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Leading Russian NGOs Muzzled By 'Foreign Agents' Label

The offices of Russia's Memorial rights group in Moscow was vandalized with graffiti reading "foreign agent [heart] USA" in March 2013.
The offices of Russia's Memorial rights group in Moscow was vandalized with graffiti reading "foreign agent [heart] USA" in March 2013.

MOSCOW -- Russia's Justice Ministry has included five more Russian nongovernmental organizations on the so-called black list of NGOs acting as "foreign agents."

A statement by the respected rights group Memorial -- the most prominent of the 11 NGOs now included on the list -- said the "forced inclusion" of the NGOs on the list was a blatant attempt to restrict their activity.

"We are certain that all the organizations, including those that were previously placed on the list against their will, are acting exclusively in the interests of Russia since they effectively help defend the rights of citizens from abuses by state officials," the Memorial statement said.

The Justice Ministry added the five NGOs -- Memorial, Agora, Public Verdict, Yuriks, and Ekozashchita -- to the list on July 21 in accordance with a controversial 2013 law that requires NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."

NGOs are appealing the law in the courts, but the Justice Ministry is proceeding with creation of the list anyway, a move that sharply restricts the ability of the organizations to function, says lawyer Furkat Tishayev, who is representing the NGOs.

"It will have a very strong chilling effect," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Organizations will now think 10 times before publishing anything. Being placed on the list really limits an organization's real work. Particularly in the realm of public relations."

'Very Difficult Conditions'

Under the law, every public statement, either written or oral, must be accompanied by a notice that the speaker represents "an organization fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent."

"It isn't that they can't make public appearances," lawyer Kirill Karatayev says. "But with each public appearance they are required to make clear that they represent a 'foreign agent' organization."

Sources with the listed NGOs contacted by RFE/RL refused to comment, saying their organizations must now devise policies for public appearances.

The law also requires listed organizations to present the government with a report of their activities and leadership two times a year. Four times a year, they must present documents about the use of finances and other assistance received from foreign sources.

They must also, twice a year, post to the Internet or otherwise make publicly available a report on their activity. The government will also audit them every year.

Karatayev says the law places a huge burden on NGOs, which will now have to use considerable human and financial resources to comply with its many requirements. In addition, failure to comply could result in fines stiff enough to shut down almost any Russian NGO. "Of course, people will remain and will try to continue their work, but it will be very difficult to do under the new conditions," he says.

Putin: 'Spirit Of Patriotism And Responsibility'

On July 22, just one day after the Justice Ministry's announcement, President Vladimir Putin discussed civil society at length during a Moscow meeting of the Russian Security Council. He said there would be "no tightening of the so-called screws" regarding civil society but warned of efforts of foreign secret services to undermine Russian sovereignty.

Putin said Moscow was counting on the help of civil society -- but made it clear what kind of help he is expecting. "It is precisely from civil society that we expect active assistance in perfecting governance," he said in televised remarks. "And -- this is particularly important -- in the raising of our youths in spirit of patriotism and responsibility for the fate of their motherland."

He also said NGOs should help combat "radicalism and extremism."

Lawyer Tishayev says the NGOs will continue to pursue their legal cases because they can only appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after they have exhausted all legal avenues in Russia.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Kristina Gorelik contributed to this report from Moscow