Russian Government Steps Up Pressure on NGOs

A Russian human rights group has been forced to shut down as a result of a new law which requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and are engaged in "political activities" to register as "foreign agents," the Associated Press reports.

The Committee Against Torture, which has documented torture in Russia for fifteen years and provided legal advice to victims, said it is closing down because of the law but plans to continue its activities in a less public manner. Enacted in 2012 despite protests from NGOs that it was discriminatory, the law authorizes the Russian government to fine organizations for failing to register. Committee chair Igor Kalyapin told reporters that the organization — which received roughly half its 44 million ruble ($730,000) budget last year from overseas funders — has set up a new office that will not accept foreign funding and therefore will not have to register. His associates have founded six other NGOs, which will continue to receive foreign funding, to carry out the committee's work.

"All of these organizations will be not be publicizing their work," said Kalyapin, "because any publicity, [any] interview, any mention of such an organization in the media will be treated by the justice ministry and prosecutors as political activities" and expose them to danger. Kalyapin admitted that the new NGOs may have difficulty attracting foreign funding in the short term, in part because some donors, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, whose grants to the committee included one of $300,000 in 2013, are shutting down their operations in Russia, while others are considering leaving.

One factor in the MacArthur Foundation's decision to close its Moscow office was the foundation's inclusion, along with six other U.S. groups, in a "patriotic stop list" of organizations being considered for potential designation as "undesirable" under a law enacted earlier this year. Subsequently, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation also announced it would put its activities in the country on hold. And this week the National Endowment for Democracy became the first organization on the stop list to be declared "undesirable" — which the government of President Vladimir Putin defines as presenting "a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country, or the security of the state." Pending formal approval by the justice ministry, the move would prevent the congressionally funded endowment from distributing any grants or having offices in Russia.

"The law on undesirable organizations is the latest in a series of highly restrictive laws that limit the freedom of Russian citizens," said the endowment in a statement. "This law, as well as its predecessors, contravenes Russia's own constitution as well as numerous international laws and treaties."

Nataliya Vasilyeva, Vladimir Isachenkov. "Russia Declares US Foundation 'Undesirable' Under New Law." Associated Press 07/28/2015. "Statement on Russian Undesirable Organizations." National Endowment for Democracy Press Release 07/28/2015.