Andrey Zolotkov is the head of the regional environmental organization Bellona-Murmansk. Photo: Thomas Nilsen
Back to the USSR. Foreign-funded NGOs must register as “foreign agents” according to a new bill proposed by Russia’s ruling party. Head of Bellona Murmansk, Andrey Zolotkov, is one of many that now will have to label his work with “foreign agent.”
Bellona-Murmansk is a local environmental group in Russia’s north that receive the major parts of its funding from Norway. This includes salary for the staff, office expenses and taxes according to Russian legislation.
“Our organization falls within the proposed term “foreign agents,” says Andrei Zolotkov to BarentsObserver. “Practically, we don’t have Russian funding,” he explains.
The author of the bill, United Russia Deputy Aleksandr Sidyakin says to RIA Novosti that if an NGO fails to register within 90 days of the law’s entering into force; its members could face a 4-years prison terms and 300,000 rubles in fines. For many the sum correspond to a one-year salary.
The bill grants the status “foreign agent” to all non-governmental organizations working in the political sphere.
“In our Charter, we are not working with political activity. But, I am sure that this division will be conventional. Almost all environmental NGOs will fall within this law,” says Andrei Zolotkov.
“In my opinion, we can now see the process of devolution of ideals of the Soviet society from elderly deputies and officials in the government to the young generation of legislators. The party in power wants to live quietly without protest movements the next five years,” says Zolotkov.
He’s views are supported by another prominent environmentalists, Aleksandr Nikitin, Chairman of Environmental Right Centre Bellona in St. Petersburg. “Now, all our reports and articles will have to be signed with “Bellona – Foreign Agents,” explains Nikitin. “We will think how to work in Russia in the future after this,” says Nikitin. He knows perfectly well what can be the consequences for NGOs with the introduction of the new law.
Alexander Nikitin became a public figure in 1996 when he was arrested by the Russian security police, the FSB, and charged with high treason. The cause for his arrest was his contribution to a Bellona report on the security risks related to nuclear contamination from the Russian Northern fleet. In April 2000, after several trials and four years of fighting against the FSB, he was found not guilty by the Russian Supreme Court.
With the new law, all NGOs would be included in a special register and will be subject to checks. All reports, web-portals or other publications must display the label “foreign agent” reads the bill submitted to the State Duma last Friday.
BarentsObserver has talked with several other civil groups in the Russian part of the Barents Region that were shocked by the text in the proposed law. But few will speak out or comment on the issue.
“I am totally shocked. It is just like having Stalin back. Putin does everything possible to stigmatize us working with or with support from abroad,” says one under condition of anonymousness.
Aleksandr Sidyakin, the bill’s author, wrote according to the Moscow Times on his website that the measure would force foreign-funded NGOs to reveal “the true nature of their activities” and promote the “national interests and sovereignty of Russia.”
“It is obvious that in Russia there is a whole network of nongovernmental organizations whose paid activity raises suspicions about the aims of the client,” Sidyakin wrote.
Human Rights groups in Russia says the bill is clearly excessive. “It is a very worrying signal from the State Duma, which is trying to put a seal on the forehead of these organizations that get funding from abroad, which is not illegal,” Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International Russia, says to the Moscow Times.
Andrey Zolotkov in Murmansk is worried. “Everything is made to put as many obstacles as possible. This is the ostentation of “sovereign democracy” about which President Putin likes to talk about,” says Zolotkov.
Strict control of NGOs is one of Vladimir Putin’s trademarks. In 2006, Putin signed the first controversial NGO law that required non-state civil groups to register themselves to the state. The law also limited the NGOs possibility to get funding, especially from foreign granters and cooperation partners.
Following the 2006 NGO law, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat halted its direct funding to Russian partners in bi-lateral Norwegian, Russian Barents projects.
In 2009, then-President Dmitri Medvedev supported to amend Putin’s NGO law. Medvedev’s law had a more relaxed view on the work of civil groups within Russia. The re-written NGO law passed the State Duma in June 2009.Today, three years later, the NGOs again face a troublesome future.