Russia′s diabetics′ union may face ′foreign agent′ label | News | DW | 29.12.2017
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Russia's diabetics' union may face 'foreign agent' label

A pro-Putin student activist has flagged the diabetics' association in the Russian city of Saratov, advising authorities to consider labeling the group as a "foreign agent." A court is now set to hear the case.

Prosecutors in the Russian city of Saratov have filed a court case seeking to designate the local diabetic association as a "foreign agent." The move comes after a 21-year-old medical student, Nikita Smirnov, asked the authorities to look into the workings of the non-profit organization.

Talking with the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which broke the story earlier this week, Smirnoff said that he "read online that this organization is financed by foreign companies, I can't remember which ones anymore."

"I felt it was my civic duty to signal that they should be checked, nothing else," he told the paper. "If you had such suspicions, you would likely do the same!"

The second-year medical student is the head of a student body that supports Vladimir Putin's candidacy in the 2018 presidential elections.

Read more: Russia labels Voice of America and Radio Free Europe as 'foreign agents'

Five years ago, Russia introduced a controversial "foreign agents" law that allows the authorities to apply this label to NGO's receiving funding from abroad. In 2017, the legislation was amended to include foreign media outlets. Organizations marked as "foreign agents" face harsh scrutiny by the government, which requires them to display the label on their paperwork, statements and other material. The organizations are often subjected to surprise raids and must report where they get their money and how they spend it. Many NGO's have been forced to close their doors since the law was passed.

Diabetic organization reports on 'painful points'

The prosecutors' case included a testimony by expert witness Ivan Konovalov, who holds a doctorate in history. Konovalov argued that the organization was feeding critical info on the Russian health system to its partners abroad.

In a six-page statement, Konovalov claims that the Saratov association received 645,500 rubles ($11,213 or €9,392) from Russian branches of "foreign pharmaceutical companies." He also lists the ways money was spent, including patient conferences, exhibitions, and sport events involving people suffering from diabetes.

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However, based on media reports on issues troubling diabetic patients, Konovalov concludes that the organization is "providing information to foreign partners on the so-called 'painful points' of the region, especially in the sphere of providing medical assistance to the population, which can be used to inspire protest tendencies in the society." In addition, the diabetic union is "creating preconditions to discredit the authorities with baseless information on the failure of state structures when it comes to supplying, distribution, import substitution of medication among people suffering from diabetes, which can be qualified as political activity."

Read more: Why is Russia afraid of NGOs?

Konovalov previously provided expert testimony in a 2016 case concerning "Socium," the NGO aiming to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. The organization has since been declared a foreign agent. Konovalov later said that members of Socium "could be called participants in hybrid warfare" against Russia.

'We can't even pay the phone bill'

The court is set to consider the case against the diabetic association on January 15th, 2018.

The association's representative Ekaterina Rogatkina says she has never seen Smirnov and never been abroad. The organization now faces a fine of up to half a million rubles ($8,686 or €7,275).

"We cannot get a lawyer. We can't even pay the phone bill!" Rogatkina told Novaya Gazeta. "The maximum fine to be charged to a foreign agent is up to 300,000 rubles to the responsible official and 500,000 to the organization. Where are we supposed to get that kind of money?"

The organization's primary purpose is to help local patients obtain insulin. Some 82,000 people suffer from diabetes in the Saratov region in southwestern Russia.

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Smirnov walks back

The news of the medical student's move caused uproar on social media, prompting Smirnov to publicly state that he was "taking back" his appeal to the authorities.

"After all, disregarding all the statements and actions that could be coming from this organization, the most important thing is that it is helping people and does humanitarian work," he said on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte.

He added that he was ready to "help the organization in every way."

Read more: NGOs in Russia are battered, but unbowed

However, a source inside Russia's judiciary cited by Novaya Gazeta says that Smirnov's change of heart would have no effect whatsoever on the future court proceedings. The prosecutors are set to continue their work "in the interest of state" the source said.

Since the "foreign agents" law was first passed in 2012, three organizations in and around Saratov, including "Socium," have been designated with this label. All three of them have since shut down.