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15 december, 2020

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“Protecting the interests of the state and not hindering the development of the non-profit sector”

Extensive hearings of draft bills regulating the activities of foreign agents were held at the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation

“Protecting the interests of the state and not hindering the development of the non-profit sector”

On December 15, the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation held an extensive public discussion on a package of amendments to the legislation in terms of regulating the activities of foreign agents.

The President of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation Lydia Mikheeva recalled that on December 10, during a meeting between Vladimir Putin and members of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, the issue of the draft bills submitted to the State Duma of the Russian Federation was raised, regulating the activities of foreign agents in terms of increasing transparency of such NPOs, media representatives and natural persons.

“The Head of State heard the concerns of civil society regarding the development of these bills and instructed to discuss them once again as part of expert and public discussions,” she explained.

Lydia Mikheeva drew attention to the fact that most of the discussions revolved around the definition of the concept of "political activity" since fears have been expressed that the interpretation of “political activity” is too broad and law-abiding citizens could accidentally be designated as foreign agents, including scientists, cultural workers, art workers, and several others from socially significant areas such as health protection, social protection and services for citizens, as well as physical culture and sport.

“It seems to me that these formulations should be clear and watertight, and exclude certain types of social activity, for example science, from falling under the concept of political activity,” she explained.

The President of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation is convinced that it is also unacceptable to attribute cases of cultural exchange and cultural cooperation to political activity, for instance when it comes to speeches at cultural and scientific events of foreign officials.

Furthermore, Lydia Mikheeva proposed to exclude from the draft bill the rule prohibiting foreign NPOs from nominating candidates as members of public councils under federal authorities. “There is a position of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation that the status of a foreign agent entails only mandatory labeling and cannot lead to discrimination of certain other rights,” she said.

“Foreign agents can be elected as representatives of municipal and state authorities. In passive electoral law, they shall not be deprived of rights and may serve in representative bodies. There are no restrictions here,” said one of the authors of the draft bill, Chairman of the State Duma Committee of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on Security and Anti-Corruption Vasily Piskarev.

According to him, the concept of the bill is to ensure transparency of foreign activities in the internal political life of the country: foreign agents must label their products and report on funds that they have received. The legislator voiced an important limitation – he is convinced that foreign agents should not have access to state secrets; he also gave assurances that the bill did not affect the sphere of culture, education, healthcare and sports. “These spheres are completely different. The bill will not affect them – only areas connected with political activity. If the agenda is being formed by foreign countries, we must be aware of that,” said Vasily Piskarev.

The Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, Chairman of the Council under the President of the Russian Federation for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights Valery Fadeev expressed concerns in connection with amendments to the law “On Mass Media” regarding the possible interpretation of the proposed norms: all Internet users – these could be bloggers or owners of private accounts – could be obliged to indicate their status in case of any mention of a person designated as a foreign agent. The human rights activist proposed to amend the text of the draft law with the provision that only messages and media materials shall be subject to mandatory labeling on the Internet.

In addition, Valery Fadeev touched upon the topic of financial reporting when organizing public events – now the corresponding bill regulating the organization and holding of public events involves opening a bank account for organizing any rallies or public events. The head of the HRC proposed to eliminate the need to indicate information about the bank account and submit a report on the receipt and expenditure of funds for the organizers of public events with the declared number of participants less than 500 people.

Tatyana Moskalkova, High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation, asked the authors of the bill to amend the Federal Law “On Non-Profit Organizations”, which is now being expanded by introducing a provision stipulating that messages and materials of founders, members, managers and employees of foreign agents shall be subject to mandatory labeling if they are related to political activities. On her part, she asked to exclude the obligation of such labeling for ordinary employees of foreign agents.

Tatyana Moskalkova is also convinced that the legislation should not hinder programmes and projects in the field of disease prevention, health protection, social services, social support and protection of citizens and support for the disabled, as well as physical culture and sport – many of them are implemented in cooperation with international communities, integrated into international structures.

“During the pandemic, civil society has shown how important it is to use all available tools to address global issues. The experience gained this year should be used to support social practices. It is important that these organizations are not included in the list of those for which special rules shall be established,” she stated.

Tatyana Moskalkova also proposed to consolidate the obligation of federal state registrars to notify NPOs and individuals that, as a result of inspections, they would be included in the registry of foreign agents. “This will allow people to clarify their position and defend their status by legal measures and methods.”

Member of the Federation Council Committee of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on International Affairs Andrey Klimov drew attention to the unfounded assumptions about possible punishment for activities in the capacity of a foreign agent. According to him, such responsibility can arise only in case of violation of the established rules. And the activity itself, which is proposed to be registered, is not actually prohibited, including the activity of collecting sensitive information of a military-technical nature. “It should only be registered by a natural person or legal entity that carries out such an activity in favour of a foreign state, organization or group of persons.”

Various viewpoints were expressed during the discussion of the proposed initiatives. Some considered the proposed changes too soft while others called them too rigorous. Member of the Commission of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation on Security and Cooperation with Public Supervisory Commissions Maria Butina believes that it is necessary to designate any NPO as a foreign agent, involved not only in political, but in other activities as well, provided that there is foreign funding. “The fundamental factor should be the existence of activities under the control of a foreign entity,” she said. Furthermore, Maria Butina cited the example of the United States, which closely monitors its national interests, forcing everyone who is somehow connected with foreign citizens to register and provide information about their activities, including financial ones.

In turn, member of the HRC Natalia Evdokimova called for designating NPOs as foreign agents only if it has been proved and only in court.

HRC member Leonid Polyakov is confident that the very idea of ensuring transparency of foreign participation in the country's political process is fundamentally wrong – this is nonsense, and political activity with foreign funds should be prohibited in principle for NPOs.

“As soon as any activity, in any area, begins to influence government policy, its assessment or attempts to change it, such an activity should be prohibited right away. This boundary must be clearly defined. I would suggest formulating a closed list of forms of participation in politics that would automatically disqualify an individual organization as an NPO,” he stated.

Many questions were raised regarding the proposed mechanisms for regulating the activities of foreign agents among representatives of the non-profit sector. The Chair of the Commission of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation on Nonprofit Sector Development and Socially Oriented Nonprofit Organizations Support Elena Topoleva-Soldunova believes that it is necessary to achieve balance – on the one hand, to protect the interests of the state, and on the other hand, to allow people to work freely and not worry. The social activist said that social organizations and charitable foundations would be included in the list of NPO-foreign agents. “This is due to the fact that the concept of ‘political activity’ is too broadly formulated. I suggest introducing the concept of ‘mediation’ into the criteria,” she said. In addition, she recalled that two years ago, the Russian Ministry of Justice proposed a new reporting form for NPOs on foreign funds received by them through intermediaries.

“We have not yet conceived of a way to do this: commercial organizations are not obliged to declare their sources of funding to us. And this directly relates to the proposed norm: the moratorium has already been extended twice which means that even the current norms of the law do not work; there is a problem in the sophistication of technology. Therefore, it seems to me that the bill should be postponed and revised,” said Elena Topoleva-Soldunova.

Among other points on which NPO-foreign agents shall be deprived of rights, the social activist named the following: a ban on the performance of publicly useful services; impossibility of labeling publications in the media made by NPOs and individuals many years ago and updated by a third party; errors of law enforcement practice, when NPOs were included in the registry of foreign agents by a decision of the territorial departments of the Ministry of Justice, district courts, etc. According to Elena Topoleva-Soldunova, such decisions should be made only at the level of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation.

The First Deputy Chair of the Commission of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation on Charity and Social Work Elizaveta Oleskina expressed concerns about the possibility of interpreting “political activity” as any type of participation of NPOs in work with government bodies, including members of public and guardian councils. “Amendments in this form will lead NPOs to a dead end and impede the development of the sector as a whole,” she said.

“The draft bills regulating the transparency of foreign agents are based on international experience,” stressed Alexander Malkevich, First Deputy Chairman of the Commission of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation on Development of Information Community, Mass Media and Communications. “There are no stipulations set forth in the draft bills that could pave the way for a campaign against their enforcement. On the contrary, our laws in this area are very soft. They do not prohibit anything, requiring only accountability and identification. The goal is to improve discipline and transparency,” he explained.

According to Alexander Malkevich, the West professes obvious double standards: in relation to undesirable countries like Russia, it acts in a tough manner and selectively in terms of applying legislation on foreign agents. “We do not plan to adopt this negative experience, but why don’t we have the right to defend our sovereignty in the development of civil society with the help of the same instruments?” he asked.

He also objected to experts who spoke in favour of the judicial procedure for official designation of foreign agents – the court resolves disputes or prosecutes while declaring the status of a foreign agent is the responsibility of the organization itself. He did not agree that only the media must be subject to labeling – there are bloggers with hundreds or even millions of subscribers who receive funding through obscure schemes and participate in political activities and collect military information. He called for tougher legislation on media representatives designated as foreign agents at the same time refusing to comply with Russian laws. “People should understand that they are working in the interests of another state. We do not prohibit this, but we must know who we are dealing with. There are similar requirements in many countries,” said Alexander Malkevich.

Since 2016, the number of NPOs that have applied for inclusion in the registry of organizations performing the functions of foreign agents has decreased: in 2015 there were 81 organizations, in 2016 – 43, in 2017 – 16, in 2018 – 7, in 2019 – 19. At the same time, the amount of financing of the Russian non-profit sector from foreign sources has not changed and remains at a fairly high level – about 70-80 billion rubles annually. The data was announced by member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation Nikita Danyuk.

“This suggests that some NPOs, hiding behind all sorts of spheres (scientific, educational, humanitarian), are actually engaged in political activities. The case of each NPO, designated as a foreign agent, must be approached in a comprehensive manner and we must know what they are doing,” he stated.

Member of the Commission of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation on Development of Information Community, Mass Media and Communications Maxim Grigoriev did not express any concerns about the excessiveness of the proposed norms. “The proposed amendments are liberal in nature while the requirements for transparency are in line with legislative changes in other countries,” he said.

In order to finally dispel the doubts of NPOs worrying that they might be unjustly considered as foreign agents, he suggested organizing public oversight – monitoring this process and giving a public assessment of the activities of each organization designated as a foreign agent.

After listening to the arguments by experts, Vasily Piskarev once again assured everyone that the draft bill did not pose any danger to NPOs. “We are talking only about those that are involved in the sphere of politics. It should be clear to us where the money from foreign sources is coming from, otherwise, within a few years we may well find ourselves in a situation that we can now observe in the southwestern and southeastern countries neighbouring Russia. We, the authors of the draft bill, are confident that the absolute majority of the population will support us.”

Summing up the results of the event, Lydia Mikheeva noted the discussion held was multidimensional and productive, and she promised that all the wishes and suggestions of the experts would be taken into account and submitted for consideration to the profile commissions of the State Duma of the Russian Federation.

Tags: Yelena Topoleva-Soldunova, Maxim Grigoriev, Lidia Mikheeva, Alexander Malkevich, Maria Butina, Nikita Danyuk, Elizaveta Oleskina

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