Last week, a Russian group in Saratov, that for three decades has helped people living with diabetes, announced it was shutting down. According to the group’s leader, Larisa Saygina, its board members are “no longer willing to be involved in public/social activities.” That’s hardly surprising once you know the backstory.
At the end of 2017, the prosecutor’s office petitioned a court to designate the group a “foreign agent.” The request was based on a complaint from a local student, who apparently read online that the group was receiving foreign funding. In May, a local court fined the group 300,000 rubles (about US$4,500) for failure to register as a foreign agent. On October 30, the court ruled that the group should be added to the register of “foreign agents.”
Many Russian groups live in constant fear of being designated a “foreign agent,” whether they work to protect the environment, support people with disabilities, or provide information and services to people who use drugs.
A 2012 law requires independent groups to register as such if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activity.” In Russia, “foreign agent” is widely understood to mean “traitor” or “spy.” The law’s aim is to publicly discredit such groups and make them seem disloyal. The government’s list of foreign agents currently has 73 entries. Many more have shut down rather than wear the “foreign agent” label.
Authorities also find other pretexts to target groups, especially those working on controversial issues.
Days before the Saratov group was fined, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation – a grassroots organization providing harm reduction and other services to drug users – was fined 800,000 rubles (about US$12,000) on charges stemming from an article it published on harm reduction. Transparency International (TI) Russia was recently fined one million rubles in connection with a 2016 corruption investigation.
While Andrey Rylkov’s Foundation and TI Russia have been raising money to cover the fines, the Saratov group decided it was time to pull the plug. “Firstly, we have 300 000 rubles in fines…Secondly, most of our group’s members are leaving it. People don’t want to do this anymore,” Saygina explained.
One can’t blame the group for its decision: they have little choice. The saddest part is that those who will be hit the hardest are those who need the group’s help most.