Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Peculiarities Of The National Hunt (For Foreign Agents)

Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov doesn't appear to be down with Russia's controversial law on "foreign agents."
Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov doesn't appear to be down with Russia's controversial law on "foreign agents."
The various factions of the Russian elite send signals to each other and lay down markers in many ways. Some subtle. Some, not so much.
Addressing the State Duma on January 16, Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov seemed to go out of his way to undermine controversial legislation requiring NGOs engaged in political activities and that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."
Konovalov noted that thus far only one organization had registered as such, that the new law contradicts previously existing legislation on NGOs, and that the Justice Ministry would not go out of its way to uncover foreign financing for civil-society groups.

The comments came in response to a question from lawmaker Mikhail Markelov of the ruling United Russia party, who asked Konovalov what the Justice Ministry was doing to enforce the law, which went into effect in November. "The kind of provocations that have been taking place are not possible without foreign financing," Markelov said.

To be sure, Konovalov was careful. His response was parsed and laden with legalese. The law doesn't give the Justice Ministry the authority to conduct "audits" or "raids" to root out foreign funding, he said. This is the job of the Finance Ministry and law enforcement, respectively. And the issue of which NGOs are engaged in political activity is the job of the courts.
But it was abundantly clear that he was not crazy about the law and was trying to distance himself from it. Opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov tweeted from the floor of the legislature: "Markelov attacks Konovalov in the Duma: The Justice Ministry is not enforcing the foreign agent law. The Answer: It contradicts the spirit of legislation on NGOs."
The fact that somebody like Konovalov is opposed to the foreign-agent law isn't really surprising.
He belongs to the technocratic wing of the elite that is uncomfortable with the crackdown that followed Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency. Konovalov is also one of the "civiliki," specialists in civil law, that Dmirty Medvedev promoted during his presidency in an effort to mitigate the influence of the security-service veterans, or "siloviki," who surrounded Putin. Medvedev has long sought to get Konovalov named prosecutor-general, a prospect that looks increasingly far-fetched.

What is surprising -- and  interesting -- is that Konovalov would express his opposition, as cautious as it was, so publicly.
Even more so given that Konovalov's comments came as rumors are swirling in Moscow (yet again) that a government shakeup is imminent. The latest round of speculation was sparked by a front-page article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" this week that named the government's "most and least effective ministers."
In that report, based on interviews with unidentified Kremlin officials, Konovalov was ranked one of the seven most effective ministers in the cabinet. (Nine were ranked adequate and five subpar.)
Will Konovalov's Duma performance result in a downgrade? Will he be pulled back in line?
In response to Ponomaryov's tweet from the floor of the Duma, Markelov answered on Twitter: "I am certain that in the near future, the Justice Ministry will begin enforcing the law on foreign agents."
We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out.
But for now, it is yet another indication that not everybody, not even among those considered the most effective members of the government, is on board with the Kremlin's current hard line toward civil society.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Aleksandr Konovalov,NGO law

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Mamuka
January 16, 2013 21:43
Time for a new movie? Is Aleksei Buldakov still around? Daniel Craig could play Putin, and maybe Medvedev could do a cameo role as himself.

by: Robert from: Prague
January 17, 2013 08:50
I'm not so sure I see any "undermining" of the law in what Konovalov says. The only thing more chilling to normal civil society than a draconian law is a draconian law that is unpredictably and randomly enforced. His comments don't give any comfort to civil society, but rather have the effect of fostering self-censorship. His notion that NGOs are in the hands of "law enforcement" and "the courts," sounds more like a warning than anything else. It seems more like an effort to impose a crackdown without actually having to crack down. Now they just need an example or two and the process is complete.

by: Fred Eidlin from: Tallinn, Estonia
January 31, 2013 20:27
Perhaps criticism of the Russian law requiring foreign-funded NGOs engaged in political activities to register is entirely justified. However, to the extent that it is justified, would it not also apply to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA)? Should not Americans concerned about dangers to democracy be campaigning to abolish the FARA, as well as criticizing the new Russian law? According to The U.S. Department of Justice's FARA web site ( FARA "requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents. The FARA Registration Unit of the Counterespionage Section (CES) in the National Security Division (NSD) is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the Act." Can anyone point out fundamental differences between the U.S. and Russian legislation? Moreover, democratic government does not fall out of the sky fully formed, it has to be fought for. The United States, for example, has a long history of legislation viewed as undemocratic by concerned citizens, who struggled to have such legislation repealed or struck down by the courts. As Russians gradually become accustomed to their new role as citizens taking responsibility for how their country is governed, they may, sooner or later, get around to struggling for abolition or modification of the law requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register. Or, a majority may accept this legislation as protecting the national interest of their country, as most Americans appear to view the FARA. Far from destruction of civil society this legislation, like many other causes for which Russian citizens are currently fighting, may represent the kind of challenge that will provoke civil society to mobilize.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or