Russia – ‘keep silent or confess that you are a foreign agent’

By presenting the activities of human rights defenders as a betrayal of the nation and its values, the Russian authorities are trying to silence those who think differently, whilst proposing to export such practices to partner countries such as Armenia. 

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By Edgar Khachatryan

“I am sure that Russia should declare its presence in the information sphere of Armenia more actively. There is no doubt about it. However, other methods should be used to neutralize the NGOs which stick a wedge in the Armenian-Russian relations. By the way, Russia has adopted a law which clearly defines the activities of NGOs” – announced Russian ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volinkin. Earlier this year, on April 12th, Volinkin announced in Yerevan that Russia will halt any attempts at aggressive intervention of third parties in the domestic affairs of its friendly states “in an effort to instil ideas alien to their mind soul”.

So just what are the laws and additional methods mentioned by the Ambassador that the Russianauthorities use to regulate the activities of non-governmental organizations? What are those “alien ideas” that, according to Volinkin, Russia and its partner states should be protected from?

Today, the so-called “Foreign Agents” Law adopted by the Russian State Assembly is the most effective method for silencing active civic groups or halting their activities. According to a 14th May ruling by Novocherkask City Court, in the Rostov region of Russia, ‘Women of the Don’ regional NGO are required within two weeks to register on the list of NGOs that function as foreign agents. In addition, according to the court’s verdict, the organization is not allowed to carry out activities outside of Rastov; namely, in any other city or region of Russia.

In the court verdict it is mentioned that the status “regional non-governmental organization” implies that the organization can function only in the territory of Rastov. Previously, however, the organization’s projects included other administrative regions of the Russian Federation: Krasnodar, Stavropol, Northern Osetya, and Kabardino-Balkaria. In addition, the organization carried out projects in other countries too, particularly Georgia.

The court “has revealed” that, while implementing one of its projects entitled, “The role of NGOs in preventing human rights violations in Russia”, the organization “intervened” into the political field by attempting to influence the decision-making processes of state bodies through the formation of public opinion. According to the court’s assessment, the other peacebuilding and advocacy initiatives implemented by the ‘Women of the Don’ NGO were aimed at disparaging the activities of state bodies.

The court concluded that such behaviour is typical of foreign agents. In the court verdict it is mentioned that, “taking into consideration the fact that the organization tries to influence the political processes in Russia through formation of public opinion and the fact that many initiatives of the organization are organized with the money received from foreign recourses, it is obvious that this NGO is an organization that carries out functions of a foreign agent.”

In fact, ‘Women of the Don’ is already the third human right organization that has been the subject of such a raid by the Russian authorities. Similar measures were previously applied against “Memorial” Anti-Discrimination Centre and the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies.

Taking all this into consideration, it is clear what effective interference the Russian Ambassador to Armenia is referring to. There is no doubt that human rights, democracy and peacebuilding seem alien and dangerous to the current Russian authorities. By presenting the activities of human rights defenders as a betrayal of the nation and its values, the authorities are trying to silence those who think differently.

Ambassador Volinkin has called upon the Armenian authorities to use the ‘Russian experience’ in order to appease civil groups in Armenia. Moreover, the Ambassador warns that Russia itself will prevent the spread of such ‘alien’ ideologies in partner countries. A number of NGOs in Armenia qualified Volinkin’s announcements as a violation of accepted diplomatic norms and gross interference in the internal affairs of Armenia, and yet another aggressive attempt towards its sovereignty.

Despite the demand of the organizations addressed to the Armenian authorities to hold the Russian Ambassador to account and have him respect Armenia’s constitution, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they do not see any validity to the claims. Thus, the threat that the civil groups opposed by the authorities will be silenced with the ‘power of law’ is becoming more real and tangible. The phrase “keep silent or confess that you are a foreign agent!” may soon become an acceptable idea used by many people in Armenia too.

Edgar Khachatryan is the director of Peace Dialogue, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation. He specializes in international peacebuilding trainings, consultancy and expertise in gender and peace processes, violence prevention, and post-war stabilization and recovery.

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