva. Topoleva drew attention to the fact that a more precise definition is necessary to prevent those who monitor independent elections from being affected. Topoleva explained that the 'definition should apply only to those who are involved directly in the competition for political power or are helping political parties in their struggle for power.'

Apart from the Prosecutor General's Office, the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation and the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights will soon present their own amendments.

According to Elena Panfilova, general director of Transparency International (Russia), the amendments suggested by the Prosecutor General’s Office show that 'this entire witch-hunt for NGO foreign agents is aimed at organisations involved in monitoring elections and everything connected to elections' (RBK). At the same time, Panfilova remarked that using the suggested definition should improve the atmosphere surrounding charitable organisations in the third sector.

Aside from the new definition of 'political activity', the Prosecutor General's Office proposes that NGOs with foreign financial backing should declare that fact when directing resources to other organisations, recording the sources and amounts of money involved. It also suggests that organisations that receive money from abroad should be subject to annual inspections, as well as limiting the involvement of government and local-level officials workers in the third sector.