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Mikhail Dmitrievitch Prokhorov

Mikhail Dmitrievitch ProkhorovProkhorov

Russia's new NGO law in the pillory

Receiving funds from abroad means the registration as a "foreign agent" for Russian NGOs since November 21. Much can be justifiably criticized about the law, but the debate in the West shows that important aspects are unnoticed. An op-ed by Stefan Bernhardt

The Russian agent law is decried in the West as a repressive instrument of authoritarian Russian state power. After all, the registration restricts the freedom of NGOs, and especially that of the Russian civil society. Offense is particularly taken by the designation "foreign agent" and that the law is aimed at politically active NGOs such as Golos or Memorial. A law against the Russian opposition, human rights and civil rights, which are intended to disrupt the Kremlin in its display of power.

This limited perception obstructs the view of central points. Things should be neither concealed nor negated, because without them, there would only be a distorted picture of Russia, which does not reflect the full reality and stylizes it to the stereotypical concept of an enemy. The Western public hereby also risks its own credibility.

The West bears complicity

The mono-causal explanation, the Kremlin, in the form of President Vladimir Putin wanting to consolidate its power over the opposition by undemocratic means is not enough here. Anyone who relies solely on this negates wrongly the role that is played by the West. Western foundations as well as other organizations financially support their own agenda, their own values and goals not only domestically, but also partially or primarily in other states.

To believe that it is always good or to completely idealize it would be naive, especially when it is assumed that other countries should blindly accept, without criticism, the activities of such actors. Commitment is always the exertion of influence. After the governments of Georgia and Ukraine were overthrown with big support of NGOs, whose funds came also from abroad, one should not pretend as if the West is completely innocent. This perception caused among other things that the Kremlin began to see the foreign funding of Russian NGOs, and the involvement of foreign organizations in Russia from skeptical to negative – which resulted in the Russian NGO legislation.

Overlooking the real problem

The choice of words of "foreign agent" is as ambiguous in Russian as in English and German. The criticism should not be focused on it, even though many do in public. Depending on what it is to be alleged to the Kremlin, it is read as meaning "spy" or "representative," and says more about the intentions of the interpreter than that of the Russian government.

After all, organizations with funds from abroad must only confess to them. Such should also be not a point of criticism. The disclosure of sources of money should be something that all organizations, NGOs as well as political parties should undertake, regardless where their money is coming from. The real criticism should have been directed at the monitoring, sanctions, and interpretation of the law's content. Unfortunately, this was usually omitted in the West, what mostly damages its own credibility in the discussion.

Repressed aspects

Another important issue was likewise ignored. The organizations should have first tried to seek funds from Russian citizens or their commitment; eventually, it is all about the Russian society. Should it not be a more pressing issue in the discussion, that if such organizations are a part of Russian civil society, why they do not receive assistance from Russian citizens? Civic participation is not limited by the state. How can it be that politically active Russian organizations depend on foreign funds such that their existence is threatened by such a law? Unfortunately, these pressing questions are little, if at all, addressed in the public.

Regrettably, the current debate also displaced a main development of Russian civil society in recent years. More and more Russian citizens organize or channel their interests not only through NGOs or political parties, but also through grass-root actions and through individual civic commitment. Be it to point out abuses such as the blue bucket actions against special rights for state officials in traffic or to help those in need, as during the large turf fires of 2010 and the flooding in southern Russia in 2012. Russia has committed citizens. The question should not be just whether NGOs can freely develop and work, but if the citizens could – independent from NGOs, political parties and the Kremlin.

Waiting and observing

It would be better for the public outcry in the discussion, especially in the West, if all aspects of the topic were addressed. To accuse the Kremlin of pure malice from the outset before the law was finished, before it was applied, or to get worked up over to formulations like the name "foreign agent" hurts especially one's own credibility. It does also serve as a target for malicious speculation against the West, only to be afraid of losing important influence in Russia, due to the loss of its main instrument, the NGOs.