By Lilija Alijeva*

“First, we started with providing legal assistance to those who became victims of human rights abuses of Russian law enforcement officers. Then, in 2011, when mass protests started in Moscow and other regions, many people were arrested. We started to provide legal assistance to these peaceful protesters in their battle and struggle at the courts for the right to go to the streets and make their voices heard. Later, in 2013 after the adoption of the Foreign Agents Law – mass campaign against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) started, and we started to provide legal assistance to the NGOs and their leaders to help them in their struggles in the courts for the right to continue their work.”

– Ms. Natalia Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation (Общественный Вердикт), on 9th May, 2017 at the University College London.

The presentation by Ms. Taubina at the Global Governance Institute of the UCL provides just a glimpse into the changing dynamics of human rights issues that the Russian NGO, Public Verdict Foundation, is working on. Ms. Taubina has been working in the field of human rights since 1992. She has been involved in the work of the Russian Research Centre for Human Rights. From 1997 to 2011, she was the director of the Foundation for Civil Society and since 2004 she has been the director of the Public Verdict Foundation. Ms. Taubina’s presentation titled ‘Shrinking Space for Civil Society in Russia: challenges and new strategies’ focused on the issues that civil society organisations in Russia have been facing, including the start of the problematic legislative changes, their implementation and impact on civil society organisations, and coping strategies that human rights organisations adopt.

2012 was the year it all started, which Ms. Taubina called the “last massive attack on civil society in Russia”. This was the time when a number of legislative changes were enforced in Russia. Many human rights professionals and students may be aware of the amendment of the Federal Law N. 121-FZ On Non-commercial Organisations or “Law on Foreign Agents” that requires Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) register as “foreign agents”, if the organisations receive foreign funds and engage in “political activity” (here, Ms Taubina notes, that initially the definition of “political activity” was very vaguely defined, however after amendments passed in 2016 the definition now includes a variety of activities done in public). This Law was enacted in November 2012. The term “foreign agent” was mainly used in the Soviet period to describe agents who work against the state’s interests. But it still carries a strong and negative meaning especially among the public. The original idea was that Russian civil society organisations will voluntarily acquire this status and register on the Foreign Agent list. However, the response from civil society organisations was the opposite. Since no independent NGO would voluntary acquire such status, the Ministry of Justice was given the powers to include any non-commercial organisations it sees fit onto the Foreign Agent list.

This means that once an organisation is registered as a “foreign agent” this term must appear on all publications produced by the organisation, as well as on their official websites, states Ms. Taubina. After being registered as a “foreign agent”, it means more reporting to the authorities by the organisations and more auditing. Ms. Taubina notes that it is probably a reasonable measure if one considers principles of transparency and accountability, however, this affects smaller organisations that receive small annual budgets (for instance £10,000 per year) more negatively than larger NGOs with much larger annual budgets because conducting the whole process becomes much more costly. Additionally, if the status of foreign agent fails to be mentioned in any publication, the organisations may face fines and later criminal persecution with a term up to two years for refusal to follow obligations. Administrative fines may also be imposed on the publications failing to include the name ‘foreign agent’. According to the reports, while cases could be brought against the publications without the explicit status of “foreign agent”, they could also be brought against every single issue. That means the fine could be imposed for the publication or for its each issue. Ms. Taubina states that recently, more than 130 administrative cases were opened against NGOs, but these are the ones that are known about. Other NGOs decide not to make it public. Most of the cases end with fines, usually the maximum amount. First criminal case has been opened against Valentina Cherevatinka, now Ms. Cherevatinka faces up to two years if she is convicted.

There are more than  100 NGOs listed as “foreign agents”, according to the data available from the Ministry of Justice. The European Court of Human Rights has currently been investigating if the ‘Foreign Agents Law’ violates human rights based on the cases of 48 Russian non-governmental organisations, including Memorial, Siberian Ecological Centre and many more that were branded as “foreign agents”. Recently the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders was granted leave to intervene as a third party into the process. But as Ms. Taubina said, this is not the only legislative change that affected the civil society activities in 2012. In the same year the legislation on freedom of assembly was amended increasing sanctions and fines for those violating the rules on holding a public gathering, rally, demonstration, march, or picket; and the Federal Law on “Treason and Espionage” (Law N. 190-FZ or “Law on Treason”) of 23 October 2012 made amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and widened the scope of criminal provisions on “treason”

In 2015 the Law ‘on Undesirable International and Foreign NGOs’ was adopted which states that if foreign or international NGOs recognised by the authorities as ‘undesirable’ for the Russian state, they cannot continue their activities in Russia, including any financial transfers. An organisation categorized as undesirable faces administrative sanctions and criminal investigation if they continue their activities. To date, there are ten organisations on this list, eight of which are from the USA and two from the UK. Main US donors are included in the list of Undesirable Organisations. Other donors like MacArthur Foundation which were the key force behind Russian civil society since the Brezhnev era, decided to suspend their activities even though they were not included in the list. The representatives of MacArthur Foundation stated that the environment in Russia is difficult for continuing their work.

In the light of these legislative changes several dozens of NGOs decided to cease their activities due to the lack of support. Other NGOs are forced to apply for foreign financial support as the presidential awards are generally not given to ‘foreign agents’. Ms. Taubina stated that there was a short period in 2014-2015 that some human rights NGOs who were included on the list of foreign agents and continued to receive foreign funds, also received the so called presidential grants. Her organisation is one example of that. But since the beginning of 2016 no organisation with ‘foreign agent’ status has received presidential grants.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult for NGOs to conduct their work. For instance, Ms. Taubina’s organisation used to organise roundtable discussions and training events for authorities on detention institutions and other issues. Now however, as Ms. Taubina states, the activities conducted by the NGOs with the ‘foreign agent’ status are not as appealing to authorities. Lawyers working on human rights cases have been subjected to attempts of removal from the case or faced prosecutions for their collaboration with organisations with ‘foreign agent’ status, which was the case for Ms. Taubina’s organisation. Physical attacks against NGO leaders and staff have also risen constituting a further obstacle for civil society, however there has been no investigation into such cases.

In these difficult conditions Natalia Taubina stated that there are many strategies being used within the tight and shrinking space for civil society activities which include:

1) Temporary dissolution of local entity in Russia, while seeking other models of work.

2) Establish partnerships with organisations from outside of Russia and become members of international coalitions.

3) Developing of crowd-funding campaigns, which base themselves on money received from the people; and becoming more transparent as the organisations aim to attract those public funds.

4) Establishing coalitions within the country, especially among human rights organisations.

5) Conduct work closer to the people, in order to equip the public with guidance on different situations through social media, interactive games and tests and etc.

Several questions followed from the audience on how the situation can be tackled and whether the international community should have done more for the Russian civil society when it had a chance. In response to my question on whether there are any partnerships developing between Russian-based NGOs and NGOs outside of Russia who face similar problems, Ms. Taubina answered “Yes, of course!”. Partnerships between human rights NGOs that face similar obstacles in conducting their work contact each other in order to seek advice and help. International solidarity networks which have already been taking place can be used as another important strategy in coping with the gradual clampdown on civil society actors around the world. Ms. Taubina’s presentation is both informative, passionate and worrying, however it does give a glimpse of hope that the survival of civil society space is possible even in the most severe conditions.

*Lilija Alijeva is a Research Student at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.