A leading U.S. Senator is expressing concern over threats to Russia’s civil society, including independent citizen election monitoring group Golos, ahead of Russia’s September 2016 parliamentary elections.
“I am deeply concerned by the Russian government’s renewed crackdown on civil society, including the election observation group Golos,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and author of the the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.
“If Golos is silenced, the real victims would be Russian citizens, who have a right to free and fair and credible elections. If Golos is forced out of existence, , Russian citizens would have no independent assessment of their elections for the first time in their post-Soviet history,” he added.
In an illuminating anecdote heard from two Chinese officials who witnessed an encounter between former leader Hu Jintao and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the latter “physically grab[bed] Hu by the lapel at a summit and [told] him: ‘If you do not get a grip on these NGOs in China, as we are doing in Russia, you will have a revolution!’”
Complaining of mounting administrative and financial pressure, several Russian NGOs have sought assistance from the Human Rights Resource Center, one of a handful of organizations in Russia offering advice to nonprofits, according to reports:
On March 27 the center released a report, “‘Foreign Agents’: Mythical Enemies and Russian Society’s Real Losses,” which analyzed 41 cases of forcible inclusion on the state registry.
The report criticized the formulation of the 2012 law, which defines political activity as “involvement in the organization and execution of political actions aimed at influencing state organs to change their political course” and “forming of social opinion with the above aims.” It noted that 70 different accusations of political activity were made against NGOs, including comments about the conflict in Ukraine and analysis of Russia’s legal system.
Since appearing on the registry, three organizations have opted to close down, with the resource center’s assistance, citing pressure associated with foreign agent status. A fourth, the St. Petersburg–based Freedom of Information Foundation, has ceased activity indefinitely after an unsuccessful appeal against the branding.
The list of registered NGOs in Russia includes more than 441,000 organizations, but analyses suggest that less than 1 % of registered organizations have sufficient financial resources to carry out their activities. According to some estimates, only 1500 genuine NGOs exist in Russia.