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Nordic information office requested to register as Foreign Agent

St Petersburg
St. Petersburg is Russia's second largest city with more than five million inhabitants.

After 20 years of supporting people-to-people contacts with Northwest-Russia, Nordic Council of Ministers’ St. Petersburg office got a surprise letter from the procurators office.

“The Nordic Council of Ministers has over the last 20 years had a comprehensive and trustful cooperation with Northwest Russia,” says Secretary General Dagfinn Høybråten in a comment to the decision from the procurator’s office ordering the information office to immediately register as “foreign agent”.

“We don’t understand why we should register as foreign agent. We are therefore looking into the option to appeal the decision,” Høybråten continues.

The letter from the procurators office dropped into the mailbox on Monday this week.

In July 2013, the Russian Duma passed a legislation that requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign grants and works with political issues to register as foreign agents.

Putin and FSB
Speaking to FSB officials in February last year, President Vladimir Putin said: “Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable.” After the speech, law-enforcement officials all around Russia started to check NGOs receiving grants from abroad.

The wording “foreign agent” in the law is criticized both domestically in Russia as well as internationally.

Jagland upset
Among the critics is Head of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland. “The wording is a problem. ‘Foreign agent’ sounds very bad to me and also, I think, to many others abroad and in Russia,” Jagland said and continued:

“This is unfair, it’s inappropriate and it shouldn’t be used in a modern lawmaking, it belongs to the past and it does not belong to a democratic society.”

Projects co-financed with Barents Secretariat
The Nordic Council of Minister’s Information office in St. Petersburg was established in 1995, and has also been in charge of the Nordic contact centres in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Petrozavodsk. The Norwegian Barents Secretariat has co-financed many cultural and educational cross-border cooperation projects with grants from the Nordic information office.

The office has since 2011 supported projects on environment, anti-corruption, creative industries, prevention of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Another purpose of the information office is to build networks with the national authorities, NGOs, and other international actors in the Russian regions. In total, more than 1,000 projects in Northwest Russia have got grants. A comprehensive overview is posted at the St. Petersburg office’s portal.

Murmansk office closed
The Nordic contact centre in Murmansk, located next-door to the Norwegian Barents Secretariat’s office for many years, was closed down a year ago.

”Nordic Council of Ministers has during 2014 been in a dialogue with the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow about the possibility to change the status of the St. Petersburg office. That process is something we will intensify now,” says Dagfinn Høybråten, in a comment posted on his organization’s portal.

Kaliningrad office raided in 2013
This is not first time a Nordic Information office in Russia is in trouble. In April 2013, Russian authorities raided the office in Kaliningrad. The raid triggered sharp protests from the Nordic countries as reported by BarentsObserver.

Nordic Council of Ministers has its main office in Copenhagen and gets its funding from Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden as well as the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Åland Islands.