20 years under Putin: a timeline

Several Russian human rights organizations that were targeted by the “foreign agent” law have applied for financial support from the Russian government. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, it is impossible to defend human rights while receiving money from the state that is the main source of human rights violations.



What is a victory? Some wrongly believe the enemy’s admission of defeat and the act of capitulation to be the main signs of a victory. In reality, a victory consists in forcing one’s enemy to live by one’s own code. Symbols are much less important. These days, the art of propaganda has reached such heights that it is easy to present a defeat as a victory and vice versa—and finding appropriate symbols is even easier.

The recent redefining of the term “foreign agent” in Russian legal vocabulary served but one purpose: that of placing NGO activity under state control by imposing conditions on them that would make independent operation impossible. This motive is not surprising; it fits well into the Kremlin’s plan of bringing the economy, politics, culture, media, and other spheres of public life under government control. The regime can only guarantee its stability and irremovability by taking hold of all mechanisms for managing public initiatives. It has been trying to accomplish this for the last thirteen years, and is not going to give up now.

The Kremlin’s war with Russian society is aimed at achieving a clearly defined goal: that of imposing its own rules of existence on society. Thus, independent political activity has already been virtually forbidden, officials and the police and security forces have put business under their strict control, and the autonomy of public initiatives has been undermined by laws and lawlessness. The so-called “third sector” has, until recently, remained an islet of freedom, especially for those non-governmental organizations that did not depend financially on either the regime or on Russian business. These NGOs received financial support from foreign philanthropic foundations and their partners. The introduction of a new “foreign agent” law last year targeted these organizations, and it hit the bull’s eye.

The redefining of the term “foreign agent” served but one purpose: that of placing NGO activity under state control.

The Moscow Helsinki Group was the first among the well-known NGOs to cave. According to the new law, an NGO has to either refuse foreign financial support, or register as a “foreign agent.” The Helsinki Group’s chair, Lyudmila Alekseeva, proudly declared that her organization would never register as a “foreign agent”—but by renouncing its foreign funding, the Group as good as complied with the law on NGOs. One can put a brave face on a sorry business for as long as one wishes, but the fact remains: the Moscow Helsinki Group complied with an illicit act of legislation and accepted the rules of the game imposed by the regime.

Others treaded in the Helsinki Group’s footsteps. The Golos Association renounced its foreign funding (it did not help the organization, though; the Justice Ministry has suspended its activities), followed by the Levada Center and others. Most organizations, however, decided to wait and see what happens. Some are prepared to register as “foreign agents” if forced to do so by a court decision, but almost no one wants to voluntarily take the first step by either registering as a “foreign agent” or refusing foreign funding. The position of the Justice Ministry, the directives of which sometimes contradict the orders of the Prosecutor’s Office, adds to the overall state of uncertainty. The Prosecutor’s Office does not behave logically either when, for instance, it systematically avoids considering the Movement for Human Rights’ appeal against allegations that its actions have been illegal.

In Russia, the wait-and-see approach to complying with new laws is rather justified, since the law is one thing, and its application is something very different. The saying that “the strictness of Russian law is compensated for by the laxity of its enforcement” has already become a truism. The state machine runs with intense difficulty and is prone to failure. Well-coordinated work is only present where officials either have financial interests and expect bribes, or fulfill their responsibilities under extreme pressure from the police and security forces—as has happened this year with NGOs. The kickbacks characteristic of traditional relationships between Russian officials and the police and security forces can also be employed in dealing with the third sector.


The independent poll-monitoring Golos Association was suspended by the Russian Justice Ministry in June 2013.


According to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, 193 out of the 215 organizations examined by his department, which had been receiving foreign financial support and had been fulfilling “political” functions, either froze their activities or refused foreign funding. Estimates from the Prosecutor’s Office are not very reliable, but the general trend they suggest is likely accurate. The third sector has adopted a wait-and-see approach with regard to the authorities’ actions.

Public organizations cannot freeze completely, though. They must stay active; otherwise they will fall apart. This is why a considerable number of NGOs (probably a large majority among them) have asked the Russian government for money, either in an attempt to secure themselves against discontinuance of financing, or in pursuit of a better lot. Amongst groups that have done this are such renowned public and human rights organizations as the Movement for Human Rights, the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Golos Association, Memorial, the SOVA Center, and the Committee against Torture.

The allocation of Kremlin funds to nonprofit organizations has taken the following form: On March 29, President Putin issued an order to allocate grants to six public organizations (operators), amounting to 2 billion 320 million rubles ($71 million). The order does not mention where this money is supposed to come from. These finances are to be divided between Russian NGOs in the form of grants. To that end, the operators are forming tendering committees.

The Institute for Civil Society Issues, the National Welfare Fund, The Institute of Social, Economic and Political Studies, the Russian Union of Youth, the National Health League, and the All-Russia “Znanie” (“Knowledge”) Society are the six public organizations that made Putin’s list. The fact that they are all GONGOs—that is, structures linked to the government that exist to create the appearance of independent public activity—is evident. The tendering committees consist of such people as political analyst Sergei Markov, Putin’s former election proxy Natalia Narochnitskaya, State Management Faculty Dean at Moscow State University Vyacheslav Nikonov, Moscow State University Rector Victor Sadovnichy, VTsIOM General Director Valery Fedotov, State Duma deputies and Federation Council members, Public Chamber members, and Moscow government officials. Each tendering committee necessarily includes an official from the presidential public projects department in the rank of advisor or head of department. There is no doubt that these presidential “commissars” will have the last word on the allocation of grants.

The perpetrator of human rights violations is the state. The position of an organization that fights against human rights violations while receiving money from the source of these violations is ambiguous.

It is their support that Russian human rights activists are now seeking. It is possible that for the majority of nongovernmental organizations it is not improper to seek government support. However, such behavior on the part of human rights groups will inevitably result in conflicts of interests. The perpetrator of human rights violations in Russia is the state itself. The position of an organization that fights against human rights violations while receiving money from the source of these violations is ambiguous to say the least. Such a scenario is considered unacceptable even in countries with stable and developed democracies, where government influence on civil society is incomparably weaker than in Russia.

Human rights activists seeking help from the regime hope to slip between Scylla and Charybdis: to neither lose funding nor fall into a position of dependence on the government. Under the current Russian regime, nothing will come of this effort, though. They will either have to play the Kremlin’s game or be left high and dry. Some human rights organizations will undoubtedly opt for the latter in order to avoid becoming GONGOs. By the time they take this route, however, they will have already caused great damage to the reputation of the human rights movement: In public opinion, they will look like “Kremlin agents,” simply because they asked the regime for money or are being financed by it. And being “Kremlin agents” is no better than being “foreign agents,” which, in reality, they never were.

Ultimately, what an organization is called and from whom it receives grants are questions of reputation. Human rights activists were concerned about their reputations when they were accused of being “agents” of the democratic West. For some reason, though, they do not seem worried about becoming agents of an authoritarian regime.