"This law says we must determine whether we should register as a foreign agent, and we are emphatically not going to register ourselves," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy head of Golos. "We do not understand this law, it does not seem to be in the spirit of Russia's constitution and other legislation, its definitions are vague, and it doesn't describe any procedure for implementation. We're preparing a brief to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, we're willing to go to the Russian Constitutional Court. We will not agree to this."
There are more than 300,000 NGOs in Russia, most of them apolitical groups like charities, sports clubs, or cultural organizations. Just a handful have annoyed the authorities by engaging in public education and agitation around issues that can be politically sensitive, such as human rights, democracy awareness and electoral transparency, and corruption. Most of those groups have never been able to find sufficient funding in Russia, where wealthy donors are also sensitive to political concerns, and have traditionally turned to outside sources such as governments and international foundations to fund their work.
One of those is the Russian branch of Transparency International, which was picketed last week by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party's youth group, with signs and slogans that urged it to accept the law and get itself registered as a "foreign agent."
"Under the law, the Ministry of Justice has to issue us with a warning that we are not complying with the law," says Anton Pominov, research director for the group. "If that happens, we will attempt to take it to the Constitutional Court, because we consider this law to be deeply unconstitutional. It's also wrong. When you call someone an "agent" in Russian, it has a very negative connotation, it means you are serving some master, and with us, that is simply not the case," he adds.
According to a public opinion survey conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency in July, 64 percent of Russians say it's unacceptable in the political life of a country to have nonprofit organizations financed from abroad. Just 21 percent thought it was permissible.