Government Advisors Protest ‘Foreign Agent’ Law

MOSCOW, May 30 (RIA Novosti) – A group of leading Russian economists has called on the government to reconsider a controversial new law that obliges some NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” saying it threatens to destroy the cooperation between independent experts and the authorities.

The letter written by the economists, many of whom were involved in devising a strategy for Russia’s economic development through 2020 and act as expert advisors to the government, was published in Vedomosti newspaper on Thursday. Russia passed a new law in November obliging all NGOs involved in political activities and receiving any funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”

“The wave of inspections [of NGOs] by prosecutors checking their adherence to the foreign agents law included many analysis centers and the Association of Independent Centers of Economic Analysis. It showed that any NGO receiving funding from abroad and involved in anything remotely connected to politics is at risk,” the economists wrote, referring to checks carried out at hundreds of NGOs earlier this year.

The letter’s authors echoed earlier complaints by NGOs over the term “foreign agent,” protesting the use of the term “agent” in connection with research and study organizations, and arguing that following the prosecutors’ logic, nearly every expert analysis organization is comprised of foreign agents.

“We have always acted in the interests of our country (and are certainly not spies), and therefore registering as foreign agents would be [an act of] self-denunciation that we cannot commit,” the analysts wrote.

They also warned that further pressure from law enforcement bodies would lead to the closure of research centers and a decline in the quality of economic analysis, and could have serious consequences for Russia’s economy.

“There has already been a period in the history of our country when economics and economic analysis was fully controlled by the state,” they wrote. “The consequence of this control and ideological blinkers was incompetent decisions in economic policy. How it all ended for Soviet economics is well known.”

The economists’ appeal to the government came the same day that a respected Russian independent pollster, Levada Center, said it would stop working on research projects commissioned by foreign organizations because of the new law.

“We are not ceasing to accept foreign funding, but we are stopping work on projects commissioned by foreign organizations until the issue of whether publishing sociological research can be classified as political activity is resolved,” said Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, which was told to register as a foreign agent by prosecutors earlier this month following an inspection.

He added that the center was not launching new projects or taking new orders for research from the organizations the Prosecutor’s Office had warned them against working with, such as the Soros Foundation, the New York-based Ford Foundation and other Western institutions.

Last week, the Levada Center said in a statement on its website that prosecutors had suggested that publication of its surveys “influences public opinion and therefore does not constitute research but political activity,” meaning it is required to register as a “foreign agent.”

Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, said the organization’s research projects, whether commissioned or undertaken at its own behest, have nothing to do with “political activity.”

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 controversial law was necessary to prevent foreign meddling in the political system.

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