The Hunt for Foreign Agents Has Begun
- By Victor Davidoff
- Apr. 01 2013 00:00
- Last edited 19:00
March 25 has already gone down in the Russian blogosphere as the Russian "Kristallnacht" for its nongovernmental organizations. On that day, officials from the
The nationwide inspection campaign went on all last week. Russian representative offices of well-known international organization also had unexpected visitors: Transparency International, Human Rights Watch and the Moscow Helsinki Group were inspected. In Samara, the prosecutor's office inspected the Alliance Francaise, which was opened in 2001 personally by then-President Jacques Chirac.
The inspection campaign didn't bypass religious organizations. In Rostov-on-Don, inspectors dropped in on the local Baptist church, and in Novocherkassk they visited the local Roman Catholic parish. It would have been strange if they ignored the Jews, so in Volgograd officials from the prosecutor's office inspected the Center for Jewish Culture.
A total of 94 organizations in 28 regions have been checked to date. In each case, the group of inspectors was daunting. It included representatives of the prosecutor's office, the Justice Ministry and the tax inspectorate. Sometimes these officials were joined by colleagues from the Federal Security Agency, the Emergency Situations Ministry, the Federal Immigration Agency, as well as the fire and health inspection services. There was plenty of work to go around. In one NGO, health officials found a serious violation: The organization had no articulate plan for rodent control.
These mass inspections were explained in various ways. President Vladimir Putin told Interfax that the inspections were meant "to determine if the actions of NGOs were legal and in compliance with the laws of Russia." The president seems to have been referring to the law requiring NGOs with foreign funding to register as foreign agents. Several organizations, including Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, have openly boycotted the law because, as one of Memorial's directors, Oleg Orlov, explained on his Facebook page, "We aren't going to register as foreign agents for one simple reason: We aren't foreign agents."
But the president's version has been contradicted by officials in the Prosecutor General's Office. They maintain that the inspections were being carried out to ensure that NGOs weren't a screen for banned extremist organizations "with an ultranationalist or fundamentalist religious orientation." Extremists would have certainly been resourceful if they had infiltrated benign-sounding organizations such as the Society for Cooperation with Scholars at the Kennan Institute, the Union for the Preservation of Birds or the Young Medical Workers in the Don region.
Memorial board member
The current crackdown on NGOs is in keeping with Putin's general course that he set at the start of his third presidential term: to further isolate Russia and create an atmosphere of suspicion, xenophobia and spy mania. The siege mentality inculcated by the state media presents Putin as the only protector of Russia from the sinister intentions and actions of foreign governments. The battle against "secret foreign agents" — Russian NGOs — meets the same goal. It is no surprise that Moscow officials of the Prosecutor General's Office showed up at Memorial with a film crew from NTV. Memorial employees had to call the police to remove them from their premises, but that evening the NTV news aired a report with the intriguing title: "What is Memorial Hiding?" The report, however, failed to answer the question.
Judging by public opinion polls, the anti-Western campaign whipped up by the Kremlin with help from the prosecutor's office and the media is reaping results. But it would be wise for the Kremlin to recall that there is another side to every coin. As the satirical Тwitter-account @KermlinRussia quipped: "Best business practices: How to improve Russia's image for foreign investors? Wipe out the local office of Transparency International."
Perhaps Putin is nostalgic for the days when the Iron Curtain kept nearly all Western influences out of the country. But in the 21st century, attempts to put up another Iron Curtain might turn even a great power into a copy of the poor and backward North Korea.