According to Russian legislation, a non-governmental organization receiving funding from abroad should understand by itself that it is best to voluntarily register as “Foreign Agent” because of its political activity.
Failing to do so is punished with a fine from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles (€5,600 to €9300). The head of the organization can in addition get a personal fine.
For Bellona Murmansk, an environmental group working with nuclear safety, industrial pollution and alternative energy on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, the “Foreign Agent” stamp from the Ministry of Justice in Moscow came as a surprise in late March.
“Our organization had an inspection by the regional Ministry of Justice in January 2014 and by the procurator’s office the year before that. Both concluded that we did not conduct political activity,” says Andrey Zolotkov to BarentsObserver.
“Why should we then sign up as Foreign Agents,” Zolotkov asks rhetorically.
On Monday, he and his colleagues will be able to listen to the arguments when the case is due for the magistrate’s tribunal office in Murmansk.
Bellona Murmansk is the third organization on the Kola Peninsula that now are listed as so-called “Foreign Agents” - the others are the LGBT-friendly Maximum and the Humanist Youth Movement.
In Arkhangelsk, the organization Rakurs, also they working with supporting the LGBT community were fined 300,000 rubles (€5,600) in February after refusing to accept the foreign agent lable.
In total, some 50 NGOs in Russia are so far placed on the list, 10 of them environmental NGOs.
Andrey Zolotkov, however, doesn’t believe there is a witch-hunt on eco-groups.
“No, I think the law was mainly intended to limit activities of Human Rights groups, but then it has developed into some kind of Russian campaign against different type of organizations,” says Zolotkov.
Last week, the Chelyabinsk group For Nature got the stamp, UralPolit.ru reported and the Siberian Ecological Centre was fined 300,000 rubles by a court in Novosibirsk after it failed to register as foreign agent, Newsru.com reported. On April 7, a court in Samara ordered the local Ecological Training Centre to pay 150,000 rubles (€2,800) for refusal to register.
Also in April, the Moscow office of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International was classed as foreign agent.
It was in 2012 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a law that requires NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are involved in political activities to register as organizations “performing the function of a foreign agent.”
The law has been heavily criticized by, among others Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, who has compared the law to Stalin era.
For Bellona Murmansk as an independent Russian organization it is game over.
“The process of terminating the organization is already announced. We published the announcement in the local newspaper on April 15. The process will take minimum two months, but could take longer,” explains Andrey Zolotkov.
The work is however not over. “We will see how we now can establish a Murmansk office as a filial of Bellona in Norway,” Zolotkov tells ansuring that the work on environmental issues will continue.
A branch office or a filial of a foreign organization is within the legal frames of the Russian law.
UPDATE Monday evening after court: Bellona Murmansk was fined 50,000 rubles for not register as foreign agent.