The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) is celebrating its tenth anniversary of taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights. To celebrate, it held a panel discussion at Pushkin House on a new law in Russia that requires NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive funding from outside of the country. Widely described as part of a campaign of repression, the discussion nonetheless diverged in unexpected directions, as Josh Black reports.
In Russia they call the State Duma the ‘crazy printer’ for the haste with which it spools out new laws. In the eighteen months since large scale protests broke in Moscow and other cities, the Duma has legislated on everything from unsanctioned protests to the funding of non-governmental organisations. The result, says the former Human Rights Watch Director, Anna Servotian, is that the last twelves months have been “the worst year for human rights in Russia for twenty years.”
The subject of the panel discussion this evening is the so-called ‘Foreign Agent Law’. NGOs which receive funding from outside Russia and engage in ‘political activity’ are now required to request the right to be registered as foreign agents, something with a pejorative sub-text in Russia, and a minefield when dealing with local prosecutors. Oleg Orlov, from the human rights campaign group Memorial, says that the situation is absurd.
“In this new situation, there is no definition of political activities, or even the state’s policies”, says Orlov. “In Yekaterinburg, the local branch of Memorial has been accused of being political because its mission is ‘to build a free, open and rule-based society’.” Golos, an electoral-fraud monitoring service, has recently been suspended for six month and others have been fined. It is a crime to maliciously fail to declare foreign income.
Memorial and 13 other NGOs are now taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights with the support of the British organisation, EHRAC. Based at Middlesex University EHRAC provides support in a wide variety of human rights cases and has chalked up numerous successes over its ten years in power.
Much to Orlov’s surprise, many organisations have already won cases in Russia. Orlov attributes this to a lack of clarity about how the law should be implemented: “In Russia, we do not have independent courts. The courts are totally dependent on the regime when a sentence is clear, but also capable of basing their decisions on the law when there is no clear message.” Tony Halpin, a former Moscow correspondent with The Times, says that the laws were passed at a time of high anxiety. Having acted in haste, the government is now unsure of how to proceed.
As the panel took questions, it was pointed out that the vexed issue of foreign money in politics is not unique to Russia. Indeed, EHRAC’s Joanna Evans says that the Russian government has often cited a similar law in the US to justify its restrictions. Orlov disputes the comparison, saying that the American law targets organisations acting in the interests of foreign powers. Russia’s law merely includes these, amongst other organisations which are merely inconvenient to the authorities. He has a list of organisations he says have been unjustly targeted, including several environmental groups and a charity for the relief of multiple sclerosis.
Different shades of opinion also emerged over the potential impact of the Sochi Olympics. While Servotian thought that there were genuine opportunities to use the event to overturn illiberal policies – such as the recent bans on LGBT ‘propaganda’, Orlov thought most gains would be superficial and would last only for the duration of the gains. Guardian journalist, Luke Harding, said that proof of a liberalisation in the government’s policies would be the release of Khordorkovsky associate, Platon Lededev.