RD Interview: Elena Panfilova, the head of anti-corruption NGO Transparency International – Russia, discusses the law on undesirable organizations and its implications for Russia and its citizens.

Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev speaks to the media from the window of the For Human Rights movement headquarters in Moscow, Friday, June 21, 2013. Photo: AP

 For a different take read the interview with Alexander Tarnavsky, the co-author of the law on undesirable organizations: "An inside look at the reasons why Putin signed the law on 'undesirables'" 

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Law on Undesirable Organizations, which has the aim of regulating the activity of foreign organizations in Russia. Both human rights activists and heads of some NGOs agree the law will hamper the activity of foreign organizations in Russia.  

After the law had been passed, a deputy of the Russian State Duma sent a request to the Office of the Prosecutor General to inspect the activities of a number of NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, the Carnegie Moscow Center and Memorial.

Elena PanfilovaAgainst this backdrop, Russia Direct discussed with Elena Panfilova, the head of anti-corruption non-governmental organization Transparency International – Russia, the implications of the law for Russia, foreign organizations working in Russia and Russia’s civil society.

Russia Direct: What is your attitide toward the title of the new law on undesired organizations?

Elena Panfilova: The title is very vague and, generally, it brings us to a strange concept of being desirable or undesirable. In addition, amidst the recent events that have been developing during last 24 hours, it turns into an ultimate grotesque.

RD: How can you respond to the authors of the law who believe that it aims at fighting organizations that present the risks to Russia’s security, political and economic stability?  

E.P.: It seems to me that the law doesn’t fight organizations, which present real security risks to the country [like terrorist ones]. Instead, it fights those ones that make the life in the country better. So, I think there is something fundamentally wrong in this concept.

Russia Direct: Shortly after the Russian president signed the law, a request from a Russian parliamentarian came to Office of Prosecutor General in order to inspect some NGOs if they are desirable or undesirable. Among these organizations was Transparency International-Russia, which you head. How can you account such velocity in looking for undesirable organizations?

E.P.: First, this deputy, who came with such idea, is putting the cart before the horse, because the law hasn’t yet come into force. In fact, his request to Prosecutor General’s Office is illegal, from my point of view and many legal professionals would agree with me, just because there is no such a norm in the Russian law: It is too early to do such inspection.

Regarding Transparency International – Russia, there is a half-comic situation around it, because if the organization, which fights corruption, is deemed undesirable, well, what king of organization should be desirable?  

RD: What are you going to do when the law comes into force and how will you plan to respond to such request for inspection?

E.P.: Well, the law will take into force only on June 3. The further one looks, the more comic situation becomes, because Transparency International-Russia is a Russian organization and the law on undesirable organizations is not applicable to it at all. In fact, now all repressive legislation on NGOs consists of two parts: the law that deals with Russia’s organizations (the law on “foreign agents”) and the law on undesirable organizations that aims at international organizations.

We have already got the blow from the law on so called “foreign agents”: We have been already included in the list. And sure we already appeal that in the court. So we cannot be included in the list of undesirable organizations.

On the other hand, the authorities might make an attempt to include the international organization Transparency International in the list, which, in reality, is not represented in Russia. It as an international movement doesn’t conduct any activity on territory of the Russian Federation.

But, who knows, they could try. But for this, it is necessary to prove that the international movement of Transparency International conducts activity in Russia, they would need to study the activity of Transparency International’s 101 departments in detail, because it is a network organization, with its branches located throughout the world, from Armenia to Zimbabwe. We’ll see how the events will develop further.

RD: How will this law affect the relations between Russia and the West, which are not ideal, to put it mildly?

 E.P.: This law is hardly likely to foster good relations between Russia and its neighbors. On the other hand, they are already severely spoiled from the point of view of credibility.    

RD: What is the major implications of the law for both ordinary people and organizations?

E.P.: Actually, for organization, it is an additional bureaucratic burden, the jitters, a lot of fuss and trouble as well as useless spending of time, which could be used more efficiently. For example, my colleagues could help people facing corruption, but instead of doing this, we have to deal with bureaucratic fuss and litigations. It is first. Second, we wasted resources which come to litigations and the need to prove something in the courts. The law affects the organization as legal entities. Yet, in reality, it hits more not the organizations, but rather ordinary people, who will not get enough legal defenses, expertise and help if an organization is forced to step down.

RD: How can you comment on the case of the Dynasty Foundation, a Russian fund that popularizes science, after it was announced as a foreign agent by Russia’s authorities?

E.P.: Now I am sitting before the computer and read a piece of news: even the President is doubtful about this decision. I sincerely hope, that those people, who decided to check the box and put the Foundation in the list of foreign agents, will come to their senses and cancel this decision. Because it is complete and absolute shame to label such organisations like Dynasty as so called “foreign agent”.