Translation: Grigory Yavlinsky Slams the New NGO Laws

Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party and political old-timer, argues in a Vedomosti editorial that the Kremlin’s crackdown on NGOs is not only ethically wrong but ultimately self-crippling.

The Exile of Citizens from Politics

Unfortunately, the Russian nomenklatura has an exceedingly poor understanding of why we need independent public organizations, and the meaning of citizen control and social feedbacks. Hence the rhetoric of “a billion dollars in four months,” the war against those who help children, and the branding of crane sanctuaries as foreign agents. {Translator: Refers to alleged scale of foreign NGO financing, and the woes of the Crane Homeland).

But this isn’t the full extent of the problem. The state’s deliberate defamation of NGOs that fulfill vital functions of citizen supervision in various spheres of life is but a continuation of the same pattern that includes systemic electoral falsifications, the creation of a compliant parliament, and the open and insolent rejection of the separation of powers written into the Constitution. This amounts to nothing less than an exile of citizens from politics and social life, and the transformation of the socio-political sphere into the exclusive prerogative of the state.

The issue of foreign involvement in NGO financing is of secondary importance. The government simple took advantage of a situation inherited from the 1990s – when not only NGOs, but many vitally-important national institutions in science and culture – were forced to apply for foreign grants just to survive and continue operating. To this day there are no transparent, nonpartisan, and autonomous state or private financial groups in Russia that could act as interested and impartial sponsors 0f educational programs and citizen control. So it turns out that the only way out is to get financing from abroad. This is not to say this makes anyone particularly happy – from our conversations with NGO representatives, we are well aware that that foreign bureaucratized structures neither have a good understanding of what is really happening in Russia, nor are they all that interested in it for that matter. But expecting anything from within Russia is even more pointless: Our oligarchs think even less about the development of their own country than do foreigners.

These indiscriminate charges of foreign financing are nothing more a stigma, intended to make people buy into the government’s siege mentality. In this case, stupid references to American norms and traditions – as in many other cases – are totally inapplicable to our situation, and only underscore the brazen impudence of the entire exercise.

There are other, similar stigmas, which do not contain the word “foreigner” – for instance, “enemies.” And the bureaucracy, in implementing this policy, considers its enemies to be anyone who shows independence and autonomy.

The mass checks of NGO finances, and the resulting absurdities that accompany them, are part of that policy. The aim is to dredge out the undesirable elements from public life – as they are understood by the government – and pit them against the “majority,” “healthy society,” and the country itself. Moreover, those undesirable elements include not only human rights defenders, but also independent politicians, deputies, and public figures for whom the powers that be wish to a sort of latter day “philosopher’s ship.”

This is contrary to Russia’s interests. Squeezing everybody independent, civilly active, and passionate – and hence, dissenting – from political and public life only serves to further weaken the unstable and problematic relationship of the state with its citizens. As far as national development is concerned, this is a strategic stalemate. The state must, if anything, thank NGOs for the civic, supervisory, and advisory roles they perform – even if the level and slant of several groups leaves something to be desired (but that is just a mirror of what is happening in general). Meanwhile, many other NGOs, even those in dire financial straits – it’s not like foreigners actually give out billions – perform exceptionally high-quality and critically important work for the benefit of Russia, which will be valued by history and which the Russian state should already be valuing today.

The author is a Russian politician.


  1. Mr. Yavlinsky and others of his ilk seem to be patently and conveniently unaware of the US 1966 Foreign Agents Registration Act

    The goal of the 1966 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was to “minimize foreign intervention” in U.S. elections by establishing a series of limitations on foreign governments and nationals. In 1974, the prohibition was incorporated into the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), giving the FEC jurisdiction over its enforcement and interpretation.

    According to the FEC, FECA “prohibits any foreign national or government from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly. It is also unlawful to help foreign national or government violate that ban or to solicit, receive or accept contributions or donations from them. Persons who knowingly and wilfully engage in these activities may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.”

    What’s good for the goose is clearly not necessarily good for the gander, or so it would seem when one hears the arguments that Yavlinsky and Alekseeva and many others make concerning “crackdowns” on NGOs. Furthermore, these people also conveniently omit he fact that this legislation that they detest so much is not directed at all NGOs, only those that undertake political activities, so there will be no “crackdown” against, say, a foreign funded charity that finds homes for stray cats and dogs in Russia.

    • AKarlin says:

      I do agree that the NGO “crackdown” is overblown (as were the dozen or so other “crackdowns” on them under the Evil One). That said, however…

      (1) What do you make of Yavlinsky’s argument that Russia and the US are not comparable in this respect? After all, even leaving aside politics for a minute – though that isn’t to Russia’s favor either – the pool of disposable wealth in the US is an order of magnitude higher than in Russia. Basically, US NGOs have much less need of foreign financing because they can almost always find enough at home. That doesn’t apply to Russia nearly as much.

      (2) Speaking of animals, what do you make of the crane sanctuary that is at risk of being declared a “foreign agent”? Is it a bizarre anomaly, the type that springs up with any law, or is the fact that such a ridiculous case is even possible ground to stop and reconsider?

      • By the same token, Russian elections do not cost billions of dollars as in the USA. So the argument that Russian political “NGOs” need western cash is dubious. They can take billionaire oligarch money for example. Waving pictures of jailed oligarch Khodorkovsky is very popular amongst the “non systemic opposition”. The current Russian law would not touch them if they took money from Russian sources that were in agreement with their pro-oligarch, laissez faire, neoliberal ideology.

      • As regards point (1) of AK’s posting above, I think bydlo answers that question well enough.

        As regards (2): If the bird sanctuary is involved in political activities, then it falls under the categorization of an NGO acting as a foreign agent and is obliged by law to make this fact public and to register itself as a foreign agent, no matter how ludicrous this may seem to be at first sight. For if this is indeed the case, namely that a foreign funded organization involved in political activities is presenting itself as a charitable bird sanctuary, then this presentation of the organization’s activity as being the care and protection of a species of bird is just a sham intended to make ludicrous any accusations that the sanctuary is involved in political activities.

        The purpose of the law is not to punish dumb animals, orphans, homeless people, drunken bums etc. and a host of other humanitarian charities that receive all or part of their funding from foreign sources, and to say that this is the case, as Yavlinsky and many others try to make out, is a smokescreen, a duplicitous attempt to hide the very real fact that the US government funds organizations in other lands, not least in Russia, in order to instigate a change of those countries’ governments to ones that will undertake policies conducive to US interests.

        However, whenever new legislation is passed, there are very often anomalies and loopholes that have to be rectified or, as the case may be, closed. I recall that several years after capital punishment had been abolished in the UK it was discovered that there still remained three offences punishable by the death penalty: arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards, rape of a princess royal and witchcraft. These laws were immediately repealed on their discovery, of course, but technically, if someone had been tried and found guilty of witchcraft before it had been discovered that such an offence not only still existed in English law but was a capital one, then theoretically the guilty party could have been legally hanged. That didn’t happen, of course, and even in the highly unlikely event of anyone being found guilty of witchcraft before the repeal of said witchcraft laws in England, capital punishment of the guilty party would certainly not have taken place.