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.)

 

New Report Assesses Changes in Anti-Corruption Policy in Russia under Medvedev Government

Corruption is a big problem in Russia. According to international indicators of corruption, it is considered the most corrupt of the emerging economies. However, for a long time Russian governments did nothing concrete to attempt to fight the problem. This seemed to change during the Medvedev administration, argues the report “Russia’s Anti-corruption Predicament: Reforms, Activism and Struggling Rulers”, published as part of the Corruption °C series edited by the Latvian think-tank Providus. The study, authored by Ivan Ninenko, deputy director of Transparency International Russia, analyses the reforms undertaken by Medvedev to strengthen the anti-corruption framework in the country. Although the report claims that Medvedev tried to bring the Russian legal system up to international standards, it recognises that the concrete impact of such reforms is yet to be felt.

The report begins by contextualising corruption in Russia, providing an interesting overview of corrupt practices since the Soviet period, and how corruption increased dramatically after the transition, with intransparent privatisation processes and the emergence of oligarchs and pervasive state capture. The main analysis concentrates on the anti-corruption instruments adopted during Medvedev’s term as President. Most of the achievements highlighted refer to new legislation adopted during his administration. The law “On Countering Corruption”, for instance, defined the term “corruption” in the Russian legislation and made it mandatory for public officials to disclose their income and assets and report any conflict of interest. Another important reform was the law “Providing Access to Information on Activities of Government Bodies and Municipal Bodies”, which was adopted in February 2009, granting Russian citizens access to public information. In July 2009, the law “On Anticorruption Expertise of Legislative Acts and Draft Legislative Acts” was adopted and introduced an obligation to check all new laws on possible corruption risks. Finally, in 2011 Medvedev also introduced higher punishment for bribery, amounting to 25 to 100 times higher than the sum of the bribe, eliminating the mandatory prison sentence for large bribes. This law aimed at decreasing the financial incentive for bribes, and although it was controversial at first, it is considered to have had an overall positive effect.

Although it claims that these legislative changes are considered to be important steps forward, the study makes it clear that there are numerous problems in the implementation of the new legislation. The sanctions for not complying with disclosure requirements imposed by the law “On Countering Corruption”, for instance, were rather insignificant and rarely enforced. By the beginning of 2012, Medvedev himself stated that this law was very inefficient. The implementation of the law of access to information is also limited in practice by the non-cooperation of certain state agencies and institutions. On the other hand, some good examples exist. Commercial courts in Russia have done incredible efforts to increase transparency about their cases, publishing not only all their decisions but even documents received as part of each case, including requests from government officials to “take a deeper look” into some cases. According to some judges, this degree of transparency led to such requests becoming rarer, thus ultimately contributing to reducing attempts to influence the courts’ proceedings.

What we can conclude from this analysis is that Russia, at least during the Medvedev government, appears to have taken the same route as many others countries plagued by systematic corruption: strengthening anti-corruption regulation. However, as also happened in many countries, these changes were not as effective as expected. The report concludes that Medvedev failed to make the government’s anti-corruption efforts credible, and most of the initiatives did not bring any significant improvement for the lives of citizens and businesspeople affected by widespread corruption. Nevertheless, other important developments have taken place in the civil society arena in the meanwhile. Increased access to internet and technology has enabled civic activists and bloggers to mobilise more people against corruption, and initiatives of individuals exposing wrongdoing by public officials online have increased. The main hope is that this rising pressure from Russian society will eventually contribute to bringing about real change in anti-corruption efforts in the country.

(The picture featured above is from themoscowtimes.com.)

 

Russian Farmer Publishes Own Independent Newspaper to Expose Corruption

Independent action by civil society to fight corruption has become more and more common. In most cases, it takes place in the form of projects implemented by civil society organisations, often financed by international donors, but sometimes innovative initiatives emerge also from actions of single individuals. One of such examples has been recently reported in the small province of Chuvashia, in Russia, where an indignant farmer has taken up a new occupation as an investigative journalist to uncover local corruption.

Eduard Mochalov’s motivation to launch and distribute an independent and free newspaper in his region came from his personal story as a victim of corruption. Once the owner of a large farm that employed 150 workers, he lost everything after failing to pay a bribe to a police officer. Documents stating that he had allegedly sold his property were forged, and as he attempted to bring those involved to justice, he was himself accused by prosecutors of fraud in obtaining credit to buy the farm. After eight months in prison waiting for trial, he was finally released on time served and eventually managed to re-establish his ownership of the land, but by then his property and his business had already deteriorated beyond recovery. He protested several times in front of the Kremlin, but never received any support from the government to punish the local officials who ruined his livelihood.

He then decided to take matters into his own hands and came up with the idea of a monthly investigative newspaper, entitled Vzyatka (“The Bribe”). Based on information of corruption cases received from local businessmen and government employees, he pursues his investigations and publishes articles under pseudonyms. The enterprise also has the support of a journalist and a woman who assists with the distribution of the papers. Their efforts have not resulted in any formal investigations or prosecutions yet, but the initiative to expose corruption in the province has become very popular among locals, and the 20,000 copies printed every month are not enough for the increased demand. About the rising interest from the population, Mochalov remarks that “[…] people have had it with all these corrupt people in power, […] they want to know the truth”, as quoted in an article published by the Associated Press (AP).

Although the initiative has had no legal impact against corrupt leaders in the province, its political impact is evident. On the positive side, he has gained attention also outside Chuvashia, and has even received the support of national opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has also been engaged in several projects to fight corruption in Russia. On the other hand, local politicians and officials have strongly reacted against the paper, and Mochalov has been several times sued for libel. He is aware of the dangers he faces, including risks to his life, but is determined to continue making his contribution to inform the local population and expose local corruption cases.

More details on this story can be read in the article “Russian farmer takes on corrupt officials”, published by AP. The picture featured above is from knoxnews.com and is credited to AP.

 

iPhone Application Launched to Fight Corruption in Russia

Young entrepreneurs use technology to expose bribery in the country, and thereby hope to raise awareness and help to change Russians’ attitudes towards corruption

 

Popular frustration with the high levels of corruption in Russia has been increasing, as evidenced by demonstrations and protests in the past year. According to the latest Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country ranks 143 among 183 countries. Motivated by this situation, a team of young Russian entrepreneurs developed an application for iPhones and iPads that enables individuals to report bribes all over the country.

According to an article published on The Moscow News, the new tool, called “Bribr”, was released in September and allows users to send reports anonymously. Each report includes the place where the bribe occurred, the amount paid, the institution to which it was paid and also for which purpose – changing exam grades, guaranteeing admission to schools and kindergartens, obtaining a permit etc. All the information submitted through the application is then collected on the initiative’s website (in Russian), where it is compiled on a crowd mapping platform that aggregates all reports into general statistics, showing the total amount paid in bribes and the places and purposes that are most common. So far, over 5 million rubles (€ 124,000) in bribes have been reported.

This initiative is the first of its kind in the development of an application for smartphones, but the principle behind it has been applied in other crowdsourcing projects worldwide, such as the “I Paid a Bribe” initiative, originally implemented in India and later replicated in countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe.

According to Yevgenia Kuida, the initiative’s founder and a London Business School graduate, Bribr aims at contributing to change people’s attitudes towards bribery in Russia. “If you see everywhere that bribery is bad, maybe somewhere in the back of your mind, your attitude toward bribery is going to change, at least a little bit,” she said to The Moscow Times. In another interview to The Moscow News, she emphasised that “the attitude that bribery is bad, but it’s really OK just because everybody does it, is unacceptable”. The team behind Bribr now wants to expand coverage by developing the application also for Android phones, and creating a mechanism to allow reporting directly on the website. Moreover, the project includes plans for the offline sphere, such as a campaign with stickers reading “We don’t accept bribes”, and symbolic zero ruble bank notes that citizens would give out when asked for a bribe.

The application has had great repercussion since its release, with over 20,000 downloads just in the first two weeks. Political activists such as Alexei Navalny and TV host Ksenia Sobchak showed their support to the initiative. However, other anti-corruption activists have voiced concern on the project’s limitations. Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International’s Russian chapter, said to The Moscow News that “this app caters only to a small percentage of Russians – middle-class, mostly young people who have smart phones”, and that “unless [the team] can somehow distribute smart phones to people in the Ural Mountains and Siberia, Bribr will have no real widespread effect on corruption or bribery”. She also emphasised that collecting this information is not enough, as most individuals who report bribes want to see concrete results and, unless this is followed by investigation and punishment of bribe takers, people might lose their motivation to report in the first place.

The picture featured above is from periodismociudadano.com.

 

Russian NGO Implements Systematic Monitoring of Government Websites

The Russian NGO Freedom of Information Foundation (FIF) has developed a project dedicated to systematically monitoring the level of information openness on the official websites of government agencies in Russia. The project assesses the compliance of contents of governmental websites with freedom of information legislation and with information users’ needs. This year FIF has already published a series of articles rating information openness for several public bodies at the federal and local levels, including legislative bodies, judicial regional departments and election commissions.

FIF was established in 2004 with the objective of investigating, identifying and solving problems of access to public information in Russia. The main motivation behind this work is the belief that government transparency is a precondition for a law-based democracy, and that it has an important impact in constraining abuses by public officials. FIF’s activities focus particularly on access to governmental information and information about the activities of state agencies both through organisational means and legal recourse. One of its primary goals is to assist in the development of information technology resources available to the public.

The method for monitoring government websites was initially developed by experts of the Institute for Information Freedom Development – later renamed Freedom of Information Foundation in 2004. Its implementation is based on the principles of independence and objectivity, and all results are open to the public. The assessments are conducted by experts that take into account not only parameters related to the substantive information disclosed on the websites, but also technical parameters that influence the degree of user-friendliness in each website.

This initiative has generated important insights regarding the implementation of freedom of information legislation in Russia. According to FIF’s reports, although governmental agencies do publish the necessary information on their websites, users commonly face problems to access the information due to incompleteness or unavailability of website sections due to alleged updates on some pages, particularly those meant to disclose financial information from government agencies.

In addition to periodic assessments the project has also led to the development of a specific system that enables full automation of monitoring activities and rating of information openness. Since 2010, the assessment has been conducted by the use of this system – entitled EXMO (expert monitoring). Another great advantage of this tool is that it can be used by governmental officials to track openness indices’ trends for the governmental bodies where they work, a mechanism expected to create incentives for poorly rated agencies to improve the openness of their websites. Data on the 2011 round of assessments suggested that the cooperation with government officials is working: a 20%-rise in information openness was observed in the rated agencies. In the Judicial Department, for instance, the average information openness coefficient grew from 63.58% to 80.51%.

In the past years the project has been established as an efficient tool for monitoring the public administration and has attracted great attention from both governmental agencies and the expert community in the field. Due to the independence of the assessment process, the results are widely recognised by the government and also other civil society organisations. This is a good example of an innovative approach to addressing and improving freedom of information. FIF is also open to cooperation with organisations from other countries that are interested in developing a similar initiative and could profit from the progress they have made in developing this methodology.

More information on this project is available in the article “Monitoring of the government bodies’ official websites as an efficient tool for public control”, published on www.svobodainfo.org.