Russian Federation 27 December 2013
Some events seen by ASI as being amongst the most important of 2013 for the third sector
These are set out below. They are not listed in perceived order of importance. ASI’s choice was based its ‘feel’, the views of associates and the volume of information and commentary emanating from civil society when the events occurred.
Foreign Agents Law:
This law came into force in 2012 but its actual impact became evident only in 2013, when the most gloomy predictions of the specialists at bill stage were borne out.
The year began not at all badly when the minister of justice, Konovalov, characterised the law as conflicting with the spirit of Russian legislation and being virtually impossible to implement, and civil rights defenders, having made an application to the European Court of Human Rights, held a lively discussion on the issue of whether the law could be implemented in principle. This was only a few days before Vladimir Putin, in the course of his memorable speech at the Federal Security Service College, said that the law must be implemented.
Mr Putin disclosed a programme of:
‘Inspections by the public prosecutor’s office, the revenue, the ministry of justice, the federal security service, and the fire and sanitary services – warning – court’, with which scores of NGOs in different regions of Russia have lived and continue to live for a whole year.
The conduct of the inspections has defied all attempts to find a sensible rationale. The search for ‘agents’ has encompassed organisations working towards a whole variety of different aims, including those that it would never have entered into anyone’s head to suspect of engaging in political activity. Some outstanding examples are the Yuri Levada Analytical Centre, the Muravevsky Park for Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, and Help for Cystic Fibrosis Sufferers near Moscow. Some trends were discernible, like the harsher nature of the inspections in South Russia compared with other regions. The course that would be taken by court proceedings involving NGOs that did not accept being labelled as ‘foreign agents’ was also unpredictable. In some cases the court adopted an interpretation of ‘political activity’, proposed by the prosecutor, which was stretched to an absurd degree. Other courts categorically did not. A civil rights defender, Igor Archive, commenting on the refusal of a court to fine the Perm civil chamber and the GRANI Centre (Centre for Civil Analysis and Independent Research) for refusal to register as a ‘foreign agent’, said these were simply lucky, including in the judge that they had.
It is interesting that these haphazard decisions often contrast with political announcements made in the background. Thus the Moscow City Court found that Transparency International’s activities in combating corruption amounted to political activity, on the very day when Putin, speaking in Novo-Ogarevo, was saying that civil rights activity did not amount to political activity. Although towards the end of the year the official position on the question of NGOs that receive foreign money had somewhat softened, the prospects of the law being repealed were minimal, whilst hopes were entertained for an improvement in the situation mainly in regard to the adoption of a more or less acceptable formulation of the term ‘political activity’.
National Civil Forum ‘Agenda for Russia’:
This was initiated by the Committee for Civil Initiatives as a step on the way to consolidating the mutual relationships between NGOs and civil activists. Participants remarked on the extremely democratic preparations for the forum, the fact that different generations of civil activists had been involved, and the opportunity it offered to discuss issues material to its aims. The organisers stressed that the forum was not a one-off.
Elections to the Public Oversight Commissions (POCs):
The results were unsatisfactory because of failure to fill all the vacancies in many regions and procedural irregularities in Moscow and St Petersburg. A number of civil rights defenders threatened to take court proceedings against the federal public chamber and Agora prepared a report on the neutralisation of public oversight in Russia. Further elections were then announced. The presidential commission for the development of civil society and human rights prepared amendments to the Public Oversight Law to reflect issues concerning the composition of the commissions and the reach of their powers. The ministry of justice wanted organisations that are ‘foreign agents’ to be deprived of the right to nominate candidates.
Provision of Social Services to the Public Law:
This law empowers NGOs and private providers to provide social services. It introduces concepts of need and standards of provision. Over 80% of NGOs are more or less ready to participate and around 50% think they can manage to do so in a competitive market. They are motivated by the prospect of enhanced access to stable sources of finance, extending their client base and the opportunity to develop their activities.
Tax Allowances for Charities Bill:
The ministry of economic development promoted a bill lowering the tax payable on donations made to charitable endowment funds. Although the allowance is limited to one percent of the amounts, specialists see it as an encouraging step in the right direction.
Grants in Support of Civil Rights NGOs:
The decision to grant 200 million roubles was taken to replace foreign sources of finance no longer available on account of the Foreign Agents Law. The largest grant – 7 million roubles – went to Golos, the electoral rights body, and the smallest – 300,000 to 500,000 roubles – to small regional NGOs.
National Conference on Ageing – ‘From an Ageing Society to One for all Ages – Featuring Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Georgia’:
Problems of which the public had for a long time been only marginally aware were discussed in detail. A need was seen to form a national policy on longevity. Specialists see three basic aspects as being important: keeping active, involvement in communal life and independence in old age. Medical and social services were seen as key. Conference participants thought it necessary for state and non-state organisations to collaborate in order to support the older generation.