For Marina Koltsova and her colleagues, the Russian Republic of Chechnya is a kind of no-go area, a blank spot on the map. "As a matter of principle, we are not allowed to conduct seminars in the northern Caucasus region, simply because we bear such a stigma," Koltsova, a lawyer for the renowned Moscow-based human rights organization "Memorial," told DW. "Government bodies at all levels have been telling us frankly that we have been categorized as foreign agents — that means spies — and that they are unable to collaborate with us." Authorities had been alerted by word of mouth, or even in writing, she said.
Not just human rights activists
This restriction is a direct consequence of a law that came into force five years ago: on 21 November 2012. Under the law, non-governmental organizations which are politically active and receive overseas funding are obliged to register as "foreign agents." In addition, they are required to make this status publicly visible, on their websites, for instance, and they must disclose their funding sources at regular intervals. Human rights organizations are most affected, but also NGOs which campaign on behalf of the environment or health care issues.
The "foreign agents" law was one of a whole series of restrictive measures that were introduced by the Russian government in response to the anti-Kremlin protest movement that arose between parliamentary and presidential elections in the winter of 2011/12. In the eyes of Russian leaders, NGOs are an instrument used by Western powers to pave the way for a transition of power. Officially, Moscow justified its move by referring to US legislation (the Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA), which requires foreign legal entities to provide periodic public disclosures of their activities. Experts, however, consider any direct comparison between the two pieces of legislation to be problematic, partly because in Russia the term "foreign agent" has been associated with espionage since the Soviet era.
Lawsuits in Strasbourg
The tarnished image is the most serious problem, said Marina Koltsova of "Memorial," which works to cultivate remembrance of political repression in the Soviet Union. To many NGOs, the law is defamatory, so they refused to enter themselves voluntarily in the Ministry of Justice's "foreign agents" list. They received support from the Council of Europe, the European Union and Western governments. And there was criticism from within Russia, too, for instance from the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. But nothing helped. Ultimately, the Ministry of Justice took a proactive role and added NGOs to the "foreign agents" register without their consent.
Five years on, the overall assessment is mixed. Some NGOs, the Moscow-based Helsinki Group, for instance, completely divested themselves of overseas funding and survived. Many others filed lawsuits in Russian courts which fell flat — including "Memorial", recounted Marina Koltsova: "The courts believe that setting up an exhibition or a roundtable already amounts to political activity," she said. "Memorial" is one of some 60 NGOs which have filed lawsuits with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. A ruling is expected at the end of 2018 at the earliest.
Carrying on as an informal group
In the meantime, the number of NGOs listed in the Ministry of Justice's "foreign agents" register has dropped significantly, from some 150 a year ago to 87 currently. In response to a DW inquiry, the Ministry of Justice in Moscow said a removal from the register could have a number of different reasons. For example, an NGO might have stopped its activity as a "foreign agent," or it could have been dissolved or reorganized. The ministry refrained from disclosing detailed information on individual cases. In all, dozens of Russian NGOs have ceased to exist.
One such organization is known by the name of "Agora" and was forcibly dissolved by court order in early 2016. "Agora," whose headquarters is in Kazan, used to be an influential human rights organization which was also involved in prominent cases such as that of the Russian punk band "Pussy Riot." Today, its lawyers, spread across all of Russia, are carrying on as a loose network. "Our work is now very different to what we did before," the head of the "Agora" group, Pavel Tchikov, told DW: "We have become a kind of interest-based club in which everyone has their own motivation, their own priorities and their own sources of funding." These days, "Agora" operates without an office and hired employees — it only has a website.
Goals achieved, extension in sight?
"It was the target of the powers that be to eliminate the sector of disloyal civil society organizations in Russia," is how Tchikov sums up the situation five years on: "In that sense, it was successful." A whole layer consisting of hundreds of once established and powerful NGOs had been deprived of their institutional basis, he said, leaving mostly "pro-government structures."
Just as its fifth anniversary came round, the now-forgotten "foreign agents" law made it back into the headlines. Last week, Russia's state Duma backed an amendment according to which foreign media are also required to register as "foreign agents" in a similar way to NGOs. The Federation Council — the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly — is scheduled to vote on the bill on November 22.