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An Interview with Ludmila Alekseeva: "This Bill Will Come Back To Haunt The Kremlin"

10 July 2012

n-ost correspondent Pavel Lokshin spoke with Ludmila Alekseeva on the eve of the first reading in the State Duma of the new NGO bill on 6 July 2012. 

n-ost: The Russian Parliament is about to debate a new bill which labels NGOs that receive international funding “foreign agents”. It forces them to reregister and disclose their finances or else to face exorbitant fines, a ban on their activities or even prison terms. How will the Moscow Helsinki Group, of which you are a co-founder, respond to this bill? 

Ludmila Alekseeva: The Kremlin will wait in vain for us to register as “foreign agents”. We won’t let ourselves be branded like that. If the bill is adopted we will give up foreign funding. We will accept restrictions on our activities. How other representatives of civil society will respond I don’t know. 

n-ost: How will your organisation fund its activities if you are forced to give up funding from the West? 

Ludmila Alekseeva: The Moscow Helsinki Group has no alternative sources of funding. I am a pensioner, so I can work for free. We won’t have any more funds for monitoring and education, which form the biggest part of our activities. That will give us even more time to influence the public, from morning till dawn. This bill will come back to haunt the Kremlin. 

n-ost: Russian MPs have invoked the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) to legitimize their own legislative initiative. 

Ludmila Alekseeva: But that’s total nonsense. I have read the American law: it was adopted in 1938, as Nazism raged in Germany and Stalinist terror in our country -- it was a completely different context. It was meant as a protection against foreign agents. Russia is not under threat and in the US nobody labels foreign-funded NGOs 'agents'. Their law covers, for example, trade missions and foreign lobbying groups. 

n-ost: The bill distinguishes between political NGOs on the one hand, and social and humanitarian NGOs on the other. Can an NGO be socially engaged without making political demands? 

Ludmila Alekseeva:  I don’t think our work is political per se. We are involved in educational activities, not in politics. But of course, we do try to influence public opinion and in that sense we are political under the new law. Even though all we do is explain to citizens: you have rights, fight for them! I have never regarded this as politics but rather as the protection of civil rights. 

n-ost: You have criticized insufficient funding of NGOs by the government. 

Ludmila Alekseeva:  If the state is ready to fund certain projects that are compatible with our image and with our goals, I don’t see any problem with that. However, if the state says: “Don’t do this, do that instead”, we can’t accept the money. 

n-ost: How do you see the prospects for fundraising within Russia? 

Ludmila Alekseeva:  We can’t expect much from business, as in Russia it is dependent on the state. If a businessman in Russia donates money to human rights organisations, he risks losing his company, or even ending up behind bars. 

n-ost: Can you get support from private individuals? 

Ludmila Alekseeva:  There have been collections for protest rallies and for independent election observers. However, hardly anyone gives money to cover an NGO's running costs. We need a change of awareness for that. 

n-ost: If the bill is adopted, what response do you expect from Western politicians? 

Ludmila Alekseeva:  I will ask the US Senate and the European Parliament to declare the six MPs who have supposedly authored the bill personae non gratae. But in fact it’s no secret who is really behind it: the bill has been written by the Kremlin, of course. But the Kremlin has to keep up appearances. The initiators of the bill have clearly violated both the Russian constitution as well as international human rights treaties we have signed.

This is a translation by Rights in Russia of an original German text made available by kind permission of n-ost

Ludmila Alekseeva lives in Moscow and is chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She is a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights.