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Russia aims to set stern example with NGO prosecution

An election monitoring group has become the first to be charged under a law passed last year that requires nongovernmental organizations to register as 'foreign agents' or face punitive measures.

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Activists hold placards outside the office of election monitoring non-governmental body Golos, during a protest against the organization's foreign relations in Moscow April 5. Golos has been included in a wave of hundreds of inspections since President Vladimir Putin tightened controls on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), requiring those with foreign funding to register as 'foreign agents.'

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

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As a massive wave of raids by Russian authorities on thousands of mostly small nongovernmental organizations subsides, more than 500 groups have so far been handed official warnings that they must register as "foreign agents" – which essentially means "spies" in Russia – or face stiff fines and, ultimately, forced closure.

Experts foresee a battery of high-profile prosecutions across the country, aimed at making stern examples of a few NGOs that have irritated the Kremlin and intimidating others into scaling back their activities and refusing funding from outside the country.

"President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that foreign money that pays for any civic initiative in Russia means that foreign actors are ordering it. His view is that it violates Russia's sovereignty, and has to be stopped," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"We will probably see a few groups get punished, and everyone else will be left to absorb the message. And that is to think twice" before accepting foreign funds or engaging in any activity that might anger the authorities, she says.

Speaking to the German broadcaster ARD during a visit to Germany last week, Mr. Putin claimed checks revealed that in the four months the new law has been active, Russian NGOs received almost $1 billion in foreign funding, about $30 million of which he said was handed out by foreign embassies.

"We only ask them to admit, 'Yes, we are engaged in political activities, and we are funded from abroad.' The public has the right to know this," Putin said.

But the billion-dollar assertion has been challenged in an open letter to Putin by 60 civil society leaders, who insist that figure is "dozens of times higher" than anything they are aware of, and have demanded the Kremlin document the claim. On Thursday, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov promised journalists that a full accounting will be provided after investigators have finished their work.

Most NGO leaders insist that they cannot accept the "foreign agent" label, which they say is designed to telegraph the word "enemy" to the Russian public.

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"We have so many reasons to refuse to register as foreign agents," says Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, a grassroots Moscow-based coalition.

"Yes, Russian NGOs are accustomed to accept foreign funding, but we would much rather find it here in Russia. That's very hard to do; Russian business is reluctant to give to a human rights group, and state grants make up barely a fifth of our budget. We're ready for dialogue with Putin. But it seems like he's already chosen the path of confrontation. What he really wants is to destroy the NGO sector, and I suppose he will," he says.

Independent election monitors targeted

Last week the independent election monitoring group Golos became the first to be charged under a law passed last year that requires any NGO that receives any amount of foreign funding and engages in any sort of public outreach that authorities deem political to wear the "foreign agent" badge in all of their public activities and materials.

It's no surprise, analysts say, that Golos finds itself first in line for prosecution under the new law, since the pro-Kremlin parliamentary framers of the new law explicitly named the organization as one of their key targets. During 2011 Duma elections, tens of thousands of independent election monitors trained and fielded by Golos were instrumental in documenting, and disseminating via social media, thousands of examples of fraud, voter coercion, and ballot stuffing that experts from across the political spectrum agree probably propelled Putin's United Russia party to a majority win it did not deserve.

But it's harder to see the logic behind the harassment of many smaller, regional groups who are now being charged for their failure to self-identify as "foreign agents" or are being placed on notice by authorities. The pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant on Thursday quoted Russia's Justice Ministry as saying there are 528 Russian NGOs currently in this position.

In Kostroma, a Volga city about 300 miles northeast of Moscow, prosecutors have opened a case against the Public Initiatives Support Center, a small group that organizes public seminars on subjects as diverse as local ecology and Russian history. The source of the group's troubles appears to be a Feb. 28 roundtable that it organized, entitled "Resetting the Reset: Where Are Russian-American Relations Heading?" that included a representative of the US Embassy in Moscow as an invited guest.

"The prosecutor's office accuses our center of two things. First that we receive funding from abroad, and indeed we do. Second, that we are engaged in political activity, which we are not," says Alexander Zamaryanov, the center's director.

"Our task is public education, not politics…  Now we are facing fines of (about $16,000) for the organization and (about $9,500) for me personally. Of course we'll defend ourselves. But these sums are too high; it is a threat to our very existence."

Mr. Zararyanov says they will, nevertheless, not agree to register as "foreign agents."

"There are people who tell us 'go ahead, register, then you'll be safe.' We know perfectly well that even if we register, that will just be the start of our problems. And it will kill our work more surely that the fines will. For the majority of people, 'foreign agent' just says 'foreign spies,' and with this cold war stamp on our foreheads we will be able to do nothing," he says.

'Committee of Soldiers' Mothers'

Another group in Kostroma that received a warning it must register under the new law is the local Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a grassroots group that has been instrumental – through two brutal wars in Chechnya – in creating a modicum of public oversight over Russia's military.

Soldiers' Mothers, one of Russia's oldest and most effective grassroots groups, has often infuriated military brass by pressing for investigations into combat deaths, suicides, hazing, and other military abuses. During the first Chechen war, 1994-96, the group often turned up on battlefields to identify bodies of dead soldiers and notify their families, and sometimes even negotiated prisoner releases with the rebels – things the Russian Army frequently neglected to do.

The prosecutor in Kostroma has warned the group, and threatened to charge it, because it does receive some funding from abroad, and a few members of the group acted "politically" by volunteering in the last election to be polling station observers.

"Yes we have an American grant, and thanks to that we're able to maintain an office," says Irina Reznikova, head of the local Soldiers' Mothers.

"In 2010 the Kostroma governor gave us [about $1,200] as a donation, but that happened only once. And after that we had to write dozens of reports about how the money was spent. We maintain consulting services, and [families of conscripts] come to us with their problems, their grief, and we try to help them. We don't charge anything…  How can we possibly register as 'foreign agents'? How will the population look upon us? Even state organizations will refuse to deal with us, and much of our work involves correspondence with military institutions, the Defense Ministry, medical establishments."

"We are soldiers' mothers, we give our sons to the Army to serve the country. How can they call us 'foreign agents?' " 

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