IN THE SPOTLIGHT
European Parliament alarmed about crackdown on Russian civil society
Werner Schulz, MEP and Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Cooperation Committee EU-Russia, organised a seminar in the European Parliament on 15 May on the mounting pressure on Russian civil society by the authorities and the EU's response to the issue. Participants in the seminar were Lilia Shibanova, Golos, Stefanie Schiffer, European Exchange, Yuri Dzhibladze, Centre for Development of Democracy and Human Rights and Member of the Steering Committee of the Civil Society Forum EU-Russia, Jean Louis Ville, Head of Unit EIDIHR in DG DEVCO and Michael Pulch, Head of Unit for Russia in the European External Action Service.
The participants discussed the current situation for civil society organisations in Russia, which massively worsened with the applications of the NGO-law “on foreign agents”. According to this law, organisations receiving foreign funding and conducting political activities aiming at changing or influencing the government’s policy have to register to a list of foreign agents and state on all their publications and statements that they are a “foreign agent”. Failure to register leads to high fines or even imprisonment. A major problem identified is the broad definition of political activity in the law, which allows the prosecution of nearly any NGO interacting with the public or the government. At the moment around 30 NGOs have been warned that they need to register, with Golos being the first one to be fined under the law and facing its closure. In the case of Golos, the law was even applied retroactive – a clear violation of international legal standards. Several hundred organisations await the results of the government checks on their activities.
The participants agreed that a response is needed to the crackdown, which is contradictory to Russia’s international obligations in the framework of the United Nations, Council of Europe and OSCE. The need for immediate action was stressed, as otherwise by the end of autumn there could be no independent NGO left in Russia, as most organisations prefer to close down rather than labelling themselves as “foreign agents”. Furthermore, future steps against NGOs could include their forced close-down, the criminalisation of unregistered NGOs and the prosecution of individual activists as spies and traitors, which could lead to up to 20 years of imprisonment for the concerned persons. The fact that Russia, as an important player in the region, also sets an example for other countries was seen as further worrisome, with similar developments already visible in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Participants recommended that the crackdown on civil society should feature as the first item in the dialogue between the EU and Russia and the upcoming EU-Russia Summit on 3-4 June was identified as an important opportunity of the EU to raise the issue. The disagreement with Russia should be expressed in public as well as in bilateral meetings and the dialogue between the EU and Russian civil society intensified. Furthermore, the EU should be ready to provided flexible assistance to the Russian civil society where needed, including shelter and asylum for prosecuted activists. The Commission underlined the fact that it will not withdraw from Russia despite the recent expulsion of USAID but will continue its support for the Russian civil society.