NGOs are not harmful spies

By Managing Editor

Some may be surprised that Russia is home to organizations that protect female, LGBT and minority citizens; provide psychological assistance to victims of abuse; work to reform the prison and criminal justice systems; further environmental protection; conduct academic and historical research and provide legal representation in discrimination cases. 

However, all of these services are offered by non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, with no encouragement from the Russian government. A Nov. 18 report from Amnesty International found these organizations have been struggling to serve the Russian people since the implementation of a “foreign agents” law in Russia in November 2012.

According to Amnesty International, 148 NGOs are currently listed as foreign agents, and the law has caused 27 NGOs to shut down their work in Russia completely because after being listed as foreign agents, organizations have lost funding and support. 

The law requires any organization that receives funding from outside of Russia and engages in political activity be registered as a foreign agent. Political activity includes “participation in street rallies and marches, any activity aimed at influencing the result of an election, public appeals to state agencies seeking changes in laws, circulating appraisals of existing laws or state policies, and attempting to influence views on political issues through opinion polls,” according to a Nov. 18 article from RT News.

The law also allows state agencies to list groups as foreign agents without their consent if an audit of the organization finds that they are participating in political activity or receiving outside funding, according to the RT News article.

The two main parts of this law target what NGOs are at their core. NGOs are funded by sources—like the UN or other nations—to ensure the organization can serve the genuine needs of citizens instead of worrying about pleasing the government of the country they are in. Especially in a historically oppressive country like Russia, NGOs’ ability to retain independence from the government is key to their success. 

The law also targets the political activity of NGOs, which for many of these organizations is central to serving the citizens of the country. An NGO that is trying to advocate for the rights of LGBT individuals should be able to organize marches or distribute information about laws and elected officials that may be opposing or supporting the rights of that community. 

Russia can try to justify this law under the guise of trying to protect itself from foreign spies or influences. The weakness in this argument is failing to recognize that influences from outside Russia may not be entirely harmful to the country. 

Raising awareness about LGBT rights, minority rights, women’s rights, criminal justice reform and all the other issues NGOs attempt to bring to the forefront of politics would benefit the general population if they were actually recognized or discussed by the government, instead of being put under wraps by this law. 

Political leaders can try to use this argument to keep this law in place. However, in a political climate like Russia’s, a law like this is not brushed off with such a simple explanation. Any action the government takes against NGOs is seen as a threat because NGOs are already fighting to keep their doors open to the people of Russia.