MOSCOW, May 21 (RIA Novosti) – Russia has made a mistake by branding some of its NGOs as “foreign agents,” Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland said Tuesday following a meeting to discuss the issue with State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin.
A new law came into force in November 2012 obliging all NGOs in Russia to register as “foreign agents” if they are involved in any kind of political activity and receive foreign funding. NGOs claim the term “foreign agent” is a virtual synonym for “spy” and will discredit them in the eyes of the public.
“I’m saddened to hear the definition ‘foreign agent,’ which as far as I know has a special connotation in Russia,” Jagland said, adding the label could affect the Moscow School of Political Studies, the Council of Europe’s partner in a number of projects. He said during his address to the State Duma that he is concerned about the situation around the school.
“In my opinion, the status of ‘foreign agents’ for a number of NGOs is a mistake,” Jagland said, insisting such organizations were “not spies,” and saying he hoped the NGOs are not “the target of legislators.”
Jagland described his talks with Naryshkin as “very frank,” in an interview with RIA Novosti after their meeting. He said he had received a positive signal from the Russian authorities on the NGO law issue, but did not specify what it was.
Jagland said the key point for Russia was to understand what political activity meant and to observe a balance between NGO’s financing and their independence. Dialog with the Russian leadership on NGOs will be continued, he said.
Russian rights advocates who met with Jagland described a campaign of “pressure on NGOs” in recent months as a result of the new law. Jagland pledged to keep raising the issue at meetings with Russian officials, a member of the rights center Memorial, Oleg Orlov, told RIA Novosti.
Human Rights Watch has slammed inspections of NGOs that started in Russia in March as “highly extensive, disruptive, invasive, and often intimidating.”
In late April, election monitoring NGO Golos was fined 300,000 rubles (around $10,000) by a Moscow court for failing to register as a “foreign agent,” in the first case of an NGO facing administrative penalties following the introduction of the law.
The new law has also subsequently been applied to NGOs involved in apparently non-political activity such as wildlife conservation and public health issues.
The Russian government insists the law was necessary to adopt to prevent foreign meddling in the political system.