Analytics and Interview

On 16 January 2015 late in the evening the website of the Ministry of Justice published a statement that the NGO Committee Against Torture had been added to the register of non-profit organizations designated as ‘foreign agents’.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch and Honorary Participant of International Youth Human Rights Movement: As the crisis in Ukraine escalated this spring, the Kremlin’s vicious crackdown on civil society also escalated. Space for independent civic activity in Russia is shrinking dramatically, but international policymakers and the media have been understandably too distracted to do much about it. Since early spring, it seems as though every week brings a new pernicious law or legislative proposal.
Earlier this year, the correspondent of Youth Human Rights Movement from Germany Jakob Stürmann interviewed Konstantin Baranov, member of the Coordination Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement. They discussed so called “law against homosexual propaganda” and the overall situation of LGBT in Russia.  

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Oleg Sentsov, Olexander Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy have been held in Russian jails for two years already under fabricated charges of ‘terrorism’. We consider it being necessary to express solidarity with those who are persecuted due to their pro-Ukrainian views, civic stand and desire for freedom in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia has published “Human Rights in Armenia 2014” Annual Report. The report reflects on the Right to Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, Political Persecutions, Freedom of Conscience and Religion, The Rights of the Child, Protection of Labor Rights.
«We have a few questions for you,» a border guard told Sinaver Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, at the Armyansk checkpoint in northern Crimea on Jan. 23. Kadyrov was on his way to Kherson, in southern Ukraine, to fly to Turkey for medical treatment. It was the beginning of an ordeal that ended with a local court expelling him from Crimea, his home of almost 25 years.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority It is time to sit back and reflect.

Mark Twain


Youth Human Rights Movement

Interview with Pavel Chikov: "55 banned topics for NGOs"

Дата публикации: 

"The definition of 'political activity' has no limits under this law" – Pavel Chikov

The NGO or "foreign agent" law has effectively introduced a ban on any public activity in Russia which is displeasing to the authorities, asserts director of Agora Human Rights Association Pavel Chikov in an interview with Radio Svoboda. What's more, he argues, this situation was brought about deliberately. Like many members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, Chikov believes that the concept of "political activity" should be removed from the wording of the legislation on NGOs, and that the term "foreign agent" should also be discarded. Agora has analysed the claims made against NGOs by the agencies in charge of inspecting them and has compiled a 55-point list of the types of activity which have been labelled "political" by prosecutors.

Prosecutors have effectively found all activity by NGOs to be "political" in nature. The Civil Code states that non-profit organisations are created for socially-useful purposes, and the list we drew up essentially covers all socially-useful types of activity, which prosecutors have suddenly and inexplicably deemed "political".

In fact, if you group the data, you can clearly see that anything in an organisation's charter or work which hints at participation in the electoral process, any attempts to change the status quo in any area, be it migration, the environment, or abuses by law enforcement – it's all politics! All it takes is a mention of the words "politics" or "political" in an organisation’s charter, agreements, projects or publications – everything is political a priori, at least according to the prosecutor's office.

For example, the work of our organisation, which provides legal aid to citizens, has been deemed "political" by the Prosecutor's Office simply because we offer aid to civic activists. It's obvious that offering free legal assistance to anyone at all isn't political, but defending a civic activist definitely is.

The Kostroma Committee of Soldiers' Mothers recently approved a special document, which states that the organisation does not engage in political activity, and sent it to the Prosecutor's Office. Do you think there is any chance this will save them?

Not a chance! Imagine that as soon as this law was passed last autumn, our organisation held a general assembly and we approved a provision which defines what is "political" and that "non-political" is the principle of non-participation in politics and so on. Incidentally, this is standard for foreign NGOs – they write that they are "non-political", that they do not participate in any activity whatsoever, or in any political parties, etc.

Unfortunately this concept, in practice developed in an arbitrary manner, still lacks precise definition in law, which means that it has no limits in the eyes of Russia's prosecutors. A glance at the list of so-called "political" types of activity is enough to confirm this. Moreover, this means that from a judicial standpoint, the term is itself absurd and contradicts the general principles of the law. It cannot be used.

The notions of "political activity" and "civic activity" are being conflated in Russia. What is your understanding of "political activity"? Is it the struggle for power?

It is technically impossible to give a precise, concrete definition of "political activity" in its broadest sense. Americans say that politics is everything, that no matter what you do, you are engaging in politics.
By expressing your opinion about what's going on around you, you are participating in "political" activity. Broadly speaking, even commercial organisations are engaged in political activity as they also form policy when it comes to trade, export etc.

In its narrowest sense, politics can easily be defined as the drive for power, the sphere of activity of political parties. We have a separate law on political parties which clearly states what types of activity these organisations engage in. This is where the conflict lies.

When the State Duma passed this law and the President signed it, the jurists and experts must have known that it lacked a precise definition and that problems could arise when it came to implementing the law. In your view, was this a bureaucratic foul-up or was it done deliberately?

There's no doubt about it – this was a deliberate act. It has enshrined in law the state's right to tyranny. The deliberate introduction of a knowingly undefined – and essentially undefinable – term into legislation, it is simply hanging a sword of Damocles over the head of every "undesirable".

This effectively gives the authorities the right to use punitive, repressive and coercive measures against any organisation, at their discretion. All because the General Prosecutor gave the assignment, because of a call from the President's administration, because at the local level a regional governor decided to punish or put pressure on someone... There's no doubt in my mind – this was done deliberately.

Based on this, could it be said that a partial ban on civic activity has been introduced in Russia? Or is that conclusion too extreme?

I would say that that is the most accurate definition of what's happening. To speak in legal terms, civic activity has been "criminalised" for certain organisations. For the time being the focus is only on those which receive even a ruble in foreign funding.

If we talk about the Levada-Centre, whose foreign funding does not exceed 10% of their total budget – the Russian authorities don't care exactly how much they get. If you get even a kopeck from abroad, your activity is prohibited. There is a de facto ban on the work of these organisations.

The next step will be the criminal prosecution of the directors of these organisations, as there is a corresponding article in the Criminal Code that has not yet been used. After that will come a virtual ban on civic activity for all disloyal organisations.

This is because the law won't only be used against those organisations which receive funds directly from abroad, but against those which are funded by Russian legal entities who in turn may receive money from abroad.
On top of that you could have commercial organisations which have credit from banks or work with foreign contractors. The potential for expansion of this repressive practice was deliberately seeded in the law.

Am I right in saying that Agora is proposing some sort of interim way out of this situation? Have you already proposed that the law be corrected and the term "political activity" be removed?

It's not so much our proposal as a proposal from the Presidential Council on Human Rights, something to temper the confrontation between the public and the authorities, a way for both sides to save face.

The idea is to revoke the term "foreign agent" which, needless to say, is a stigma, and to replace it with the phrase "organisations funded, or which receive funding, from abroad." No organisation given this status will deny it or object to it.

The next thing is to remove the concept of "political activity", because in practice it means whatever prosecutors want it to. And all organisations which receive money from abroad must be automatically added to the lists on the relevant page of the Ministry of Justice website, where we will be listed.

That list should include the Russian Orthodox Church, which receives money from its branches abroad, as well as the state corporations Rosnano, Rostekhnologii, or, for example, Rosvooruzhenie, which receives money from the export of Russian arms. I have no objections whatsoever to being on the same list as these organisations on the Justice Ministry's website.

It turns out that the human rights community is willing to compromise. Do you see any signs that the authorities are also willing to ease the confrontation?

I would like to believe they are... It goes without saying that any talks are going on behind the scenes. I'm not prepared to talk about them. But, let's just say that you can read the recent meeting organised by former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin with representatives of NGOs as a signal. Kudrin really wanted to clarify what is actually happening in the country, and the authorities and Putin have both emphasised that the President frequently talks with him.

There have been signals and attempts to find a dignified way out of the strained situation emerging from the mass inspections of civic organisations in Russia. To what extent the authorities are willing to accept this proposal, we believe we'll soon find out.

If things go the other way, a second wave awaits us in the autumn. It will be one of mass civil cases, some criminal cases, and the closure of dozens of organisations, including some of the country’s most prominent... 

Author: Arslan Saidov
Source: Radio Svoboda