Russia's civil society crackdown continues
September 25th, 2012
12:58 PM ET

Russia's civil society crackdown continues

By Tanya Lokshina, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher and deputy Moscow director at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.

The Kremlin’s announcement last week that it was kicking USAID out of Russia is the latest step in a crackdown on foreign-funded civil society groups. It’s a trend that has intensified since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May, with the parliament hastily adopting new restrictive rules for non-governmental organizations. Groups that get even a kopeck of foreign money in their budget will be required to officially register as “foreign agents.” In Russian, that is pretty much understood to imply “foreign spies,” making many here in Russia believe the law aims to marginalize and discredit groups that advocate policy change.

The new law won’t enter into force until late autumn, but you can already see it in action. At least, I did, during a recent trip to Russia’s provinces. While the Justice Ministry is still working out the new law’s implementing regulations, regional officials are apparently already trying to please their federal bosses by exhibiting exemplary exuberance for the new provisions.

A couple of weeks ago, a fascinating internal document started circulating on social networks. It is a photocopy of a letter dated August 9 on the letterhead of administration chief for the Mari El Republic in Russia’s Volga region, addressed to heads of local government agencies and services. The document cites growing concern regarding “activization of foreign and domestic non-profit organizations” and calls on the officials to mitigate these threats. They are instructed in particular to ensure that their staff at all levels “minimize participation in programs and socio-political events funded by foreign and Russian non-profit groups.” To translate from the bureaucratese, this means local officials are effectively ordered to stop cooperating with these groups. As simple as that.

Human Rights Watch sent an inquiry to that office seeking confirmation of the document’s authenticity and status. No answer so far, but  our recent experience in another region of Russia provides strong reason to believe that there have been warnings to officials, and not just in the Volga region, about contact with civil society groups, especially foreign and foreign-funded ones.

At the end of August, a colleague and I went on a research trip to a remote Russian province. We were planning to do a series of interviews on not police torture, nor dispersal of public rallies, nor threats to activists and journalists, nor corruption – none of those issues that the Russian authorities typically define as “sensitive.” We were in fact looking into a healthcare access issue that even the most vigilant official would have a hard time branding “politicized.”

A couple of days into our work, however, local officials demanded to see our accreditation documents to establish whether we were working in Russia legitimately and peppered us with questions straight out of a Soviet spy film. “Who invited you here?” “Who pays your travel costs?” “Where are your headquarters?” “Who funds your organization?” “Who is arranging your meetings for you?” “Where is your authorization [for the visit] from the federal authorities?” And on and on.

We tried to explain that our Russia office has been registered in Moscow for close to 20 years, almost as long as the post-Soviet Russian state has been in existence, and we’ve never been asked for “permission” when we travel to this or that region of Russia for human rights research. We explained that this was one of several ongoing research projects, so we were simply gathering first-hand data to develop relevant policy recommendations. Our efforts proved fruitless. By the next morning, local health care workers had received instructions to stay away from us and to exercise special caution vis-à-vis “foreign” actors in light of “the increasingly tense political environment” – another infamous time-warped cliché. This outcome was especially absurd given that we were actually looking to their region for best practices, and that by denying us access the regional officials essentially would not allow us to tell a positive story.

Once back in Moscow, I asked a friend to share that story with a federal government official knowledgeable about the origins of this law. The official merely shrugged in response: “This is definitely not what we’re aiming at. But one just cannot second guess those regional officials and prevent all their inane initiatives.”

I am inclined to believe that the Kremlin did not directly instruct local bureaucrats to behave that way. Those behind the law most likely meant it to be used selectively, against particularly bold critics of the government. But it is already evident that the adoption of the new law served as a signal from Moscow to local bureaucrats: do whatever you want to put certain groups in their place. And these local officials apparently believe that enthusiastic efforts to “neutralize foreign agents” may earn them some brownie points with the Kremlin.

But they may be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. The fact is that these organizations provide a lot of services that the regions want, from collecting diapers and pacifiers for orphanages to helping hospitals with supplies to rehabilitating under-aged prisoners or helping people in dire need of legal aid. Certainly, they depend on cooperation from local authorities, but the authorities depend on them to fill in the gaps. Important public interest work is now at risk of falling victim to a witch hunt by over-zealous officials. Maybe Moscow needs to send a message to hold off.

Another thing that Moscow should think about is how it’s going to sort out the problems resulting from USAID’s forced withdrawal. After all, most USAID funds in Russia were being spent on programs very far from politics – or civil liberties for that matter. They went towards supporting projects in the areas of HIV and TB prevention, integration of people with disabilities, assistance to orphans, and other socially vulnerable groups. So, will the Russian government pick up directly where USAID left off? Is it actually planning to enable the good work to continue, or is it betting that ordinary citizens harmed by the closure of USAID-funded projects won’t join the ranks of the protesters?

Obviously the United States and other democratic countries will need to ponder these issues as well. They should send a strong message about the need to assist Russia’s vibrant civil society and ensure that this support will continue. It is needed now more than ever, and Russia is a better place for it.


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Topics: Human Rights • Russia

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    So what?
    If they said, "We don't need help", the NGO and other organizations must leave Russia.

    Here in US, there are more unemployed and homeless people. Bring the Money and spend it here.

    ....if the Wife said, "I need to divorce", do the husband have a right to insist and force the Wife, to say NO?

    What will America to loose?

    As last Week, I have seen NYPD and other Securities, cracking and kicked-out American homeless people from their regular places, to hide them from Tourists and from those who came for United Nation Summit.

    We got to be real, here. We have more than Millions of homeless people across America. We have more than Millions of People unemployed, across America.
    We have more than Millions of People who can not afford to pay for Hospital and waiting to die, from their own bed.

    Our politicians are telling US a lie, when many educated immigrants-American Citizens, being denied jobs and freedom of movements in US.

    September 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  2. Rey Irizarry

    USAID is an organization that promotes Western ideologies masked as a charity organization. They interfered in the political process of the countries they are involved by creating, donating and training opposition organizations. Since these opposition groups lack power in the political system they recurred to denominate themselves as NGOs. Then they are exempt of divulging their donors. In left countries where the west has lost their political influences they have found a way to build influence in those countries, and that's by funding political groups masked as NGOs.

    September 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Well said, Rey. USAID is a total waste of U.S. taxpayer money and I'm sick and tired of helping to finance this organization as a taxpayer!

      September 25, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
      • AT

        Well, said, Marine! Who needs humanitarian assistance and democratic initiatives, anyway? Instead, let's keep financing the armed services, cause that's worked so well in the past!

        September 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  3. Ragozzi

    Other countries don't seem to care much about democratic issues in Russia. Some of them do show concern and express it to a certain extent. But it looks like US is overly concerned and waged the entire informational war on the subject of Russian democracy and/or the lack thereof. US is seriously worried about a crackdown on foreign-funded civil society groups in Russia. It can mean only one thing – it holds interests in those groups. Therefore, Russia must be doing the right thing. Please correct me if I am wrong...

    September 25, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Roma

      Good analysis.

      September 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  4. Alex

    I am afraid American taxpayer would be much better served if the USAID funds would be directed to helping our own unemployed, homeless and uninsured citizens. Promoting democracy in Russia is like preaching vegan diet to lions. Vast majority in Russian society is not ready for Western style democracy, simply because 1000-year tradition is anything but democratic. It will take some time to change (if it ever will) and this change must come from inside. Any foreign "intervention", no matter how well intended, makes much more harm than good.

    September 25, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Gene

      Do some research on "isolationism" and then think!

      September 25, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        I did some research Gene, and found that Isolationism is a very good idea whose time has come!

        September 25, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
      • Gene

        Go do some more research and a lot more analysis.

        September 25, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Putin believes Russia is economically strong enough to do without handouts from the West. The Kremlin should handle the task of funding and subsidising organisations and other social programs. It wants Russia stay Russian.

      September 26, 2012 at 5:41 am | Reply
      • AT

        J, if the Kremlin funded these organizations, they wouldn't exist. Among other functions, some of these orgs monitor corruption, election fraud, and abuses of power. You think the siloviki would willingly fund them?

        September 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  5. Marine5484

    I wonder just how much the right-wing propagandists in Washington paid this Tanya Lokshina to post ths article. In reality, Russia is more democratic than America is nowadays. At least in Russia there is no all powerful military-industrial-complex that owns the politicians as is the case here in Washington D.C. Besides, I've been there and it's a beautiful country!

    September 25, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  6. Slavix Tube

    What you read is a propaganda piece with lies about supposed 'repression' used to justify more of US taxpayer funds used to subvert Russian society. All this 'human rights and democracy' talk is just cover to buying up influence in Russia and SUBVERTING Russian democracy, not promoting it.

    September 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
  7. Andor

    Here is an abbreviated list of the things an American employee with security clearance MUST report to authorities. So, dear Tanya, don't spew you paid by somebody indignation here. Every country does need certain degree of protection from the subversive persons like you. Otherwise there would be permanent "Occupy Wall Streets" camps in the US, and permanent ragtag "marches of millions" with barely 2000 participants, as it happened in St.Petersburg a couple of weeks ago. Why the countries should spend real "Millions" of dollars on your frivolous exercises of freedom only God knows.

    Adverse Information

    – Yourself or others

    – Confidential

    – Examples:

    • Arrest for serious violation of the law

    • Excessive use/abuse of alcohol or prescription drugs

    • Any use of illegal drugs

    • Financial situations such as home foreclosure, short sale, or bankruptcy

    • Sudden unexplained affluence

    • Treatment for mental or emotional problems

    • Changes in Personal & Relationship Status

    • Change in name

    • Change in marital status

    • Change in family/living situation

    • Change in citizenship

    • Possibility of future access to classified information has been reasonably foreclosed

    • New status as Representative of Foreign Interest (RFI)

    • Change in RFI status

    September 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
    • SPb

      "with barely 2000 participants, as it happened in St.Petersburg "
      800 participants

      September 26, 2012 at 1:24 am | Reply
  8. Игорь Эйдельман

    Less money for the Russian opposition, more money for the American homeless.

    September 26, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
  9. Игорь Эйдельман

    – Listen, Holmes, what do you think if a human rights organization
    funded by the United States, whose rights it protects?
    – It's elementary, my dear Watson!

    September 26, 2012 at 1:38 am | Reply
  10. Игорь Эйдельман

    Why women who defend "human rights" in Russia have such a terrible appearance?
    Hessen, Latynina, Lokshina, Sobchak, Bonner.
    And why are they Jewish?

    September 26, 2012 at 1:48 am | Reply
  11. Weltaufrussisch

    Human Rights Watch – Independent human right organization

    All "Independent" human rights organizations are fakes.
    Human Rights Watch watches fakes.
    Such are the considerations – Read the declaration of these same rights (compilation comics).
    "Article 1) All human beings are born free ..." – That is, the fact that there is a universal freedom is taken for granted. Which of course, in the context of the culture and civilization of the words wrong, culture and civilization – is primarily a search action, self, taboo ... what makes us human, is still free animals.
    It is always a tension in the world to look for a measure that seeks to extremes, in Russian culture (and not only) as possible, in the Russian language laid dialectic.
    English is too simple, the shape determines the content, as a result, the conversation * difficult transfer of associative links, the result – a lack of reflection. The biggest threat to civilization today is flawed perception of being caused by too simple language.
    * Reflection – a conversation with himself.

    P.S. Below in Russian, because of the bad English.

    September 26, 2012 at 3:32 am | Reply
  12. Weltaufrussisch

    Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher and deputy Moscow director at Human Rights Watch.

    Human Rights Watch – независимая организация защиты прав человека.

    Все "независимые" правозащитные организации, как говорят "эксперты" – фейк.
    Вот соображения – читаем декларацию этих самых прав (компилятивный комикс).
    "Статья 1) Все люди рождаются свободными..." – то есть, то, что существует некая универсальная свобода, принимается за аксиому. Что конечно в контексте слов культура и цивилизация не так, – культура и цивилизация это прежде всего поиск меры, самоограничение, табу ... то что делает нас людьми, свободные же остались животными.
    Это всегда напряжение, искать меру в мире, стремящемуся к крайностям, в русской культуре (и не только) это возможно, в русском языке заложена диалектика.
    Английский язык слишком простой, в нём форма определяет содержание, при разговоре* затруднена передача ассоциативных связей, результат – отсутсвие рефлексии.
    Самая большая опасность для цивилизации сегодня, это ущербное восприятие сущего, обусловленное слишком простым языком.
    *рефлексия – это разговор с самим собой.

    September 26, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
  13. Евгений

    amusing to read the comments of some Americans about Russia, but there are adequate commentary)) is actually in Russia is not as thought in America. The current opozitsiya a bunch of stupid ass who want power and money, they are in Russia, no one takes seriously, they can only balobolit and really did not offer. I think 90 percent of Russians not support them.
    P.S. Извеняюсь за свой английский но суть я думаю ясна.

    September 26, 2012 at 6:00 am | Reply
  14. berg

    "Groups that get even a kopeck of foreign money in their budget will be required to officially register as “foreign agents.”"
    You are a liar, Tanya. Only those groups that are engaged in politics.

    September 26, 2012 at 6:51 am | Reply
    • Joe Collins

      Ever since the close of the Russian Civil War(1918-1922) the British and the French and later the Americans have been sending agents to Russia not only to spy but also to fund underground opposition groups to undermine the Soviet government. Right after WW1, the British were especially very much afraid of a strong and powerful Russia in the east relacing Germany as a European power and thus their motive to fight in Russia's civil war!

      September 26, 2012 at 9:41 am | Reply
  15. Amniculi

    Why is this even America's problem? Let Russians deal with Russian problems. Let Israelis deal with Israeli problems. Let Arabs deal with Arab problems and so on and so on. We really need to stop sticking our nose in other countries' business.

    September 26, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
  16. Ragozzi

    Reading all the comments above, I think people aren't buying it.... I think US is starting to loose the media war against Russia

    September 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Let's all hope you're right, Ragozzi. The politicians in the U.S. are such liars and crooks and care only for themselves!!!

      September 26, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  17. termoalex

    USAID выгнали потому что мало бабок заслали, еслиб 3 миллиарда в год... Путин сам бы возглавил USAID.

    September 27, 2012 at 7:09 am | Reply
  18. Filiberto Mlodzianowski

    There are three main myths about the creation of the brownie. The first, that a chef accidentally added melted chocolate to biscuit dough. The second, a cook forgot to add flour to the batter. And thirdly, the most popular belief, that a housewife did not have baking powder and improvised with this new treat. It was said that she was baking for guests and decided to serve these flattened cakes to them. This became our beloved treat of today. Whatever may be the case; all three myths have gained popularity throughout the years due to its mysterious beginnings.,

    The latest piece of writing straight from our very own internet page

    April 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply

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