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Russia’s crackdown on NGOs undermines civil rights and reinforces the East-West divide in the OSCE

SHR
Opinion 20 April 2013

Since the beginning of March, Russian authorities have conducted unannounced inspections and searches of international and Russian NGOs throughout the country. The inspections are carried out under a new NGO law, signed by president Putin in July 2012 that forces foreign-funded NGOs engaged in any “political activity” to register as so-called “foreign agents”. The law also requires NGOs to report on a regular basis on their activities and funding sources. Failure to comply with the law may result in high fines and may even lead to closure of offices. The law has caused deep concern in the US as well as in EU capitals and is widely viewed as a way for the Kremlin to silence groups that criticize Russia’s human rights and rule of law record. Under the current wave of inspections, the offices of long-established NGOs such as Amnesty International, Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group as well as Human Rights Watch have been raided by Russian authorities. In addition, small groups have been searched, such as environmental and catholic organizations. Reuters quotes Lyudmila Alexeyeva, founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, as saying that “none of us has registered, we haven’t because one shouldn’t lie and we are not foreign agents.”

The first real target of the new NGO law was the Russian association ‘Golos’ (meaning both ‘vote’ and ‘voice’), an election monitoring watchdog that brought to light frauds during the December 2011 parliamentary elections as well as during the March 2012 presidential elections. This evidence helped fuel street protests in 2011 and 2012. On 9 April, Russian authorities filed a legal case against the association for failing to register as a “foreign agent” and for being politically active. More recently, on 16 April, Russian authorities opened a second case against a regional NGO, the Kostroma Public Initiatives Support Center, also accusing it of failing to register as a “foreign agent”. The NGO helped organize a roundtable on US-Russia relations in February of this year. RIA Novosti quotes the Russian prosecutors as claiming that, “the organization is involved in shaping public opinion about state policies on Russia’s territory.”

As a reaction to these events, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks expressed serious concern about the series of unannounced inspections and stressed that, “non-governmental organizations have an invaluable role in defending human rights and need to function in an environment conducive to their work.”[1]

The OSCE Permanent Council dealt with the matter at its regular meeting on 11 April. The United States expressed deep concern “that Russian authorities continue to take actions that restrict space for civil society.” It referred to Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act on “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms […]” as well as to the 2010 Astana Commemorative Declaration, in which participating States reaffirmed “the important role played by civil society and free media in helping [us] to ensure full respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, including free and fair elections, and the rule of law.” Likewise, the EU expressed concern over “inspections and searches launched against the Russian NGO community which seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society activities in the country.” It also expressed concerns about the NGO law, which has “the effect of curtailing the civil freedoms of the Russian population […]”. It also referred to specific organizations that work for closer links between the EU and Russia and stated that, “any intent to portray them as foreign agents is not in line with the spirit of the EU-Russian partnership […].”

The Russian Federation, on its part, explained that the amended NGO law is “aimed primarily at enhancing the transparency of their [NGO] activities and also of their sources of funding” and added that other countries had similar laws. It believed that “the Russian people have a right to know from where this money is coming and for what purposes it is being spent.” It stated that the actions by Russian authorities should “be viewed with understanding by [our] partners as an important step towards building an open and democratic society in Russia.” It considered the recent statement by the US Department of State an “overt interference in Russia’s internal affairs.” Finally, the Russian Federation stressed that its partners “fail to take note of the considerable assistance the State is making available to non-governmental organizations engaged in socially useful projects […].” It informed participating States that the president of Russia had made available more than 2 billion rubles for these purposes.

These statements again reflect the deep divide between OSCE participating States ‘East’ and ‘West’ of Vienna. Therefore, the need for reconciliation efforts becomes ever more urgent and acute. However, ultimately it is the Russian population that is paying the prize, as their human and political rights are being severely undermined. Russia should finally honor the commitments it has signed up to in the past and guarantee fundamental freedoms and human and political rights to its citizens.

 


[1] Full article available at: http://www.humanrightseurope.org/2013/04/muiznieks-concerned-by-russia%E2%80%99s-judicial-system-and-foreign-ngo-law/