On Friday, the lower house of Russia’s parliament – the State Duma – passed a controversial law imposing heavy burdens on foreign funded non-governmental organisations.
The new law requires frequent audits, spot checks and, most punitively according to NGO workers, organisations will have to identify themselves publicly as Foreign Agents – a term, they say, resonant of the Soviet age of foreign spies. The law, they insist, is clearly designed to discredit their work, part of a legislative effort, since Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in May, to stifle the activities of civil society and Russia’s growing street opposition movement.
Organisations affected include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International, as well as local election watchdog Golos and Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Centre. Failure to comply would mean fines, forced closure or even jail time
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull talks to Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 84 year-old founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, about the new law.
Jonah Hull: Are you concerned about the new NGO law?
Lyudmila Alexeyeva: The law on NGOs directly concerns all human rights organisations including the Moscow Helsinki Group, which is Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, because we are an independent organisation – we protect our citizens against the government and officials when they violate our rights. So our government doesn’t like human rights organisations and we cannot receive government grants. We could have had money from private donors. We have a lot of wealthy people in Russia, and among them there are a lot of intelligent, educated people who understand how important human rights activity is, even for themselves, protecting for instance their right of private ownership. But in our country we don’t have independent business, so every entrepreneur knows that if he supports human rights organisations, especially such annoying ones as ours, then they will find a way to take his business from him. And maybe not just his business but also his freedom.
So, until we have independent business in the country, we human rights activists cannot rely on Russian financing. We have to rely on foreign grants instead. They know it very well, and this is why they wish to destroy the human rights community, this is why they made up this law, alleging that we are agents of foreign countries. This is a disgraceful label and it’s unfair. We are not working for any foreign country. We protect our citizens from our own officials and government and I will not register our organisation as agents of foreign countries because that’s not what we are. I spoke to lawyers about the possibility of avoiding it.
The only option is to no longer receive foreign funds. That is, to have no money. So it means we will be without funds. We will say no to foreign funds, and if this law is adopted the only consolation is that the Moscow Helsinki Group was created in 1976, back in Soviet times, and we only received our first foreign funding in 1993. By that time we were already a world-renowned and respected organisation. We somehow survived until then without any funding, and we’ll survive now. Volunteers will come. Of course, we won’t be able to carry out educational programmes. Right now we have winter and summer schools for the youth, teaching them about human rights, how to protect your rights. We won’t be able to do that, because to hold these schools we have to pay for their tickets to Moscow and accommodation, for rent of offices. We will not have this money, but that means we’ll do it through internet, through mass media. We’ll influence public opinion to help us carry on the work we’ve been doing since we started.
JH: Why do you think these news laws are being put through the Duma now?
LA: Putin, after he got re-elected for his third term, he must have noticed that society had changed and that the attitude in the world towards him had changed. Many citizens believe that he was re-elected for a third term illegitimately and many people abroad also think so. I also think so. But people love to believe what they want to believe. He really believes that over 63 percent of citizens voted for him, although of course it is falsified information. And he’s decided that he needs to suppress this protest movement that appeared in the country after the Duma elections in December. But as his only experience in life was his work for the KGB, he sincerely doesn’t understand that there might be other ways to strengthen your power other than to suppress, intimidate and lie. So, this is what he’s doing. All these laws are aimed at suppressing, intimidating and deceiving.
JH: You’ve seen a lot of life and a lot of history in Russia. Does what is happening today remind you of a previous era?
LA: Putin by nature is a very Soviet person. He has a sincere desire to first of all return Russia to the former status of the Soviet Union, to restore the old Soviet order. And this is his misunderstanding, because history doesn’t repeat itself. What he’s doing, he’s trying in current circumstances, which are completely different from Soviet times, to implement Soviet ways. In this way, it is reminiscent of the Soviet past.
The difference is the Soviet Union was behind the iron curtain. We were fenced off from the rest of the world. Now, Putin and his cronies, and even ordinary citizens, love to go abroad. Our TV is full of foreign, especially American, movies. Our bureaucrats and wealthy people send their kids to be taught abroad. Their wives go shopping in other countries. They spend their holidays there. They earn and steal money here and spend it abroad. They keep their bank accounts abroad. So the world has become global and it is impossible to return to Soviet rules. No matter how much Putin tries, Russia will never again be like the Soviet Union.