Russia's NGO Law will inevitably result in a contraction of space and opportunity for NGOs: An interview with Boris Pustyntsev, Director of the Russia-based Citizens' Watch

Boris Pustyntsev, Director of the Russia-based Citizens' Watch, speaks to CIVICUS about the impact of the new 'NGO Law' and recent restrictions on civil society activism in Russia.

The Russian Parliament recently adopted a new NGO law. Can you tell us a bit about the requirements set out in the law?

The law requires NGOs which receive funds from foreign sources and "participate in political activities" to apply for inclusion in a special registrar of NGOs which "perform functions of a foreign agent." After registering as a foreign agent, the NGO is required to provide relevant administrative authorities with detailed information pertaining to the amount of funds and other property received from foreign sources as well as information detailing how the funding and property will be used. In addition, every NGO registered as a 'foreign agent' must regularly submit documents detailing its activities, structure and members of its governing bodies to these authorities.

Furthermore, all publications issued and disseminated by NGOs designated as 'foreign agents' must include a notice that it has been published by an NGO registered as a 'foreign agent.' Also, any public events, including conferences, seminars or roundtable discussions, etc., organized by such an NGO must be preceded by an announcement that the organizer has been registered as a 'foreign agent.'

What challenges do these requirements pose for civil society? What do you think will be the immediate and long-term effects of the law?

The NGO Law imposes discriminatory restrictions on recipients of foreign funding which will inevitably result in a contraction of space and opportunity for NGOs to carry out essential work related to the protection and promotion of the rule of law, human rights standards and ensuring government transparency and accountability. The new law severely marginalizes human rights NGOs in the eyes of the public. After 70 years of Soviet isolationist dictatorship, some Russians are extremely distrustful of foreigners, so much so that many people will undoubtedly refrain from approaching or supporting NGOs labeled as "foreign agents."

In addition, in a post-totalitarian country like Russia, human rights NGOs are only able to help strengthen democratic institutions in collaboration with state agencies. However after having been branded as a "foreign agents," human rights organizations like Citizens' Watch can hardly expect continued cooperation with government agencies and individual bureaucrats.

Several prominent Russian activists have been imprisoned recently. Has this led to a shrinking of space for civil society and can you tell us more about this trend?

The arrests of activists, as with other measures taken by the government since the December 2011 Presidential Elections, have been aimed at shrinking civil society space. However, to date, they have not had the desired effect. While the number of participants at public demonstrations is understandably diminishing, more people, especially the young, are now joining the core activist groups that will keep the protest movement afloat. However, the government will continue to look to suppress the protest movement if international pressure does not intensify.

How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to civil society in Russia?

Members of the Russian Government, unlike, for example their Belarusian counterparts, are more sensitive to international public opinion. In Russia, top politicians routinely spend and keep their financial assets abroad. They are already part and parcel of the international ruling elite and cannot risk further isolationism, lest they lose access to key revenue streams. Therefore, regional and international civil society groups can do a lot to support civil society in Russia. Principally, international and regional civil society organizations can mobilize public opinion and encourage governments and representatives of international bodies to immediately address gross violations of fundamental rights and political freedoms in Russia.

Boris Pustyntsev is Director of Citizens’ Watch, based in St. Petersburg, Russia. Citizens’ Watch  is a human rights NGO founded in 1992 to assist in establishing parliamentary and civic control over police, security service, and armed forces, and to help prevent violations of constitutional rights by these governmental agencies. Citizens’ Watch strategic priority is to bring Russian legislation related to human rights and the practice of its application closer to international legal standards.

Interview conducted 6 October 2012