Georgian tabloid Asaval-Dasavali released in its January 15-21 edition an interview with Elizbar Javelidze of People’s Assembly – an organization affiliated with pro-Russian political party, the United Democratic Movement, in which he glorifies Russia’s authoritarian model and praises President Vladimir Putin for banning the activities of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia.
Why does Putin struggle against NGOs?
Non-governmental organizations play an important role in democratic societies, because along with providing advocacy and other services to target groups, they act as government watchdog organizations as well. The only place, where free activities of non-governmental organizations and international organizations are restricted, is a country with authoritarian government and dictatorship.
If, on the one hand, Putin restricts the activities of foreign-funded NGOs on the territory of Russia, on the other, to achieve Russia’s strategic goals, the Kremlin itself uses democratic institutions, such as NGOs and media to strengthen its influence beyond its borders. The report “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security” prepared for the use of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, reads that Putin turned civil society and information sectors into his own weapon and created pro-governmental groups to suppress independent activists.
According to HRW, “for the past four years, the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous. It is part of a sweeping crackdown to silence critical voices that has included new legal restrictions on the internet, on freedom of expression, on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and on other fundamental freedoms.”
How does the Kremlin struggle against NGOs?
According to the same report, Putin uses violent and aggressive methods along with legislation. A number of Russian activists and journalists have been subject to violent attacks largely due to their activities in the country.
For example, in July 2009, Natalia Estemirova, a well-known researcher with the Russian human rights group Memorial, who had worked extensively on documenting human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, was kidnapped by assailants in front of her home in Chechnya and her murdered body was later found in neighboring Ingushetia. No individuals have been convicted in connection with her killing.
In February 2012, Memorial activist Philip Kostenko was beaten by two unknown assailants in a park, suffering a concussion and a broken leg, and was reportedly pressured by police while en route to the hospital to sign a document pledging not to file a police report.
In March 2016, two employees of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, traveling with foreign journalists on a monitoring trip through Russia’s North Caucasus, were hospitalized after being beaten by masked men wielding baseball bats, who later set their bus on fire. The head of the Committee, Igor Kalyapin, was attacked a week later in the Chechen capital of Grozny, where local authorities investigated but never filed charges.
Besides human rights activists, the Kremlin aggressively targets the journalists critical of the government and its policies. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 38 journalists were murdered in Russia in a period between 1993 and 2017. 33 out of 38 murders remain unsolved and nobody has been held accountable for killing journalists. According to CPJ, the journalists killed in Russia were mainly working on the issues of corruption and politics, while government officials and criminal groups were suspected sources of fire. See detailed information about freedom of speech and attacks on journalists in Russia in an earlier publication released by Myth Detector.
NGOs in Russia
The activities of non-governmental and international organizations are restricted in Russia by the relevant law. According to a law passed in November 2012, NGOs that receive foreign donations are labeled as "Foreign Agents" in Russia. Therefore, NGOs that have "Foreign Agent" special status, must prepare periodic reports to be submitted to the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Tax service of the Russian Federation. According to the Russian Criminal Code, if any organization classified as "Foreign Agent" does not fulfill the requirements of the law, will be forced to close down. Russia 2012 Human Rights Report released by the U.S. Department of State describes the law as “an attempt to stigmatize and deny funding to NGOs working on human rights and democracy.”
After the new law went into effect, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that worked in Russia to promote rule of law, democracy, as well as health and education issues, wrapped up its mission in the country. Other international organizations, among them the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and Freedom House also followed suit.
“Foreign Agent! USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. © 2012 Yulia Klimova/Memorial
In addition, foreign and international civil society organizations are recognized as a threat in Russia’s 2016 Security Concept. The document reads that their activities are directed against Russia’s territorial integrity, internal political and social destabilization involving the inspiration of “color revolutions” and “struggle against Russia’s traditional spiritual and moral values.”