Anti-trafficking advocates in Russia operate in a famously cold setting where political and legal pressures freeze them out of public policy discussions. Federal Law #121-FZ, popularly known as the Foreign Agents Act, limits the already tight resources of anti-trafficking advocates and NGOs. In particular, the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial (ADC Memorial) and Human Rights Center Memorial (HRC Memorial) – two home-grown and highly regarded NGOs working on labor trafficking issues – receive treatment that shows just how aggressively and negatively government policy has targeted NGOs in the past few years.
The Foreign Agents Act introduces a broad category of activity that triggers liability for NGOs and significantly amends rules governing their behavior. The Act applies the label “foreign agent” to any organization engaging in political activities and receiving funds from foreign sources. The broad definition of “political activity” creates an environment in which the government flags any work that aims to reform policy or raise money for a public cause. This approach punishes such organizations for their work, which in turn fosters fear and self-censorship. According to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, this regulatory scheme “will only lead to further stigmatization of civil society in the Russian Federation.”
Additionally, NGOs that are both political and receive funds from overseas supporters – even money tied to non-political activities – are required to register with the Ministry of Justice’s Foreign Agent List and provide a disclaimer on publicly available material regarding their foreign agent status. It should be noted that the term “foreign agent” carries unfavorable associations dating back to the Soviet era. Penalties for NGOs that fail to register include two years’ imprisonment of the organization’s leaders and high fines. NGOs considered foreign agents are subject to extra reporting and auditing obligations including an annual formal government audit and informal audits throughout the year. In comparison, non-foreign agents are audited once every three years. To prepare this required documentation, these NGOs need additional monetary resources.
ADC Memorial of St. Petersburg and HRC Memorial of Moscow are two colleague NGOs connected to international coalitions. Both are highly visible in their efforts to expose government involvement in abuses against vulnerable populations. While it is not surprising that both of these organizations were targeted by the Foreign Agents Act, the way that the law has been used to challenge them is telling of changing times.
In November 2012, after its protest of the Act, the Moscow offices of International Memorial (HRC Memorial’s umbrella organization) were vandalized. Then, in March 2013 the Ministry of Justice and Tax Department inspected International Memorial for compliance with the law. The inspection of International Memorial was different than other searches because personnel from the pro-government channel, NTV, accompanied officials and recorded the inspection without the authorization of the organization. HRC Memorial was then under prosecutorial order to self-register as a foreign agent for vaguely worded reasons related to their mission and programs. In July 2014 they were forced to be included in the Foreign Agents List.
Meanwhile, ADC Memorial was sued for violating the law after their submission of a report to the United Nations that addressed exploitation of labor migrants by police was deemed to be “political activity.” Forced with the decision to either register as a foreign agent or cease operations, ADC Memorial chose to fight the law by filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in July 2014.
It should be noted that while ADC Memorial and HRC Memorial struggle in this unfriendly context, smaller organizations find themselves under even greater pressure. Unlike larger NGOs, these small organizations possess fewer resources to fight off prosecution and harassment brought on by the Act. If the government continues to expand the reach of the Foreign Agents Act and persecute NGOs, it won’t be long until the civil society landscape becomes even colder.
(Photo: Alexander Column in St. Petersburg. Via Creative Commons)
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