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Briefing on Shrinking Space for Civil Society in Russia

Presented at the Carnegie Center on February 23, 2016, by experts from Human Rights Watch and EU-Russia Civil Society Forum

“Civic Space in Eurasia: Ideas for Change”
Russia 2017

About this paper

According to the CIVICUS 2016 State of the Civil Society Report[1], over 100 countries have faced serious restrictions and threats to civic freedoms in 2015–coming in the form of new legislation, legal or administrative action, activists’ persecution, etc.

The global trend of the shrinking of civic space has worryingly manifested itself in Eurasia, first in countries of the former Soviet Union, and now in the EU, including, but not limited to, Poland and Hungary. The two authors of this paper, Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, and Anna Sevortian, the executive director of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, provide relevant analysis in the case of Russia, which is particularly illustrative of the current shrinking civic space phenomenon.

The research project “Civic Space in Eurasia: Ideas for Change” has been supported through the Omidyar Network Leadership Forum Collaboration Grant administered by Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).

The research objective is to reflect on the current state of the civic space in selected countries in Eurasia-starting with Russia-and to initiate a discussion within key audiences in the EU and the US to better inform, to enable support to civil society actors in Eurasia, and to contribute to the preservation of the civic space.

Key developments

  • 2016 anti-terrorist and anti-extremist “Yarovaya” legislation critically curtailed the space for exercising basic rights and freedoms: freedoms of expression, and freedom of assembly and association.


  • Stifling of independent nongovernmental groups with the use of specially targeted legislation on “foreign agents” and on “undesirable organizations”.


  • Marginalization of critical voices and diminishing universally recognized human rights values under the flag of “traditional values”.


  • Massive crackdown on online freedom of expression and access to and use of the internet.


  • Targeted intimidation of critics through criminal prosecution: criminal cases opened against peaceful protesters, bloggers, and directors of leading NGOs listed on the “foreign agents” register.


  • “Disabling” of the information environment as a means to pressure people and institutions into self-censorship.


  • An ever-increasing challenge for civil society actors in Russia to adapt to these stifling trends and a need for greater international support for these actors and their broader inclusion in international civil society networks.


Background. Shrinking Space for Freedoms in Russia


“The space for meaningful participation in many of our societies – from repressive authoritarian regimes to the “traditional” democracies – has been hijacked. Sometimes this is done structurally, through repressive legislation that closes off the democratic space. Other times it is blunter through threats, persecution, and even brute physical force against people who dare test the boundaries of participation. Either way, the message is clear: Those in power often don’t want to hear what we have to say. They don’t want to upset the status quo, even if that status quo is catapulting us towards obliteration”.


Maina Kiai,
UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly
 introducing the Civic Charter
[2] in Berlin, Germany, in October 2016.


Russia clearly exemplifies the shrinking civic space phenomenon. The civic space for both individual and collective action has diminished through legislative restrictions and targeted intimidation of critics. Though many groups and NGOs have developed resilience and attempted to broaden their social base, overall the environment has forced people and institutions into self-censorship. In July 2016, a package of laws named “Yarovaya laws” critically curtailed the space for exercising basic rights and freedoms, in particular freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association. Named after the Russian parliamentarian who introduced the original bill in the State Duma, this “anti-terrorism and anti-extremism” package has been regarded as one of the country’s most repressive legal shifts of late. It grants very broad “big brother” powers to the security and law enforcement agencies to persecute dissenting voices.

Online Freedom

After Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012, the mass street protests of 2011-2012 were extinguished, largely as a result of swiftly adopted draconian restrictions on demonstrations coupled with criminal prosecutions of randomly picked protest activists, setting the tone. With traditional media long under control of the authorities, the internet became the platform of last resort for dissenting voices and the government moved swiftly to crackdown on free expression online.

According to a leading independent security expert, Andrei Soldatov, state regulation of internet freedoms has been progressively tightened since 2012.[3] No year has passed without new restrictions on online freedoms and increased pressure on internet content and service providers.

Control over RuNet, or Russian internet, has been achieved through both legislation and executive actions of the state media and communications oversight agency Roskomnadzor. Since 2014, Roskomnadzor has ordered internet providers to block thousands of websites, including on “anti-extremism” grounds. In some cases, these actions were clearly aimed at stifling dissenting opinions.[4] In 2014, media watchdog Reporters without Borders included Russia on the Internet Enemies list[5].

In June 2016, the State Duma passed another piece of legislation that further adds to the climate of self-censorship on RuNet. The draft law requires owners of Russian internet search engines with over a million daily users to verify “the truthfulness of publicly important" information before it is published.[6]

In July 2016, the Yarovaya package of counter-terrorism amendments, among other things, dramatically extended the state’s powers to control the internet and access users’ data. Among other things, the Yarovaya amendments force providers to share encryption keys upon the request of the security services and to store all call and message content in Russia for six months and all log-ins for up to three years.[7] The telecommunication providers are required to have developed their capacity to retain such a large volume of data by July 2018. In addition, the law increased penalties for the “public justification of terrorism” online.[8]

In November 2016, at the initiation of Roskomnadzor, a Russian court blocked the professional social network LinkedIn (with 6 million users in Russia) on the grounds that recent national legislation also prohibits off-country storage of personal data of Russian citizens.[9]

In line with its new information security doctrine adopted in December 2016, Russia is gearing itself towards building up "a national system of managing the Russian segment of the Internet."[10]

Media Freedom

Nationwide television stations in Russia are all rigidly controlled by the Kremlin. Both electronic and print media in Russia are also largely controlled by the government which affects editorial policies. The media coverage is partisan to the official views and often turns overtly hostile towards dissenting voices, especially on politically sensitive topics such as Ukraine, Syria, or national elections.

“Nothing exciting was going on in the Russian media after the last round of clean-ups and crackdowns, which marked the 2014 anti-Ukrainian information war,” said Natalya Rostova, media analyst. “2014 was the year when the last federal TV-program critical of the government closed down, when Tomsk’s TV-2 (the last regional independent channel) ceased to exist, and when both the independent TV-channel “Dozhd” and the radio channel “Ekho Moskvy” faced significant pressure and potential closure. Galina Timchenko, the then editor-in-chief of the news website, was fired without explanation. Two years later, in 2016 the only remaining independent media holding RBC fired its then editor Maxim Solyus and lost two respected media managers Elisaveta Osetinskaya and Roman Badanin who both left in protest.”[11]

In 2016, permitted foreign ownership of the Russian media companies decreased from 50% to 20%, resulting in further shrinking of independent media space. [12]

In 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)[13] and other media watchdogs also stressed continued persecution of journalists and the lack of effective investigation into assaults on journalists in Russia.

In January 2017, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks urged the Russian authorities to act to protect the safety of independent journalists in connection with harassment of the staff of the Caucasian Knot, an independent news outlet covering the North Caucasus. On January 9, 2017, its editor-in-chief Grigory Shvedov was threatened by the speaker of the Chechen parliament via a post on the social network Instagram. The agency’s writer Vladislav Ryazantsev was physically assaulted by five unidentified men a few days later.[14]

Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Assembly, International Justice

The “Yarovaya law” is endangering fundamental rights and freedoms far beyond internet freedom. Another provision in it penalizes “illegal missionary work” and stipulates religious activities are to be performed exclusively in “designated places”, excluding people’s homes.[15]

In January 2017, Dmitry Ugai, a yoga instructor from St. Petersburg, was detained for giving a lecture on the topic of yoga at a festival in St. Petersburg. Though in this case the court later dismissed the charge against him of “illegal missionary work”, in several other cases individuals from religious organizations across Russia have been fined.

“Unfortunately, we are likely to see more of such cases emerging in the future: law enforcement needs to boost its performance rates, to show it is doing its job”, said Anatoly Pchelintsev, a defense lawyer specialising in religion-related cases.[16]

The “Yarovaya law” also made “the failure to report terrorism-related crimes known to be planned” punishable with up to one-year imprisonment, and “inducing, recruiting, or otherwise engaging” people in “mass unrest” punishable with up to 10 years in prison.[17]

In December 2015, Ildar Dadin, a peaceful protester from Moscow, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for a series of single person pickets (the sentence was then reduced on appeal to 2.5 years). His conviction was based on repressive amendments to the legislation on demonstrations introduced in 2014 that enable the authorities to prosecute peaceful protestors for repeated participation in unsanctioned and public gatherings. In the autumn of 2016, Dadin alleged that penitentiary officials had subjected him to cruel and degrading treatment but there has been no effective investigation into these allegations of ill-treatment.

Another very worrying measure is the amendment to the law on Russia’s Constitutional Court, which came to force in December 2015. This amendment enables the Constitutional Court to designate rulings by international bodies (including the European Court on Human Rights) “unenforceable” on the grounds of “contradicting the Russian Constitution”. In June 2016, the Venice Commission criticised such a practice as a violation of Article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[18]

Shrinking Space for Independent Non-Governmental Groups

“Disabling” Environment

Suppression of independent nongovernmental organizations has been at the center of the Kremlin’s four-and-a-half year crackdown on civil society. Apparently spooked by the active role NGOs played in the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian leadership, frightened by the mass protests in the capital in 2011-2012, set a course to stifle and discredit local independent groups.

In autumn 2016, we conducted 25 interviews with the heads or other leading representatives of NGOs, including rights groups and charity organizations in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Perm.

All the respondents noted a deterioration in working conditions for nongovernmental organizations and described the current environment as hostile. “I think the atmosphere around non-governmental organisations is seriously strained and even in every sense negative–and this applies not only to human rights organisations,” said a leading activist from Moscow.[19] Another respondent emphasized that human rights groups “had to adopt a defensive position” as a result of the government’s crackdown.[20] The respondents also flagged that in this tense situation, independent groups spend a lot of time and resources on defending themselves in courts, rebuffing smear campaigns by Kremlin-sponsored media, and even protecting themselves from attacks by aggressive government supporters. They also expressed concern that the smear campaigns against independent groups served to inspire distrust and undermined public support for NGOs.[21]

All our interlocutors noted that though the number of NGOs in their respective cities is not decreasing, according to official statistics, and that new NGOs are registered on a regular basis, these new organizations, with very few exceptions, are not independent but mainly act as satellites to businesses or the authorities.[22]

Our interlocutors flagged that the situation with funding for independent groups has changed a lot in recent years and these changes are mainly of an unfavorable nature. In particular, foreign funding has been reduced due to the withdrawal of foreign donors from Russia, because of the risks for both the donors and the Russian recipients; and corporate finance has been reduced due to the economic crisis and instability in the country. They also indicated that although an increasing amount of governmental funding has been made available to NGOs in recent years, access to these funds is limited. NGOs providing social services, i.e. filling the gap where government agencies are unable to fulfill relevant needs, receive a lot of support from the highest levels, and a significant amount of funding from the government and government-friendly businesses. NGOs critical of the authorities, on the other hand, are being cut off from governmental funding in a situation when foreign funding is also becoming scarce.[23]

“Foreign Agents”

All the respondents identified the law on “foreign agents” as a key obstacle for independent civil society groups.[24] The law was rammed through the parliament in 2012, just a few months after Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin, with the clear objective of marginalizing independent civil society groups and demonizing them in the eyes of the public for accepting foreign funding. In Russia, the term “foreign agent” can only be interpreted as “spy” or “traitor.” As part of the smear campaign against critics of the government, high level officials, and state-controlled media have been consistently portraying rights groups as saboteurs paid by foreign actors to destabilize Russia.

At the time of writing, the Ministry of Justice’s “register of foreign agents” includes over 150 NGOs, with all the leading human rights groups among them.[25] Between 2012 and 2016 at least thirty groups, including several prominent human rights organizations in different regions of Russia, closed rather than accept the revolting label.

Last year, the authorities for the first time launched a criminal prosecution against a human rights activist under this law, charging Valentina Cherevatenko, the chair of Women of the Don (a human rights and peace-building group), with “malicious evasion” of compulsory registration as a “foreign agent.” The case against Cherevatenko remains pending. If found guilty, she faces up to two years’ imprisonment.[26] Towards the end of 2015, following its inspection of Human Rights Center Memorial, the Ministry of Justice accused this leading human rights organization of undermining the country’s “constitutional rule” and using foreign funding to harm Russia. The Ministry stated that this “foreign agent” group was paid by foreign donors to foster negative public opinion by criticizing government actions, and asked the prosecutor’s office to examine Memorial’s allegedly unlawful activities. [27] To date, the prosecutor’s office has not opened criminal proceedings based on these allegations, but the ministry’s claim sent a chilling message to other human rights organizations and activists, making it clear that criticism of the government may lead to grave criminal charges.[28]

According to our respondents, the “foreign agents” law negatively affects “everyone”–not only human rights organizations but all independent groups–and everyone has had to change something in their work in order to comply with this law. Specifically, because of the risk of being put on the registry of foreign agents, NGOs are compelled to refuse foreign funding, reduce activities that can give rise to retaliation, reduce publicity, and engage in self-censorship. Also, being designated a “foreign agent” results in a significant loss of capacity: government institutions and public officials refuse to cooperate with “foreign agents,” municipalities terminate discounted rent agreements, and the promotion of reports and events, including in mainstream media, is growing increasingly difficult, etc.[29]

Costs of being branded a “foreign agent” also include but are not limited to: reputational loss, hindered access to those target groups that can be accessed only with cooperation from relevant officials (school and university students, orphans in institutions, people with disabilities in institutions, etc.), significant time wasted dealing with courts, intrusive inspections and audits which paralyze the NGO’s work, more cumbersome reporting, and hefty fines for failure to voluntarily join the registry of “foreign agents” and/or alleged non-compliance with the requirements of the law, such as the requirement to indicate “foreign agent” status on all publications and event announcements, including on the internet. Smaller groups are particularly hard hit by the burden of additional cumbersome reporting to the authorities, litigation, and fines, as their capacity and resources are simply insufficient to cope.[30]

“It takes about three weeks for our admin team to prepare the documents. This directly affects migrants and refugees needing help as there are not enough people from the financial department to work with them whilst they are filling in the forms,” said Svetlana Gannushkina of Civic Assistance Committee.

Organizations on the “foreign agents” list are frequently slapped with sanctions and end up paying thousands of dollars in fines. Their attempts to appeal governmental fines in court generally fail. In a particularly absurd and illustrative case, in October 2015 an appeals court in Moscow upheld a 600,000 ruble (US$10,000) fine against Human Rights Center "Memorial," a leading human rights group, for not labelling as “issued by a foreign agent NGOs” some materials, which had actually been produced and published by a different group.[31]

Additionally, the organizations face uncertainty and difficulty in planning their activities, especially partnerships. There is always the risk that their work could be phased out. Although there is solidarity among active NGOs, some fear of “infection” is exhibited: many social organizations are now apprehensive of openly cooperating with human rights groups.[32]

Practically all the respondents identified as a key problem the unwillingness and/or fear of public officials, and professionals working in the public sector, including teachers and medics, to maintain any cooperation with “foreign agents.” An independent think tank designated a “foreign agent” in 2015 found it practically impossible to arrange interviews with public officials for their projects or to conduct research in schools and other educational institutions. Laypeople are also increasingly weary of speaking to a “foreign agent” organization. A small group providing assistance to drug users and persons with HIV/AIDS, entered into the registry of “foreign agents” in 2016, found its work deeply undermined by the refusal of media institutions and law enforcement officials to have anything to do with them, despite a long history of successful cooperation. Another organization, which used to provide human rights training to police officials in their region, saw the program discontinued following their “foreign agent” designation in 2015.[33]

The situation concerning Civic Assistance Committee, the country’s leading group providing humanitarian and legal assistance to migrants and refugees, is particularly illustrative. Migration authorities, which cooperated with the organization for years, withdrew from cooperation when Civic Assistance was branded “foreign agent” in April 2015. In May that year, the municipal authorities in Moscow informed the Committee that they were no longer willing to extend the discounted rent agreement for an office space where the Committee tutored migrant children. The Committee wrote to the municipality pleading with them to reconsider. In February 2016, without any warning, municipal employees broke down the office doors and changed the locks, preventing the Committee’s activists from entering the office premises. All attempts by the Committee to resolve the problem with the municipality proved to be fruitless, and the Committee’s leadership is convinced that the “foreign agent” designation was the reason behind these hostile actions by the municipality.[34]

“Particularly damaging to our work has been the effect of the foreign agent status on our relationship with the authorities. Their cooperation was crucial to us for our efforts to help migrants, and our good working relationship with the Federal Migration Service gave us hope for a constructive institutional reform. Events such as our twice-yearly seminars with top migration officials are now a thing of the past,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Civil Assistance Committee.[35]

Notably, from day one, Russian policymakers have been emphasizing that Russia adopted the “foreign agents” law merely following the example of the US, where a supposedly identical piece of legislation was adopted decades ago.

Domestic and international experts repeatedly point out that these assertions are disingenuous. The US Foreign Agent Registration Acts (FARA) covers those organizations and individuals that operate “under direction and control of a foreign principle.” It does not apply to NGOs that simply benefit from foreign funding and seek policy changes. Unlike Russia’s “foreign agents” law, FARA is applied only to a small set of institutions and individuals who operate at the behest of foreign entities and does not impose a heavy burden of financial and other reporting on registered “agents of foreign principles.”

In the most recent case, in February this year, the speaker of Russia’s State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, argued, "It is the legislators in the US that came up with this term [foreign agent]. The law with such wording was first adopted in the United States, so when the Council of Europe or its Parliamentary Assembly start telling us about the need to abandon it [Russia’s "foreign agents” law], we tell [them], ‘Let us talk to the US legislators, once this provision is gone from their laws, we could also consider reversing.’ Otherwise we’d be forced to revoke it, and the country that promotes standards for the civil society development retains such norms alright. These are double standards.”[36]

There is little doubt that Russian officials are consciously misleading the public when using the existence of FARA to justify the draconian “foreign agents” restrictions for domestic and international audiences.

“Political activity”

In the interviews, respondents noted that the application of the “foreign agents” law is getting tougher and the amendments to the original 2012 law adopted in 2014 and 2016 have only made the situation worse: any criticism or judgment on the government is now seen as “political activity” and the Ministry of Justice registers organizations forcibly, without relevant judicial sanctions.[37]

Defining “political activity” may seem like an academic exercise, but a relevant definition is crucial to the law, which has become the centerpiece of the government’s crackdown on civil society. Nongovernmental groups are branded as “foreign agents” if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding.

The 2012 law defined “political activity” as actions aimed at influencing the government or public opinion. This notoriously broad and vague definition could cover all aspects of advocacy and human rights work. The Kremlin’s international interlocutors repeatedly expressed hope that the Russian authorities would narrow the definition to exclude human rights and other advocacy work. The Kremlin proved generous with promises, including at the highest level. Every time the issue came up, Putin and top government officials kept reassuring their foreign interlocutors that the definition would eventually be fine-tuned.[38] Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice kept designating more of the country’s vibrant independent groups as “foreign agents,” treating any type of government advocacy or public outreach as “political activity.” In 2016, based on a proposal from the Ministry of Justice, the parliament finally amended the law to include a more specific definition, which only increased the vulnerability of concerned NGOs.[39] According to the amended definition, if an organization carries out legal or policy analysis, monitors the work of government institutions, conducts public opinion surveys, engages in research, petitions government officials, etc.–as long as those efforts are aimed at somehow influencing the government or public opinion, they constitute “political activity.” Accordingly, the 2016 definition simply codified already established implementation practice.[40]

Based on the analysis of dozens of documents provided to us by affected NGOs, the following list outlines some of the aspects of NGO work which constituted “political activity” in the eyes of Russian authorities:

  • Providing information to the UN treaty bodies on Russia’s compliance with international conventions;
  • Campaigning against legislative initiatives which run contrary to Russia’s international human rights obligations;
  • Advocating improvements in addressing environmental issues, including vis-à-vis local and state authorities;
  • Raising public awareness on human rights issues, corruption, and relevant state policies;
  • Holding roundtables, debates, seminars, and other events to discuss government policies and foreign policy;
  • Engaging state officials with recommendations on public interest policy;
  • Providing information and analysis to intergovernmental organizations and the media on the human rights situation in Russia;
  • Publicizing public opinion polling data and analyses;
  • Monitoring and raising public awareness about political manipulations of justice;
  • Providing legal advice to people detained at peaceful protest rallies;
  • Advocating liberalizing legislation and ensuring better compliance with the government’s international human rights obligations;
  • Advocating improvements in law enforcement practices and promoting reforms to ensure better compliance by these agencies with human rights; and
  • Representing victims of abuse or vulnerable groups vis-à-vis the authorities.[41]

Our respondents flagged that any organization can be targeted and put on the registry of “foreign agents” at any time. In general, the "permissible activities" field has been narrowed and those not in the registry yet constantly experience pressure because of the potential for them receiving this status. For heads of organizations, this concern is exacerbated by the very tangible possibility of criminal prosecution.[42]

“Re-writing history”

Another serious danger lies in the fact that once branded “foreign agents,” independent organizations are likely to be targeted by radical pro-Kremlin groups, which act with stark impunity indicative of their possible collusion with the authorities.

For example, in April 2016, aggressive individuals among pro-Kremlin protestors attacked the award ceremony of an annual student competition, “Man in History. Russia – XX Century” organized by Memorial. The attackers threw eggs and green antiseptic solution at the teenage winners of the competition, their teachers, and other participants at the gathering. Ludmilla Ulitskaya, a prominent Russian novelist and chair of the competition’s jury, was among those splashed with the bright green liquid.[43]

Memorial’s student competition aims to “motivate young people to carry out independent research into the history of the past century and awaken their interest in the fates and lives of ordinary people, which make the founding blocs of the country’s history.”[44] The attackers roared patriotic songs, called the participants “national traitors” and other degrading and offensive names, and shouted, “We won’t let [you] re-write [our] history.” Police at the scene did little to tackle those amongst them who engaged in physical violence.[45]

Incidentally, just a few weeks earlier, on March 21, Russian television nationwide ran a malicious story about the exhibition “Different Wars” co-organized and hosted by Memorial.[46] “Different Wars” is an international project that examines how schoolbooks from various countries interpret the history of World War II.[47] While the organizers of the exhibition specifically aimed to promote tolerance and mutual understanding in different societies that had lived through the war, the state television news program accused Memorial activists of being “foreign agents” and defiling Russia by “re-writing” its history in the interests of their foreign funders.[48]

In October 2016, aggressive individuals calling themselves “Cossacks” and “rebels” raided a photography exhibition at the Andrei Sakharov Center, one of the few remaining places in Moscow where thinkers, activists, and the public can debate controversial topics. The exhibition included photographs from the armed conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. The attackers wreaked havoc and yelled abuse at the center’s staff, accusing them of supporting “fascists.” One of the assailants held a jar with red liquid marked “Blood of Donbass children.” It seems no coincidence that several Kremlin-controlled nationwide broadcasters showed up at the scene just before the attack and then aired relevant footage with contemptuous comments about the Andrei Sakharov Center. Though police arrived at the scene, the officers showed no interest in holding the attackers to account.[49]

On the current registry of “foreign agents,” there are human rights groups, media capacity building groups, environmentalists, free legal aid groups, think tanks, “memory” organizations perpetuating victims of Soviet repression, organizations helping people with HIV/AIDS, migrant and refugee support groups, and others.[50]

“Undesirable Organizations”

Respondents also indicated that they viewed the 2015 law “on undesirable organizations” as a serious impediment to NGO work in Russia. This law empowers the prosecutor general to extra-judicially ban from the country foreign or international groups that allegedly undermine Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. There is no judicial review or appeal against the designation. The “undesirables,” their representatives, and even their publications, are banned from Russia. Moreover, Russian nationals who continue to cooperate with them can face criminal charges and up to six years in prison.

At the time of writing, the blacklist includes seven “undesirables,” all of the American democracy promotion or civil society capacity-building organizations, including several foundations that had been supporting Russian rights groups for many years. Since the adoption of the law, different Russian parliamentarians have been bringing to the attention of the prosecutor general’s office lists of potential undesirables. Those “wish-lists” included, among others, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Two major American foundations chose to shut down their Russian programs preemptively, citing hostile political climate. Although technically speaking the law on “undesirables” focuses on foreign organizations, in terms of impact, its primary targets are local civic groups and activists who receive much needed international support.[51]


Notably, practically all of our respondents said that viewed themselves and their groups as an integral part of the global civil society. They were unanimous in stating that international support for Russian NGOs is very important in the current hostile environment. Stressing that regular exchange and cooperation with international actors relieves stress and eradicates the creeping sense of isolation, they specifically advocated for increase in international funding, partner projects, professional exchanges, academic exchanges, internships, trips, and any other measures that increase contact with the rest of the world.

Сivil society in Russia is adapting to negative change. Citizens' engagement finds new ways of expression. There is an apparent rise of interest among Russian citizens for engagement in social, cultural, and other activities on a volunteer basis. People are increasingly gathering in non-registered movements and informal groups rather than joining or setting up registered organizations. In Moscow and other larger Russian cities, international models of social innovation and urban development are taken on board. Both motivation and expertise for improving daily lives and contributing to social development in Russia exist in sizeable groups of local populations.[52]


Russia’s international interlocutors, including the EU and the US, should use every opportunity to call on the Russian government to:

  1. fulfill its positive obligation to ensure a safe and enabling environment for individuals and groups to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms–peaceful assembly, expression, and association;
  2. repeal the “foreign agents” law, eliminate the “foreign agents” registry, and repeal the law on “undesirable” organizations;
  3. revise other laws limiting basic freedoms and contradicting international human rights obligations–such as the legislation of demonstrations, internet-related legislation, terrorism and extremism legislation, etc.–to ensure that they fully meet relevant international standards.

Russia’s international interlocutors should also use every opportunity in regional and international fora, like the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the UN Human Rights Council, to individually and collectively denounce the restrictions and attacks on civil society in Russia and remind the authorities’ obligations to respect international standards.

The EU and the US should be prepared to provide effective protection to Russian activists, journalists, defenders that face harassment and persecution (e.g. through fellowships, temporary shelter, expedited visa procedures, including for immediate family members, monitoring of trials against civil society activists and human rights defenders, high level meetings with civil society actors, etc.).

Given the departure of many international donors from Russia as a result of the increasingly hostile political climate, the US and the EU should look into creating new capacity building and funding opportunities for Russian civil society actors (organized and non-organized) and exercise flexible and innovative approaches to support provision.

As Russia is becoming increasingly isolationist, the EU and the US should work on boosting contacts on the people-to-people level, create additional opportunities and facilitate visa procedures for Russian citizens taking part in academic, cultural, or civil society exchanges, including unilateral visa facilitation.

[1] CIVICUS, “State of Civil Society Reports 2016,” June 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[2] Civic Charter, “Global Framework for People’s Participation,” (accessed February 15, 2017).

[3] Dmitri Treshchanin, Aleksandr Gorokhov. “Beatings and Arson Attacks: Is Online Dissidence Becoming Dangerous In Russia?”, RFE/RL, June 22, 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[4] Amnesty International, “Amnesty International 2015/2016 Annual Report: Russia,” (accessed February 15, 2017).

[5] Reporters Without Borders, “Russian Repression from the Top Down,” Enemies of the Internet, March 12, 2014, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[6] Article XIX, “Digital Rights in Russia”, 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[7] Valeria Zenovina, “The President of the Russian Federation signed the ‘Yarovaya Package’ [Президент РФ подписал антитеррористический ‘пакет Яровой’]”,, July 17, 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[8], July 17, 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[9] “Roskomnadzor Began to Block LinkedIn [Роскомнадзор начал блокировку LinkedIn],, November 17, 2016, (accessed December 1, 2016).

[10] Decree № 646 by the President of the Russian Federation, dated December 5, 2016, “On endorsing the Russian Federation National Security Doctrine,” (accessed January 31, 2017).

[11] Interview with Natalya Rostova, January 2017.

[12] Human Rights Watch, Russia – Drop New Media Law, October 1, 2014, See also, “12 News Rooms in 5 Years”, Meduza, May 18, 2016, (accessed November 29, 2016).

[13] Committee to Protect Journalists, “2016 prison census: 259 journalists jailed worldwide”, December 1, 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[14] Council of Europe, “Commissioner Muižnieks urges the Russian authorities to better respect journalists' rights and safety”, January 9, 2017, (accessed on February 15, 2017).

[15] Valeria Zenovina, “The President of the Russian Federation signed the ‘Yarovaya Package’”.

[16] Daria Litvinova, “Russia’s Anti-Terrorist ‘Yarovaya Law’, Controversially Implemented, In the Spotlight Again,” Legal Dialogue, January 2017, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[17] Valeria Zenovina, “The President of the Russian Federation signed the ‘Yarovaya Package’”

[18] European Commission For Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), “Final opinion on the amendments to the Federal Constitutional Law on the Constitutional Court”, June 13, 2016, (accessed on February 15, 2017).

[19] Interview, Autumn 2016

[20] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[21] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[22] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[23] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[24] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[25] “Russia: Government vs. Rights Groups,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 6, 2017,

[26] “Russia: Rights Activist Facing Charges,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 27, 2016,

[27] “Russia: Government vs. Rights Groups,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 6, 2017,

[28] Tanya Lokshina (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: Russian Government Targets Human Rights Giants,” November 10, 2015,

[29] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[30] Interview, Autumn 2016. For detailed information on lawsuits, fines, inspections, reporting hurdles, etc. during the first four years of implementation please see relevant analysis by the Public Verdict Foundation published in November 2016 and accessible at

[31] Tanya Lokshina, “Meanwhile In Putin's Russia, NGOs Face Oppression And Absurdity,” Newsweek, February 10, 2015, (accessed February 8, 2017).

[32] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[33] Interview, Autumn 2016.

[34] Interview, Autumn 2016. See also, Josephine Huetlin (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: Refugee Children Snared in Russian Political Web,” May 6, 2016,

[35] Interview, February 2017.

[36] “Volodin explained how NGOs can lose the status of foreign agent [Володин рассказал, как НКО могут утратить статус "иноагента]," RIA Novosti, February 10, 2017, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[37] Interviews, Autumn 2016.

[38] “Putin promised to consider amendments to the “foreign agents” law [Путин пообещал рассмотреть поправки в закон об "иностранных агентах"],” BBC, October 1, 2015, (accessed February 8, 2017).

[39] Bill on amendments to the federal law “On non-profit organizations,” Federal platform for legal acts projects at (accessed February 8, 2017).

[40] “Russia: Sham Upgrade for ‘Foreign Agents’ Law,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 27, 2016,

[41] Documents archived by Human Rights Watch. See also: “Political Activity [Полит деятельность],” AgentovNet, (accessed February 8, 2017).

[42] Interviews, Autumn 2016.

[43] Tanya Lokshina (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: Russia’s Growing Intolerance for Dissent,” April 28, 2016,

[44] “Pupils’ competition “Man in History. Russia – XX Century” [Школьный конкурс «Человек в истории. Россия — XX век»],” Uroki Istorii, May 11, 2016, (accessed February 8, 2017).

[45] Tanya Lokshina (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: Russia’s Growing Intolerance for Dissent,” April 28, 2016,

[46] “On ‘Vesti’ TV story [О телевизионном репортаже программы «Вести»],” Memorial Human Rights Center, March 23, 2016, (accessed February 8, 2017).

[47] “Different Wars: European school textbooks about the World War II [Разные Войны: школьные учебники стран Европы о Второй мировой войне],” Memorial Human Rights Center, (accessed February 8, 2017).

[48] Tanya Lokshina (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: Russia’s Growing Intolerance for Dissent,” April 28, 2016,

[49] Yulia Gorbunova (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: 'Rebels', Red Paint, And Russia,” October 3, 2016,

[50] “Russia: Government vs. Rights Groups,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 6, 2017,

[51] Anastasia Ovsyannikova (Human Rights Watch), “Russia Bans More International Organizations,” August 22, 2016,

[52] “Enhancing People-to-People Contacts between the EU and Russia: EU-Russia Civil Society View,” CSF internal brief, July 2016. CSF State of the Civil Society Report. 2016.

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