From Ukraine's Russian-occupied territory of Crimea to Central Asia, repressive regimes in former Soviet republics have been setting up fake nongovernmental organizations -- so-called GONGOs -- to try to influence the international debate about their poor human rights records.
Some GONGOs from Central Asia furtively attempted to infiltrate a coalition of bona fide civil-society activists who work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
New York-based Human Rights Watch says GONGOs from Tajikistan that have been proliferating since 2016 were in large concentrations at the OSCE's Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, and even threatened self-exiled Tajik rights activists who view the forum as the only international venue where they can call attention to abuses by the authorities in Dushanbe.
Russia-backed GONGOs at the conference blatantly championed the Kremlin's policy goals in Crimea -- leading to angry shouting matches with Ukrainian government delegates who walked out in protest.
"A GONGO is a government-organized NGO, a fake NGO, a quasi-NGO," explains Yury Dzhibladze, head of the independent Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights.
"GONGOs are funded and sometimes created by governments to participate in the meetings, praise the regime, and take up time in order to minimize the length and impact of real NGO statements," the U.S. Helsinki Commission says, noting an increasing number of GONGOs at the OSCE conference in recent years.
"Apparent GONGOs" from Russia and Azerbaijan have been particularly active at the OSCE's human rights events, the U.S. government agency says.
In fact, the OSCE's Warsaw conference was meant to be a forum where civic activists could speak directly with governments and international institutions about human rights abuses in their countries.
But Dzhibladze says legitimate rights activists from former Soviet republics now must struggle to have their voices heard at the event over the disinformation and confusion sown by GONGOs.
Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, attended many of the recent GONGO-flooded OSCE meetings in Warsaw. "It's about the way authoritarian politics are practiced and the role that HDIM plays in that as a space where a fairly significant number of authoritarian states are [OSCE] members -- Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia," Swerdlow tells RFE/RL.
"There are some GONGOs that are very assertive and their job is to attack activists that they know are going to be there," Swerdlow says. "But in other parts of the post-Soviet space, we've seen GONGOs that are simply there to fill space and not say anything -- simply, to give the appearance of the existence of civil society in their countries."
"They're not there as attack dogs," Swerdlow adds. "They're sometimes simply individuals who are being instrumentalized by some of the OSCE governments to go there, to sit there and take up space, and to be quiet."
Pro-Kremlin GONGOs who flooded a September 16 seminar about press freedom in Ukraine's occupied Crimean Peninsula were anything but quiet.
Crimean lawyers, journalists, and rights activists -- some forced to flee Crimea or face arrest on charges of terrorism or treason against the Russian state -- had come to speak at the event in Warsaw.
But Russia -- one of 57 OSCE member states -- packed the agenda with a troll army of pro-Kremlin state journalists and GONGOs. GONGO after pro-Kremlin GONGO speaker introduced themselves at the podium as being from "Crimea in the Russian Federation."
That raised the ire of the Ukrainian government delegation, which noted that the OSCE views Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea as invalid and recognizes the peninsula as Ukraine's sovereign territory.
But Andrei Richter, a senior adviser to the OSCE representative on media freedom, rejected the complaints from the Kyiv government delegates. Richter said the event was "dedicated to freedom of expression" and allowed the procession of pro-Kremlin GONGOs to continue repeating Moscow's official line.
The pro-Kremlin GONGOs claimed there had been no oppression in Crimea under the Russian-installed authorities that now control the peninsula. They claimed Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea was valid and that its widely condemned and hastily organized referendum -- conducted under the occupation of Russian military forces -- was "legitimate."
"People making their choice in Crimea make it free," said Lyudmila Radev, a journalist for Russian state media in Crimea who registered to speak as an NGO activist from a group called the Diaspora of Bulgarians in Crimea.
"Nonrecognition of the Russian status of Crimea is a dead end in world politics," she said.
Tamila Tasheva, a rights activist who co-founded an NGO called CrimeaSOS after Russian forces seized the peninsula more than five years ago, challenged the Russian GONGOs with a long list of journalists and "entire editorial boards" who have been forced to flee occupied Crimea because of their work.
Tasheva also named a dozen journalists who've been either banned from Crimea by its Russian-installed authorities or jailed on criminal charges for their reporting -- including RFE/RL correspondent Mykola Semena and other RFE/RL journalists.
"The only real source of information there [now] is citizen journalists -- people who tell through social-media networks what is happening on the peninsula," Tasheva said, adding that even those bloggers were labeled "terrorists" by Russian-installed judicial officials and can face up to 20 years in prison.
The pro-Kremlin's GONGOs at the event responded to Tasheva's speech by attacking her and her CrimeaSOS organization, which publishes information about rights abuses in Crimea and works on projects with the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.
"As for the alleged CrimeaSOS project, these people are members of a terrorist organization banned in Russia and in many other countries and their work has nothing to do with any form of journalistic activity," said Maria Volkonskaya, editor of the Russian state-run Krymskaya gazeta newspaper.
Volkonskaya's remarks were the final straw for Ukrainian government delegates at the press freedom seminar. They walked out in protest and filed formal complaints that pro-Kremlin GONGOs were trying to use the OSCE human rights conference as a platform to legitimize Russia's occupation of Crimea.
Kiril Ignatov, a Russian government delegate, fired back, claiming that the OSCE rostrum was being used "to encroach on the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation."
Called Out On Facts
It's not the first time an OSCE event on restrictive media controls in Russian-occupied Crimea has been stacked with pro-Kremlin GONGOs. GONGOs at an OSCE media-freedom event in June 2017 prompted a formal complaint from the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.
"The United States was disappointed, but not surprised, that instead of acting in good faith and using the conference for its intended purposes, certain participating states instead sought to stack this room with surrogates and proxies -- presumably to crowd out other voices and deny the opportunity for meaningful dialogue," U.S. Public Affairs Counselor Jonathan Lalley wrote in the complaint.
"It is critically important that we not lose sight of the facts, especially with respect to the status of freedom of expression and media in volatile environments, and particularly with respect to Russian-occupied Crimea," Lalley said.
"It is a fact that Russia has illegally occupied the sovereign territory of its neighbor, Ukraine," Lalley said. "It is a fact that individuals peacefully expressing their opposition against the occupation have faced harassment, kidnapping, disappearance, forced psychiatric hospitalization, and politically motivated prosecution."
"It is a fact that independent media and civil society have been silenced and have nearly disappeared from the peninsula," he said, adding that the international community continued to accept Crimea as "an integral part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine."
An April 2016 study by the London-based Chatham House think tank documented how the Kremlin -- since Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 -- has developed "a wide range of proxy groups in support of its foreign-policy objectives."
It said Russian GONGOs "are particularly active in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova -- countries that have declared their intention to integrate with the West," as well as in Armenia.
"They also operate in the Baltic states as well as in the wider Balkan region, especially in Serbia and Bulgaria, and their presence has grown in Kyrgyzstan since it became a member of the Eurasian Economic Union in August 2015," the study said.
Chatham House concluded that Russian GONGOs "could seriously damage political transitions and civil societies" in former Soviet republics -- especially when "combined with the extensive Russian state administrative resources and security apparatus, as well as the influence" of the Russian Orthodox Church, pro-Kremlin oligarchs, mass culture, and Russian state media.
In September 2016, the then-head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, Ambassador Daniel Baer, wrote a lengthy essay about how the OSCE's annual human rights conference was increasingly "being polluted by GONGOs."
"Repressive regimes" unable to convincingly respond to criticism from "bona fide civil-society organizations," have found "they can set up their own fake organizations that will shill for the government in an attempt to distract from repressive failings," Baer wrote.
"By flooding HDIM plenary sessions with GONGOs, the amount of time given to real civil society organizations is reduced," Baer said. "GONGOs often deliver...false and absurd claims" that "reduce the impact and resonance" of "compelling, fact-based testimonies shared by real NGOS," he added.
"GONGOs masquerading as bona fide civil-society organizations frequently team up with repressive governments' state-controlled media" in a "synergy of fake news and fake advocates" that "helps repressive regimes to create theatrical illusions" to "justify their grasp on power," Baer warned.
"Simply put, GONGOs are nothing more than the real-world equivalent of the Internet troll armies that insecure, authoritarian, repressive regimes have unleashed on Twitter," he said.
"They essentially use the same tactics as their online counterparts -- creating noise and confusion, flooding the space, using vulgarity, intimidating those with dissenting views, and crowding out legitimate voices," Baer said.