NGOs Placed Under Increased Scrutiny
Published: March 27, 2013 (Issue # 1752)
Local non-governmental organizations were targeted last week in a wave of unannounced inspections, where they were asked questions about their alleged involvement in extremist activities and ordered to present detailed documentation of their work.
The NGOs and human rights organizations condemned the inspections — conducted by teams of prosecutors, Justice Ministry officials and police — as an attempt by the Kremlin’s to further intimidate the civil society in Russia.
On Monday, the Justice Ministry said the goal of the inspections is to reveal organizations acting as “foreign agents.”
On March 19, the inspection team checked Bellona, the local branch of the Norwegian-based ecological organization. The human rights law society Peterburgskaya Egida (St. Petersburg Aegis) and the Multiregional Trade Union of Car Industry’s Workers were inspected on the following day.
On March 21, inspection groups arrived at rights organizations Citizens’ Watch and Coming Out (Vykhod), as well as the NGO Development Center, the German-Russian Exchange, the Centre for Independent Social Research, the Institute for Information Freedom Development and the offices of the LGBT film festival Side by Side.
On Monday, the inspectors arrived at St. Petersburg’s Observers, an independent elections watchdog, even though the group was not yet officially registered as an NGO, Rostbalt reported. And on Tuesday, inspections were carried out at Sodruzhestvo Foundation and Strategy Center, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the three local offices of Memorial.
According to Olga Lenkova of the LGBT rights organization Coming Out, the inspectors referred to the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s orders “to create a mobile group to inspect […] the NGOs for compliance with the law on extremism.”
She added that the officials who spent more than six hours at Coming Out’s offices acted more inappropriately than when checking other organizations, making “unpleasant remarks and jokes” when seeing an LGBT flag, literature and a schedule of events on the wall.
Inspections continued in Moscow on Monday, affecting the Moscow offices of Amnesty International, the human rights group which earlier condemned the wave of inspections in Friday’s statement, as well as those of For Human Rights and Public Verdict. Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected NGO, was inspected last Thursday.
According to Agora human rights organization in Moscow, 76 NGOs were subject to checks across Russia by Tuesday afternoon, with hundreds expected to follow.
The state unleashed an attack on NGOs in the wake protests against electoral fraud which took place across Russia after mass instances of rigging were exposed and published on the Internet and in media independent from the Kremlin.
The pro-Kremlin media have been demonizing the NGOs as undermining “[President Vladimir] Putin’s stability” by organizing protests on the orders of Western sponsors.
In Sept. 2012, the Kremlin ordered the Russian offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which helped to finance such organizations as Golos — the country’s biggest independent elections watchdog, which exposed fraud during the Duma vote and subsequent March presidential election – to be closed.
The law requiring NGOs that receive financing from outside Russia to publicly declare themselves “foreign agents” — a term that evokes Stalin-era spy mania and repressions — was hurriedly drafted soon after police shut down the March for Freedom in Moscow held on May 6, 2012 and was signed by Putin in July.
It is one of a series of law imposing restrictions on civil society, opposition and organized protests.
The media connects the inspections to a speech by Putin, who told senior officers of the Federal Security Service to focus their attention on organizations that receive foreign funding condemning them as “controlled and financed from abroad, which inevitably means serving to foreign interests.”
During inspections of at least two organizations in Moscow, investigators arrived with a television crew from the NTV television station, infamous for blatantly propagandistic programs smearing the opposition and anti-fraud protests as allegedly financed from outside Russia.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said on Twitter on March 21 that it was concerned over the mass inspections by the Russian government and asked them to explain what grounds they were based on, while the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council protested about “unmotivated” inspections in a letter to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika.
“The scale of the inspections is unprecedented and only serves to reinforce the menacing atmosphere for civil society,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a statement Sunday.
“The Russian authorities should end, rather than intensify, the crackdown that’s been under way for the past year.”
Prosecutors are planning to conduct selective mass inspections of a number of the 5,000 NGOs that exist in St. Petersburg during the coming 30 days, Fontanka.ru reported, citing the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office’s press office did not answer the phone when called on Monday.