Russian Parliament Creates a 'Patriotic Stop-List'

Federation Council session in Moscow
Members of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, applaud during a session in Moscow. On Wednesday, they almost unanimously moved to create a "patriotic stop-list" of suspicious international NGOs. Picture taken on March 21, 2014 Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

On Wednesday, 156 out of 170 members of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, voted to create a “patriotic stop-list” that will include 12 nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, which legislators believe pose a potential threat to Russia. The Federation Council is now officially asking the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice to investigate if these NGOs should be officially designated as “undesirable,” which would make them illegal in Russia. 

Six of the organizations on the list are U.S. based, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Freedom House and the MacArthur Foundation. The others are Ukrainian and Polish nonprofit organizations engaged in monitoring human rights and promoting democracy.

The Federation Council’s move is yet another attempt to use a new law clamping down on “undesirable organizations.” The law, which was passed in May, allows the government to shut down local branches of international NGOs without a court order, if the organization “poses a threat to the Russian constitution or the national security.” The Prosecutor General’s office holds the power to make the evaluation.

Members of Russian parliament already demanded investigations into the “undesirableness” of organizations like Transparency International and Human Rights Watch. However, this is the first time when the whole legislative branch requests the law enforcement to act.

The “patriotic stop-list” was introduced by Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, on June 24. Citing recent events in Georgia and Ukraine, where governments were changed after what Kosachev called coup d’etats, Kosachev said that “Americans and their allies don’t hide that Russia is next,” according to Russian news agency TASS. He said that foreign NGOs should be controlled “in order not to repeat another defeat of the country and the nation,” presumably referring to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Addressing the Federation Council on Wednesday, Kosachev emphasized that the list is “just a start of the public debate” and that “it’s not an instrument of putting restrictions on Russian civil society.” He claimed that the organizations on the list protect human rights only selectively, ignoring the problems of Russian-speaking population in Ukraine or Baltic states, or the human rights issues in the Middle Eastern countries that are the allies of the U.S. “This is a very much political project,” he said about the NGOs.

Kosachev’s statement also implied that the foreign NGOs aim to accumulate resources to incite civil unrest. “Those who give money don’t care how many trees or animals you saved, but they care how many people you can get on the streets when the time comes,” he said. “This is a question of national security.”

In a statement, the MacArthur Foundation’s president Julia Stasch said that the organization was disappointed to learn about the Federation Council’s move. “This rests on a serious misunderstanding of our activities in Russia,” she wrote, noting that the organization isn’t engaged in political activities. “We are hopeful that, upon review, the Prosecutor General will conclude that our activities have always been in compliance with Russian law.”    

Meanwhile, Russia’s own nongovernmental organizations are facing problems too. Just on Wednesday, two Russian NGOs announced they were shutting down after the government designated them as “foreign agents.” The status, which was created by a law passed in 2012 for organizations that receive funds from abroad and engage in political activities, doesn’t prevent NGOs from operating, but considerably restricts their abilities.

The Dynasty Foundation, which has spent $10 million a year to support Russian scientists and educational institutions, made the decision to close its operations on July 5, the statement said. Earlier this year, the foundation’s creator and only sponsor, Dmitry Zimin, said that he would stop financing the organization, unless the Ministry of Justice revokes the “foreign agent” status and apologizes.

“I won’t spend my own money under the brand of some unknown foreign country,” Zimin said in May.

Another embattled NGO is the Committee Against Torture, an organization that has been working for 15 years to prevent and persecute torture methods used by the Russian law enforcement. The committee’s work was especially noticeable in Chechnya, where its office has been burned and ransacked.

The Ministry of Justice claimed that the committee’s actions aim to “influence the decision-making of the government bodies,” and therefore, are political, which made the organization eligible for the “foreign agent” status. The organization tried to appeal the decision in court. After its final appeal failed on Wednesday, the head of the organization said that it will start liquidation proceedings.