Back in early February 2012, Vladimir Putin published the fourth op-ed of his presidential campaign: a lengthy treatise titled “Democracy and the Quality of Government” [ru]. About 1,500 words deep into that article, Putin proposed that the Russian parliament should automatically consider the legislative applications of any online petition successful in gathering more than one-hundred thousand signatures.
A few weeks later, Putin published the final installment of his platform, titled “Russia and the Changing World” [ru], where he wrote the following:
The distinction should be clear between free speech and normal political activity, on the one hand, and illegal instruments of ‘soft power,’ on the other. […] [T]he activity of ‘pseudo-NGOs’ and other structures operating on external support, pursuing the destabilization of one or another country, is unacceptable. […] We believe that influence on domestic politics and the public mood in other countries should be conducted only in the open — allowing actors to take full responsibility for their actions.
From words to deeds
In late March, less than three weeks after Putin's re-election to the Russian presidency, an online petition emerged, calling for stricter controls on foreign-funded Russian NGOs. Hosted at www.podkontrol.ru [ru], the petition calls on the government to adopt “the Law on the Foreign Financing of NGOs,” and has collected over 20,000 signatures in a little over one week (with more still pouring in).
Endorsed by 13 “affiliate organizations,” the initiative enjoys the support of pro-regime political groups like the Anti-Orange Committee, Dmitri Rogozin's ‘Congress of Russian Communities,’ and Alexander Dugin's ‘International Eurasian Movement.’
Podkontrol.ru argues that it is proposing nothing more than a Russian version of Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an American law requiring the registration of all individuals and organizations acting on behalf of foreign interests. Borrowing the same language Putin used in February, the site warns that Russia is the target of foreign “soft power,” and that “billions of dollars are spent [on soft power efforts] to undermine the integrity of [Russia], and the stability of its political foundations.”
To support such a claim, the authors cite Assistant Secretary Philip Gordon of the United States State Department, who said publicly in March 2012 that the United States had spent over $200 million in Russia since 2009 “to promote democracy, human rights, and civil society,” and that the White House has asked Congress for $50 million of additional funding. Podkontrol.ru's proposed legislation is described as follows:
Staff members of organizations that receive money from foreign funds and agencies should be obligated to register with the Justice Ministry of the Russian Federation, as well as be subjected to a special audit by the tax authorities. There should be obligatory procedures for making information about the receipt of foreign funds and the sources of NGO staff earnings available to any citizen of the country, and published on the Justice Ministry's website. In turn, all materials published by such organizations (regardless of the place they are published, whether on their own websites or in third-party media outlets) should be marked by special distinct signs.
In the Russian blogosphere, one of the petition's greatest advocates has been longtime anti-oppositionist blogger Stanislav Apet'ian (LJ user politrash_ru). In a March 26 post [ru] (roughly four days after the site appeared), Apet'ian first introduced his readers to Podkontrol.ru. Shortly thereafter, he followed up with a longer defense of the petition in an article [ru] for the online Public Chamber Tribune, where he argued that existing transparency and reporting norms for Russian NGOs are too weak:
[…] The mere fact that these reports are transmitted to the Justice Ministry clearly doesn't mean that citizens can easily and understandably get informed, let alone ascertain by surname all the beneficiaries of foreign grants. […]
Apetian also addressed comments by a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation and Agency for Social Information (ASI) Director Elena Topoleva-Soldunova [ru], who charged [ru] the petition's authors with having proposed redundant legislation that reproduces controls on Russian NGOs already in place. Acknowledging that ASI's website clearly indicates that it receives funding from USAID, Apetian points out that the websites of other prominent NGOs do not clarify their foreign sources of financing, singling out the ‘Za prava cheloveka’ Movement, ‘Obraz budushchego’ Fund, ‘Sakharovskoe Movement,’ and finally the Association ‘Golos’ (perhaps the best known target of anti-NGO activity in Russia today).
Assessing the call for more NGO controls
What should one make of Apetian's case? It is indeed true that the website of ‘Golos,’ for instance, only publishes a list of its domestic and foreign “partners,” without indicating the nature of any financial relationships. Lev Ponomarev's ‘Za prava cheloveka’ Movement, too, lists only its “partners,” without revealing its sponsors. (It's worth noting that the websites of the ‘Anti-Orange Committee’ and the International Eurasian Movement also fail to reveal the sources of their financial support.)
If one visits the Russian Justice Ministry's website, there are nearly 70,000 NGO-submitted reports published since 2009. The Ministry's database [ru], however, does not return any results for ‘Golos,’ ‘Obraz budushchego,’ or the ‘Sakharovskoe Movement.’ While it does locate reports from the regional branches of Ponomarev's organization, any specific data in the reports regarding amounts of income and spending appear to be redacted or missing.
Daria Miloslavskaya [ru], another member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation and Director of The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, insists that the petition calls for already-existing legislation. The most recent major revision to the legal obligations of non-state organizations in Russia is Federal Law #18 [ru], signed by Putin in January 2006. 18-FZ, as it's called in Russian, enacted a series of controversial amendments to legal codes affecting NGOs, vastly complicating the operations of foreign-dependent organizations.
In early 2008, Human Rights Watch published a 76-page report, titled “Choking on Bureaucracy” [en], documenting “the corrosive impact” of 18-FZ.
Miloslavskaya also argues that Podkontrol.ru's authors misinterpret FARA. She explains [ru]:
[…] There is no concrete mention of NGOs [in FARA], therefore those who try to present [FARA] as a ban on the activity of NGOs with foreign funding either don't understand the subject, or they intentionally mislead their audience. […]
It is worth noting that FARA was drafted in 1938 in the context of the looming Second World War, and was designed to target German fascist propaganda. Equally remarkable is the fact that there have been no successful criminal prosecutions under FARA in nearly fifty years, since well before the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile in contemporary Russia, Miloslavskaya is scheduled to lead an online seminar on April 2, offering lessons in “the particulars of NGO reporting to the Ministry of Justice in 2012″ at the website www.portal-nko.ru [ru], designed to help NGO leaders better navigate the country's already numerous regulatory hurdles.