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