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Russian NGO fights 'foreign agent' label

Emily Sherwin
October 5, 2016

The human rights organization Memorial has become the latest NGO in Russia to be branded a "foreign agent." But, Memorial is determined to continue its work, even if the damaging label sticks, reports Emily Sherwin.

Russland Moskau-Büro der NGO Memorial
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Kudryavtsev

"During the examination of Memorial, evidence of funding from foreign sources was found and signs of political activity were uncovered," a press statement from the Russian Justice Ministry explains.

Starting in early September, the ministry carried out a surprise search at the international branch of the NGO Memorial, which focuses on researching Soviet political repression and human rights issues. It has now branded the organization a "foreign agent." According to a 2012 law, any group can be classified as a "foreign agent" if it receives even a small amount of funding from non-Russian sources - and if it engages in "political activity." 

In this case, that political activity was simply individual statements made by the organization or its staff, according to Memorial's Executive Director Elena Zhemkova. Their comments on political events such as the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and the conflict in Ukraine got them in trouble. As did, ironically, their criticism of the "foreign agents" law itself. 

An 'immoral' law

Elena Zhemkova (Photo: DW)
Memorial's Executive Director Elena Zhemkova plans to fight the 'foreign agent' labelImage: DW

Still, Zhemkova's criticism of the law remains fierce. "This law is not legal and it's immoral. It determines in advance that if you receive foreign funding you are a foreign agent - regardless of why you received it and what the legal basis is. And it completely rejects the presumption of innocence, which is a key, basic cornerstone of the legal system. "

Zhemkova also rejects the Justice Ministry's definition of political activity. "Expressing your opinion is not political activity," she says.

This isn't the first time that the organization has come up against this law. Six of its regional offices have already been classified as "foreign agents," including branches in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But its umbrella organization, International Memorial, which runs branches in Russia and six other countries, including Ukraine, Germany and France, has so far been spared the label.   

An uphill battle 

The term "foreign agent" itself harks back to Soviet times - carrying associations of spying and treachery. It was used to describe enemies of the state under Stalin. More than 140 Russian organizations have been classified as "foreign agents," which means they have to use the term in all their paperwork and public activities. It can make working with any sort of government organization difficult. 

People light candles for the victims of Soviet-era political repression at a memorial in Mosow
The human rights organization Memorial aims to publicize the fate of victims of Soviet-era political repression Image: AP

That has already been the case in Memorial's local offices, according to Zhemkova.  What she describes as an "unpleasant and offensive status" is likely to make the umbrella organization's work tougher as well, according to the human rights activist, since Memorial frequently works with the authorities. For example, the organization regularly needs access to government archives to help individuals find relatives who were victims of Soviet repression.

Memorial plans to appeal the decision, though Zhemkova isn't optimistic that the appeal will be successful. As a human rights organization, Memorial believes in the legal system, she says. "We hope that justice will win out in the end. But I don’t know how good our chances are. Probably not very good."

A political decision

Jens Siegert, a political analyst who previously headed the German Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow, also thinks Memorial doesn't have much of a chance to fight against its new label in court.

"Ultimately, court rulings in Russia are political decisions," he says. For Memorial to win in court, people high up in politics would have to "decide that it's not a good idea to have this organization named as a foreign agent," Siegert argues, adding "I think these things are decided all the way at the top." 

Simply the next step

Jens Siegert (Photo: Heinrich Böll Stiftung/Andrea Kroth)
Jens Sieger thinks more NGOs are likely to be branded 'foreign agents'Image: Heinrich Böll Stiftung/Andrea Kroth

On September 5, the government's decision to brand independent polling organization Levada Center a "foreign agent," came as a shock to many.

"No one knows why this is happening now," says Siegert. "I think the bureaucratic machine was started by the […] political leadership and now it's just running its course. And now it's simply Memorial's turn."

Still, he doesn't think things are likely to stop with Memorial. "All independent organizations that have any kind of financial support from overseas will sooner or later be labeled foreign agents."

Russia's future at stake

But he doesn't take the decision to brand Memorial lightly, either. "Memorial is extremely important for Russian society. There is no comparable organization that deals with [the country's] totalitarian past in an equally professional way," he says.

"And if this country wants to move forward in the future, it won't be able to avoid confronting that past - one way or another."

Zhemkova is also convinced that the work of Memorial is important for Russia. "We will keep working because people need our work. And while our work is needed, we will keep working."