‘Foreign Agent’ Election Watchdog Told to Vacate Office

MOSCOW, April 12 (RIA Novosti) – Russian election watchdog Golos (Vote, or Voice) has been given notice to vacate its office in Moscow with no explanation, the non-governmental organization’s deputy director Grigory Melkonyants told RIA Novosti on Friday.

“Our rental contract is still valid, but the new lessor has informed us they are breaking the contract ahead of its expiry date, which means we have to be out of the premises by the end of the month,” Melkonyants said.

The lessor has not given a reason for the decision to break the contract, he said. “It’s obvious that it’s to do with some kind of pressure, a desire to see us leave the premises,” he said, adding that last year, the NGO had also been prematurely forced out of its premises.

The order to vacate the office is the latest in a series of obstacles encountered by the Russian election monitoring NGO, which has been active and vocal in publicizing violations in federal and regional elections in recent years, most notably during the December 2011 State Duma elections, which were followed by large-scale protests against electoral fraud.

On Tuesday, Golos became the first NGO to be charged under a controversial new law that came into force in November last year, obliging NGOs that receive any foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a term they complain is misleading and smacks of Cold War rhetoric. Golos director Liliya Shibanova told RIA Novosti on Tuesday that her organization had not received any foreign funding since the law was enacted.

Golos was one of 11 Russian NGOs that lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights about the “foreign agents” law back in February. It was also one of the organizations that until recently received some funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). That organization closed down its operations in Russia in October last year at the request of the Russian authorities.

Golos’ problems come in the wake of a series of spot inspections of NGOs across the country since March by prosecutors and tax officials. NGO activists have complained about unexpected and time-consuming raids.

Some Russians, including top officials, see foreign financing of Russia’s nonprofit sector as a Western-inspired attempt to undermine the country’s political structure and engineer the type of revolution that overthrew governments in Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade.

Western governments and many recipients of their grant money, however, say such funding bolsters political plurality in Russia and promotes independent civil activism against official corruption and abuses.

The Prosecutor General’s Office said on March 28 that the recent series of spot checks on NGOs in Russia only aims to establish their compliance with laws against extremism and ensure that no criminal income is being legalized.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday the inspections were “…not designed to shut down or ban [the operation of NGOs in Russia] but to put under control the financial flows from abroad that are channeled into Russian NGOs involved in domestic political activity.”


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