Staunton, July 16 – The Russian government’s campaign to register various groups as “foreign agents” is so legally problematic, deeply flawed, and internally inconsistent as to be “absurd,” something rights activists say is undermining Moscow’s reputation both at home and abroad.
Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Presidential Human Rights Council, has asked the Russian Supreme Court to examine what has been taking place because of the these all-too-obvious problems, Vladimir Razuvayev, a political editor at “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” writes today (ng.ru/politics/2015-07-16/1_inogents.html).
Responding to complaints by rights activists, Fedotov told the court that the authorities are violating their own rules in labelling this or that of the 78 organizations “foreign agents” because there is no clear definition of what constitutes “political activity” or what is meant by “receipt of money.”
He notes that groups that have been declared “foreign agents” are involved in “about 70 kinds” of activity, including activities “in support of scholarship and the defense of citizens, ecology, and social assistance,” all things which are “directly excluded by law” from the category of “’political activity.’”
Elena Topoleva-Soldunova, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council who helped prepare the letter, said that what the authorities have done in this sector is leading Moscow’s image to suffer “not so much in the eyes of the West,” about which the powers that be may not care, “as in the heads of Russia’s own citizens.”
Problems with the way in which this or that group is classified as “a foreign agent” have been the subject of media reporting for some time, Razudayev continues, but these difficulties and the arbitrariness they reflect are much deeper and more widespread than many had thought up to now.
According to Fedotov’s letter to the court, “the justice ministry carries out the law ‘mechanistically,’” with the authorities using “verbal” gymnastics in order to find any particular group to be “a foreign agent.” He blamed this on “bureaucratic inertia,” given that “for a long time, the register of foreign agents” at the ministry was empty, thus leaving regional officials free to act on their own understanding and without guidance.
That leads to “absurd” contradictions. Thus, an organization identified as a foreign agent in one region may not be so classified in another; and the findings of the justice ministry and the procuracy are often at odds not only with each other but with the conclusions of the same institution only a month earlier.
The only way for any organization to be sure it will not run afoul of the law is not to take any foreign financing, although at least in the original legislation, that was only one of the characteristics a group needed to have to be listed in this way, itself a reflection of problems with the term “foreign source” for any income.
“What is especially surprising,” the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” author says, is that Vladimir Putin has repeatedly complained about this problem, but the Russian parliament has failed to do anything to clarify matters. Possibly Fedotov’s letter will help push things along, especially if the Supreme Court agrees with his conclusions.
But in fact, the problem of poor or overly elastic definitions of legal terms and categories is hardly restricted to “foreign agents.” It is typical of much recent Russian legislation, and the situation that Russians now find themselves in, SOVA rights activist Aleksandr Verkhovsky ius both absurd and dangerous (novayagazeta.ru/inquests/69197.html
Впрочем, указывают правозащитники, и термин «иностранный источник» сформулирован тоже некорректно.
Еще более удивительно, что к этой абсурдной ситуации не раз за последние два года обращался и президент Владимир Путин. Но, сколько бы он ни говорил, что нужно внести ясность во все важные определения, никто из депутатов Госдумы, обычно на подхват инициатив сверху очень скорых, до сих пор не представил ни одного варианта корректировки законодательства об НКО.