Hope for Planet of Hopes? New Law in Russia to Give more Freedom to Non-Government Organizations

In October 2015, I translated an interview with the Russian activist Nadejda Kutepova that appeared in the journal Mediapart (France). She had recently come to France to seek political asylum (which she has since been granted) for the reasons described in the introduction to the interview A Russian antinuclear activist asks for asylum in France:

Nadejda Kutepova’s story goes from the Soviet past to the Russia of today. She has been fighting unrelentingly for the last fifteen years to get recognition of the nuclear disaster which began in the Urals in 1949. She found herself under attack in 2012 when the Kremlin began clamping down on NGOs, in particular ones concerned with the military and the environment. Threatened with prosecution, she finally left her country in July.

Nadejda’s work through her charity Planet of Hopes had always been strictly focused in improving conditions for nuclear workers and gaining compensation for those whose health was destroyed by both nuclear disasters and the routine operations of the nuclear weapons complex in Ozersk. Nonetheless, under the law of the time she was alleged to be a “foreign agent” for having taken contributions from the American, government-funded “NGO” National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In a subsequent post I stressed that no one could rightly accuse Planet of Hopes of being engaged in subversive activity, but I pointed out that NED and other American organizations have been active in Russia and former Soviet states for many years, engaged very actively in forms of “democracy promotion” that Russia views as the sort of interference in domestic affairs that is illegal under international law. NED’s donation to Planet of Hopes was puny in comparison to what it has contributed to political activities over the past 20 years, so it seemed that amid the increasingly strained relations between Russia and the US, the Russian reaction against their activities was highly predictable. Ms. Kutepova may have not suspected what she was getting into, but her American benefactors surely could have.

It is rare that such stories end well, and it still isn’t over, but there may yet be hope for Planet of Hopes. This week Russia Today reported that President Putin has signed a law that restricts the definition of “political activity” so that a greater number of NGOs and charities will be able to operate in Russia without having to register as “foreign agents,” whether they are funded within Russia or not. RT reports:

The Russian president has signed into law a bill defining the term political activity of non-governmental organizations and allowing charity groups receiving funding from abroad not to register as foreign agents.

The new law lists political activity as participation in street rallies and marches and any activity aimed at influencing the result of an election or a referendum. The list also includes elections monitoring, participation in the work of political parties, public appeals to state agencies seeking changes in laws, circulating appraisals of existing laws or state policies and attempts to influence views on political issues through opinion polls.

The act also names the spheres where no activity can be recognized as political. These are culture, science, sport, fine arts, healthcare, environmental protection, volunteering and charity. Groups involved in these activities should not [sic? don’t have to?] register as foreign agents even if they get foreign funding and at the same time participate in events seeking to influence the decisions of state bodies.

At first glance, the law seems to indicate that a favorable outcome for Planet of Hopes is possible. It would be good too for the Bellona Foundation, an organization with offices in Norway, Belgium and Russia that has been one of the few non-government organizations to keep a critical eye on the nuclear industry in Russia. This may be another of the Russian government’s wise soft power moves that seek to counter the Western perceptions and propaganda that view Russia as a corrupt dictatorship and Vladimir Putin as a “thug.” President Putin has reacted to the smears in recent years by giving lengthy, articulate interviews to foreign correspondents, presenting arguments in an intelligent manner that puts Barack Obama’s eloquent but empty speechifying to shame. Russia no doubt has many serious domestic problems, some of which Putin can take responsibility for and try to fix, and others which he didn’t create and may not be able to fix. The new law seems like a step in the right direction to helping Russian citizens fix problems themselves, but it remains to be seen how lower echelon officials in Ozersk, and the hounding local and national media, would respond to Nadejda coming back to set up Planet of Hopes again. Glasnost was never easy the first time around. 

UPDATE 2016/09/13: Read the exchange between Jill Stein, presidential candidate for the American Green Party, and two persecuted Russian environmentalists, Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova

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