Russia's Crackdown on NGOs Includes Some Unexpected Targets

A preliminary list of twelve nongovernmental organizations that could be banned from working in Russia under a "patriotic stop list" includes a number of large U.S. foundations as well as smaller groups that would seem to be unlikely targets, the New York Times reports.

Signed into law by Russian president Vladimir V. Putin in May, the measure authorizes prosecutors to shut down foreign NGOs that are deemed to be engaged in "undesirable" activity posing a threat to Russia. The list of organizations sent last week to the prosecutor-general and justice and foreign ministries for potential designation as "undesirable" includes seven U.S.-based institutions — Freedom House; the MacArthur, Mott, and Open Society foundations; the International Republican and National Democratic institutes; and the National Endowment for Democracy — as well as Crimea- and Ukraine-affiliated groups. The list also includes groups such as the Education for Democracy Foundation, a small Polish NGO that has held seminars for teachers, promoted volunteerism, and worked with Russian schools on civic initiatives for fifteen years. EDF board vice president Martyna Bogaczyk told the Times that the Warsaw-based group was surprised to be included on the list.

In a statement last week, MacArthur Foundation president Julia M. Stasch said the move "rests on a serious misunderstanding of our activities in Russia." Stasch further noted that the foundation's "office in Moscow opened in 1992 and has since been staffed by dedicated Russians who love their country. The MacArthur Foundation is entirely independent of and receives no funding from the United States government. We do not engage in or support political activities."

Meanwhile, the crackdown on Russian nonprofits deemed to be "foreign agents" — which include an organization that supports the mothers of soldiers as well as Memorial, a Russian human rights organization founded to research repression under the Soviet Union — has led to one foundation closing its doors. The board of the Dynasty Foundation, which was founded by telecommunications billionaire Dmitry Zimin to support programs dedicated to the sciences, has voted unanimously to close after a month-long fight to have the "foreign agent" label removed and being fined $5,000 for having failed to voluntarily register with the government as a foreign agent. The foundation had given about $7 million annually for more than a decade in support of young Russian researchers and high school science camps. The official reason for the organization being declared a "foreign agent" was  its support for Liberal Mission, an organization that holds lectures on modern politics — even though the funds provided to the organization were drawn from Zimin's own offshore accounts. Zimin, who has been cautiously critical of the government, has been denounced on state television, which accused his son of financing political parties opposed to Putin.

"[T]his man gave two billion rubles of his own money and they decided to abuse him," said Mikhail Gelfand, a Russian biologist who taught courses for Dynasty. "Dynasty formed around itself a community of successful and respectable people. Apparently that was seen by the government as something suspicious and dangerous."

Andrew Roth. "Unlikely Targets in Cross Hairs as Russia Aims to Expose Foreign Influence." New York Times 07/11/2015. "Soros and MacArthur Foundations Among 12 NGOs in 'Patriotic Stop List'." Meduza 07/08/2015. "Statement of MacArthur President Julia Stasch on Developments in Russia." John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Press Release 07/08/2015.