RD Interview: Alexander Tarnavsky, the co-author of the law on undesirable organizations, sheds light on its major provisions and explains their implications for foreign NGOs and ordinary citizens.

The building housing the Memorial human rights center on Maly Karetny Pereyulok in Moscow, where someone painted the inscription "Foreign agent. Love USA" on the facade. Photo: RIA Novosti

 For a different take read the interview with Transparency International's Elena Panfilova: "Does the 'undesirables' law fight those who make life in Russia better?"

As many Russia analysts have pointed out, the new Law on Undesirable Organizations, signed into law last week by President Vladimir Putin, appears aimed at filling the vacuum created by the law on “foreign agents,” which was directed against Russian NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are involved in “politics.” As a result, there is increasing concern that the law will make the activity of foreign organizations in Russia more difficult.

But just how much more difficult?

To answer that, Russia Direct recently sat down with Alexander Tarnavsky, a State Duma deputy from the Just Russia party, one of the authors of the law. In the interview below, he explains the potential consequences of the law for Russia’s civil society and outlines the differences between the law on foreign agents and the one on undesirable organizations.

Russia Direct: Over the last two weeks, the number of “foreign agents” in Russia has risen from 58 to 65. If you count the Dynasty Foundation and Liberal Mission, the number is 67. In addition, a Russian parliamentarian sent a request to the Prosecutor General’s Office shortly after President Vladimir Putin signed the law on undesirable organizations. How can you account for such haste and activity in pursuing NGOs?

Alexander TarnavskyAlexander Tarnavsky: First, let’s separate dogs from fleas. First, there is the law on foreign agents. This legislation deals with Russian non-commercial organizations, or NGOs that receive money from abroad. The inspection is being carried out permanently, with the sources of funding for some organizations being revealed. Such organizations are foreign agents. And there is nothing scary and extraordinary in it, despite the fact some would find this term offensive. It does not necessarily mean that they are foreign spies, they are just tax agents. This term is pretty common.

Second, there is the law on undesirable organizations that will come into force very soon. This law deals with foreign legal entities, not with Russian ones. According to the law, foreign organizations – both commercial ones and non-commercial – could be recognized as undesirable for their activity on the territory of Russia.

In this case, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office and Foreign Minister will admit that the activity of these organizations threaten the country’s political regime, its defense capability and security. And they will have to explain to the world and other diplomats why they deem a foreign organization “undesirable.” And I see this procedure as transparent, open, and legal. The fact that people apply with requests to inspect a foreign organization is normal. I have hundreds of such requests on my table from Russian citizens, who say that these organizations are good, while these other ones are bad. I see it as a normal democratic procedure.

RD: Nevertheless, how would you prove that a foreign organization is undesirable, given that the law, according to its critics, is very vague and could be interpreted in very different ways?

A.T.: From my point of view, when the Prosecutor General makes a decision, it should be based on concrete facts, which would confirm the activity of a foreign organization that could undermine the fundamentals of the constitutional regime of Russia, its defense capability and security. 

RD: I can’t get the point. Could you give an example?

A.T.: For example, the drop in oil prices has hit both the Russian budget and the living standards of every Russian citizen. So, we have been asking the authorities if the headlong drop of oil prices is just a market situation or if some who seek to hamper Russia’s economy orchestrated it.

RD: But I don’t understand how this example could be related to foreign organizations operating in Russia. Those organizations, which deal with human rights and corruption or provide analysis, won’t present a threat and, moreover, they won’t provoke a drop in oil prices. Where are the links?     

A.T.: We are talking about specific facts which either do exist or don’t. Today, for example, we read the statement of the secretary of the National Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev, who said that for the last three years, a huge amount of international currency reserves flew out of the country under the pressure of the West’s international financial agencies. So, there is a specific fact.

Likewise, we are talking about the oil prices drop. If it is the market situation, there are no questions, the only thing we could say in this situation is that it is very bad that Russia depends on oil prices and suffered. But if we find concrete facts that there were some financial operations of some companies to purposely dump oil prices, if it is proved, we can forward the question on the undesirables to the agenda. After all, some corporations are ideologically driven, and their stakeholders hate Russia.

RD: Still, I am failing to see the links between oil prices and organizations presented in the list of your party colleague Vitaly Zolochevsky. Why does he include respected NGOs (Transparency International-Russia, Carnegie Moscow Center, Amnesty International and others) that deal with corruption, human rights and international analysis into the list to be inspected?

A.T.: Actually, I don’t see any facts supporting the claims of my colleagues. In addition, some of these organizations are Russian legal entities and this law should not touch them at all. I just don’t have any information about it and, of course, I don’t think that their activity can threaten Russia’s political regime.

But if my colleague does have arguments, it might be so. Maybe, he actually does have them. But by submitting his request he actually shifted the responsibility to Russia’s Prosecutor General. And this is normal procedure: some like these organizations and support them, some don’t. It’s a matter of democratic process. So, there is no reason to react so sensitively to such things. If one is dissatisfied with the request, one could go to court, after all, and contest the request.

RD: Who can send the request to the Prosecutor General’s Office?

A.T.: There are no restrictions. Any citizen or an organization can submit their request.

RD: Ok, the critics of the law argue that the wording of the law is very vague. Some of the law’s provisions can be applied to any foreign organization that deals with international analysis. After all, somebody could come to a conclusion that the activity of an analytical center can pose a threat to Russia just because of an analysis or critical assessment of Russia’s current political and economic situations. So, how can we rely on the law if it implicitly encourages looking for enemies?

A.T.: You know, it is impossible to prescribe all provisions with definite wording and take into account all positions. After all, there is such a term as common sense; any law is based on this common sense. We do understand what the security of Russia means and to what extent it is important.

And regarding NGOs, there has been already such legislation, which has been regulating their activity for more than 10 years. Just look at Article 17 of the Federal Law on Fighting Extremism. And it is likewise about the threats to Russia’s constitutional regime. So, basically, there is nothing new that we are applying to deal with foreign NGOs: Such terms as “security,” “the fundamentals of constitutional regimes” and “defense capability” already exist.        

RD: So, the authorities will not dub a foreign organization as “undesirable” only because of its harsh criticism toward Russia, right?

A.T.: I don’t think so, but only in the case if we don’t have arguments [proving it being undesirable]. What we should admit is that some don’t like criticism; some don’t like statements that are not laudatory. Actually, nobody likes criticism. But there is the other side of the coin of undesirable organizations: First, it is surprising that some human rights organization focus on some problems, while neglecting others.

For example, take a look at the situation in Donbas. There are a lot of problems there that need to be addressed, but I don’t see foreign organization there. Instead, they widely cover and target some specific political issues [such as elections]. Actually, this is double standards.   

We also do understand that, mostly, foreign NGOs don’t earn any money by themselves. They receive this money. They are the channels for others who earn and consume. They get grants and scholarships and, thus, they depend on those who give them money. And money comes either from very rich philanthropists, who direct the money for certain projects, or transnational corporations, owned by these philanthropists, or the budgets of other countries. Those who pay order the music.

And this is the problem of all sectors of NGOs, including foreign ones, beginning with Human Rights Watch and ending with Carnegie Moscow Center. They have a target for funding, they have to work off it and promote their own agenda in Russia. And we don’t like it and find it suspicious.

RD: If a foreign organization is recognized as undesirable, people who collaborate with it might face criminal charges. Don’t you think that it might prevent some respected organizations from coming to Russia and, most importantly, create a chilling effect for both Russian organizations and ordinary citizens, which will hamper useful activity, including humanitarian aid, educational exchanges, anti-corruption cooperation and human rights endeavors?   

A.T.: Well, when we are talking about the risks of criminal investigation and NGOs, we mean that we ban cooperation with those undesirable organizations, which bring about harm and threats to Russia’s national security. And it is very serious.

And if a foreign organization does this, logically, we should ban it from cooperating with Russian citizens and agencies. Thus, we should impose responsibility – at first administrative and, afterwards, criminal. The law states that despite the ban, a citizen of Russia or an organization, keeps working with this organization, there will be an administrative fine from 5,000 to 15,000 rubles (from $100 to 300) (I think it is possible to live with it).

Even after being charged with the administrative fine, one persists with collaborating with an undesirable organization, there will one more fine. If one doesn’t give up and goes like a tank, he or she might face criminal charges. But if charged criminally, and the person gives up working with an undesirable organization, criminal charges will be lifted. That’s a reason why, if one stops at any moment, one will never face criminal charges. It’s a pre-emptive measure. It’s a matter of personal responsibility and we need such a measure.

RD: But, again, it will create a chilling effect for ordinary Russians and foreign organizations, for example, those that deal with student exchanges. The law could backfire and isolate Russia further.               

A.T.: You know, we do understand there is a friendship and exchanges between countries, on the one hand. But on the other hand, there is just business and intelligence and, of course, some countries want to benefit from [undermining] the other country. But, nevertheless, we are interested in educational exchanges with other countries and don’t want to be isolated.          

RD: But such legislation only kills these exchanges and, probably, nips new exchanges in the bud. Foreign organizations and people will be afraid of working in such country with such laws. Don’t you find it is not the best tactic?

A.T.: Let me put it another way. Frequently, some people discuss in the same way the investment climate: You kill investment climate and hamper conditions for business. Yet we have an example of China: Despite harsh criticism of its political regime from outside, many Americans do business there and earn money.

Likewise, the situation is the same in the case of culture and education exchanges: The world today is multi-polar and there is no reason to be afraid of isolation, especially, if you live in accordance with the law. You can freely travel today.

But my point is we will fight only those organizations that are harmful for Russia’s political regime and, if they prove in the court that their activity does not threaten Russia, they will be excluded from the list of the undesirables. After all, there is nothing criminal in it, because such legislation does exist in Europe and the U.S. and we took into account its experience as well.