02 May 2013

Russian Watchdog GOLOS Fined under Foreign Agents Law

In early April, an administrative process against GOLOS (Association for the defence of the rights of voters) was opened by the Ministry of Justice, claiming that the organisation receives foreign funds and is engaged in political activities, and therefore incurred in a violation of the law by not registering as a foreign agent. GOLOS’s executive director Lilya Shibanova has stated that the organisation has not received any foreign funding since the law came into force. Apparently, the administrative procedure is based on the fact that GOLOS received an award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, which backs people persecuted for their opinions, but Ms. Shibanova argued that the prize was not accepted by the organisation and was immediately returned. A week ago, a decision was made to fine the organisation in 300,000 roubles (€ 7,000) and its director in 100,000 roubles (€ 2,400).

Several prominent civil society groups, among which GOLOS, have declared early on after the passing of the Foreign Agents Law that they refuse to register as foreign agents, even if they risk closure. They claim that this label is insulting and refers back to political purges under the Stalin regime. Moreover, many fear that the identification as a foreign agent will serve only to discredit and stigmatise NGOs.

The Russian government argues that the law is inspired in similar legislation in the United States, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). However, analysts have pointed out that the US law clearly seeks to target lobbying firms, with the purpose of revealing how much money is paid to lobbyists to impact US government policy on behalf of foreign principles. The law deliberately includes broad exemptions under which NGOs fall, so that they cannot be wrongly targeted by its dispositions. The Russian law, on the other hand, has been strongly directed at NGOs.

Foreign governments and international organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, have voiced concerns about the direction that the restrictive measures imposed by the government are taking. According to Amnesty International, the sanction against GOLOS “is an alarming indicator for the future of civil society in the country”. The human rights watchdog reports also that GOLOS is only the first NGO to face this kind of administrative procedure, as other nine civil society groups has received warnings from the prosecutor’s office, and the Kostroma Regional Centre for Support of Public Initiatives is already in the process of facing similar charges after it organised a roundtable on US-Russia relations that a US diplomat attended.

(The picture featured above is credited to ITAR-TASS news agency.)