Site Archive‎ > ‎Russian Media‎ > ‎‎ > ‎Nikolskaya‎ > ‎

Funding from the FSB: Why domestic financing can be more dangerous for NGOs than foreign funding

10 May 2013 

Polina Nikolskaya

Photo of Mikhail Savva by Ivan Zhuravlev,


Russian prosecutors have scouted the entire country for NGOs, otherwise known as “foreign agents.” They have checked the paperwork of all the leading Russian human rights organizations, including Agora, Golos and Transparency International. But NGOs in the Krasnodar federal district received a visit not from prosecutors, but from the Federal Security Service (FSB)—whose officials checked for traces not of foreign but domestic funding, which local activists had received from the district administration. The story ended with the FSB arresting a prominent Krasnodar professor and human rights activist, Mikhail Savva, on charges that he abused government funds. His colleagues are convinced the arrest was politically motivated. found out what makes domestic funding dangerous for Russian NGOs.

Supporting the homegrown

Mikhail Savva was arrested in conditions of absolute secrecy. Krasnodar’s Oktyabr district court was called into session specifically to hear his case on Sunday, April 13. No observers were let in and the time of the hearing was not announced. The group of colleagues and students who came to support Mikhail Savva waited for the court’s decision on the street. One of Savva’s students, Olga Zazulia, came to hear the charges against the professor, in whose seminar she was supposed to be at that very moment. “When I saw all the violations in how the case was being heard, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet,” she said. “I want a fair trial in full accordance with the law.” Zazulia is now an active member of a group created on the website VKontakte to raise support for the professor.

Savva served as grant programs director of the Southern Regional Resource Center (SRRC) in Krasnodar. According to SRRC Director Tatiana Lyskina, the organization supported local NGOs and helped them to “establish a dialogue with the government.” The SRRC acted as a distributor of foreign funding to the regional NGOs, including grants from the United States. Savva was also a faculty member at Kuban State University in Krasnodar, where he taught courses on state and civil society relations and led political science seminars on the study of ethnic conflicts. According to Aleksei Kolba, Savva’s colleague and a PhD student in the university’s political science department, the majority of Savva’s publications focused on the issue of ethnic conflict in Krasnodar.

The 48-year-old Savva was accused of stealing money from a grant for a project called Building the World, which was financed by the Krasnodar regional administration and directed by Savva. The project aimed to ease tensions between the local Uzbek and Tajik diasporas and to improve their relationship with the rest of the population. As part of the project, SRRC organized soccer matches between the groups, while Savva held seminars for representatives of the local diasporas to teach them “how they should behave on the territory of Krasnodar and what rights and responsibilities they have,” said SRRC’s Lyskina.

The total amount of the grant was 820,000 roubles. Of that amount, the Center spent 366,000 roubles on research into the “Potential for Integrating Migrants in the Krasnodar Region.” In other words, Lyskina explained, the organization examined “the number of migrants that Krasnodar could accept without having a negative effect on the native population.” Savva arranged for the research project to be carried out by a marketing organization directed by his friend, Victoria Remmler. But according to the FSB, Savva paid for the service with “alternative sources of financing” rather than with money from the administrative grant, keeping the 366,000 rubles for Remmler and himself. According to officials, this constitutes large-scale fraud under article 159.2.3 of the Russian Criminal Code and carries a maximum six-year prison sentence.

Overall, 47 organizations in the district had received Russian government funding. Apart from SRRC, another four of these were investigated by the FBI on the grounds that they stole federal money: the Mehri Somonion Tajik National Culture Center, the educational Levados Center, the youth ecological organization Aqua, and the Philanthropist charity center for handicapped individuals. Each organization was affiliated in one way or another with SRRC and Mikhail Savva.

Life on a grant

The Russian Ministry of Economic Development allocated 29.5 million roubles to support socially-oriented NGOs in the Krasnodar district. On 1 August, 2012, the district administration announced a competition to distribute the grants. “The effort to support NGOs has been going on for the past several years,” said Vladimir Svezhenets, director of the Krasnodar Department of Internal Affairs. “Each year, the district sets aside 53 million roubles to support its civil society organizations. The federal government took notice of our efforts and sent us an additional 29.5 million roubles.”

A committee of experts within the district administration was tasked with approving each grant and distributing the funding. The appointed director of this committee was Svetlana Rubashkina, a well-known figure in the human rights community, who a decade earlier had worked with Savva at SRRC.

After the competition guidelines had appeared on the administration’s website, the director of the ecological center Aqua in Novorossiysk, Tatiana Tribrat, received a phone call from the administration. They invited her to take part in the contest and sent the contest guidelines to her personal e-mail. Soon after, Tribrat organized a seminar for local NGOs to discuss the state-run competition.

“I told them this was first time the Krasnodar district was having such a transparent competition,” Tribrat said. “There was a written statement that clearly outlined the priorities and the direction the project should take. The priorities included ecology and social-oriented work. And for the first time, the authorities were interested in having as many NGOs participate as possible, they wanted to work with NGOs. After Krymsk, I participated in several round tables on the topic of cooperation between volunteers and public organizations, and that’s when I first noticed it. When this competition was announced, we felt that something in the government had changed. I tried to convince everyone to work with the government and take part in the contest.”

Of the 16 NGOs that Tribrat met with, four submitted applications. Those that didn’t apply are now glad they didn’t listen to Tribrat and avoided a run-in with the FSB.

Tribrat’s organization developed a project to support the preservation of Novorossiysk’s Pioneer Tree Grove. Using administrative funds, the organization printed thousands of brochures and booklets that featured photographs of the grove and organized a series of local events: tours in the ecological area, a photography exhibit at a local museum, an eco-bag-making workshop for school children, and presentations by law experts at the local library on the status of the grove. The project funds totalled 700,000 roubles.

Government funding also went to Philanthropist, an organization that provided social services for the handicapped. The expert commission allocated 800,000 roubles for the organization’s project, We Are Just Like You, which aimed to help individuals with limited capabilities secure employment. The director of Philanthropist, Adelia Rybkina, recalled how the administration praised her project and named her NGO one of the best in the region. Rybkina realized that not only the employers but the handicapped themselves were sometimes unwilling to find jobs. The center hired a psychologist to hold training sessions for 15 wheelchair-bound individuals and purchased several additional wheelchairs to rent out for free.

Philanthropist used the grant to print booklets with legal advice for handicapped job-seekers and conducted sociological research on challenges to securing employment among the community of people with disabilities. “If you could only see the list of suggested job titles the local employment agency hands out to people with disabilities,” Rybkina said. “I’ll name a few: bulldozer operator, crane operator, welder. Our research included focus groups where local business representatives said hiring a person with disabilities was too big a responsibility, and they didn’t want to do it. We also spoke with individuals with individuals. For the most part, most of them want to work, but no one will take them. The research was high-quality and was well-received.”

Nonetheless, the small headquarters of her organization received a visit from a group of “young, polite FSB officers,” said Rybkina. “They asked me, ‘Adelia Pavlovna, who’s stealing government funds?’ I told them, ‘how should I know, go and turn on the TV, that’s where they’ll tell you.” Like Tribrat before her, she handed over all the financial statements for the project grant.

Rybkina and Tribrat were surprised the FSB had singled them out for investigation. “We had never received any direct funding from foreign organizations,” Tribrat explained. But they had received funding through Savva’s SRRC, and Tribrat had until recently been the head of SRRC’s affiliate office in Novorossiysk. She and Rybkina had also completed several training sessions for NGO employees at Savva and Lyskina’s center. In addition, Philanthropist’s research on employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities was carried out by the same management firm headed by Victoria Remmler that had conducted the research component of Savva’s project. Remmler became the second suspect in the federal investigation into misuse of government funds.

The third organization to come under FSB investigation also had ties to Mikhail Savva. The educational center Levados received a grant of 750,000 roubles for its project, Teaching Social Entrepreneurship. “We are a private educational centre: we offer courses on computer sciences, 1C: Enterprise programme training, personnel record-keeping and accounting from scratch,” said Levados deputy director Anastasia Emelyanova. This wasn’t the first grant her organization had received from the district administration, and Levados had decided to take part in the latest contest without any reservations.

“The goal of our project was to help low-skilled citizens, including women above age 40, who have a very difficult time finding jobs,” Emelyanova continued. “This also included single mothers and mothers with large families. We gave them free training in social entrepreneurship. We essentially wanted to show them that they could start their own business, that it wasn’t so hard. We explained how to register an organization and how to make your business socially-oriented—for example, by bringing handicapped individuals into the workforce.”

The course drew more than 20 participants. The sessions on social entrepreneurship were led by Savva, who knew Levados director Elena Shablo from their school days. He worked with Levados under contract, and the documents detailing his payment were provided to the district administration. During their inspection of the office, investigators asked how the Levados center knew Savva, noted Emelyanova. The inspection and subsequent discussion with Levados director Shablo lasted an entire day. Unlike the other NGO directors, Shablo was summoned to the FSB an additional three times, with one of the interrogations lasting nine hours, Emelyanova said. “She [Shablo—] never told me what these talks were about. But I believe they had something to do with Savva. The authorities had no reason to have a problem with our grants—we gave them all the documents related to the grant that we had.”

Who’s stealing government funds?

“At six o’clock in the morning, I heard a knock at the door, and Mikhail went to open it. The FSB officers came in just as I was buttoning my bathrobe. I heard the phrase, ‘we’re here with a warrant.’ There were a lot of them, with five remaining constantly in our apartment,” said Savva’s wife, Elena, describing the April 12 events. The officers asked for documents related to the grant, along with various photographs. Most of all, she said, they were interested in photographs from her husband’s trip to the United States. Like her husband, Elena Savva also works at Kuban State University, where she teaches political science and conflict studies. But unlike her husband, the university is her main place of employment.

“He would often say that if scholars earned more money, he would have focused on doing research because he really liked it. Earlier in his career, he defended his dissertation and received a PhD in political science from the Russian Academy of State Service,” she said. Prior to his work with NGOs, Savva spent the 1990s trying his hand at politics. For a little less than a year he served in the Ministry of National and Regional Politics; later, he was vice-governor of Krasnodar region and worked in the municipal administration. At the end of the ‘90s he left politics for good, and SRRC became his main job.

According to his wife, Savva is a fairly well-known expert in scholarly circles. He participated in studies conducted by the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, carried out sociological research and had his monographs released by academic publishers.

“As a scholar, he was interested in problems of ethnicity,” said Savva’s colleague Aleksei Kolba, a PhD student at the university. “He’s written monographs, articles, books. In terms of his outlook, he’s the kind of person who tends to stay away from radical opinions. His views have always been moderate. He’s the classic definition of a professor, very professional, very much loved by his students. He advised many graduate students in their research and taught advanced courses. When it came to politics, he was one of the best scholars at Kuban.”

At home Savva hadn't talked much about the grant the SRRC had received from the local government. He said only that the research on migrants carried out by Viktoria Remmler would have been enough to fill several dissertations. Remmler had been Elena Savva’s friend in their student days but they grew apart in later years. Now, Savva’s wife believes that Remmler confessed to misuse of funds and that her confession would be used against her husband, who had not confessed to anything. A second party in the case, a woman who had prepared the research project, was released on a pledge not to leave town and has agreed to sign a statement barring her from discussing the details of the case; she refused to speak to the reporter when contacted about the federal investigation.

The FSB paid their first visit to SRRC on March 15. Savva, who was scheduled to fly to the U.S. for a conference the next day, cancelled his trip. “I know that Vika’s [Remmler] investigation started later, on April 6 or 7,” Elena Savva said. “At the time she was on a work trip in Maikop, so the FSB questioned her daughter. I heard Vika telling her husband on the phone that they tried to scare her with talk of a women’s penal colony. They visited Vika’s female work colleagues at home, they took them back to the FSB. Afterwards, Vika was supposed to go on to Ulyanovsk, but the FSB officials took her off the train. As I understand it, unlike with the SRRC, the searches of her company offices were not carried out properly.”

According to Savva’s boss Lyskina, the SRRC organized a competition for marketing agencies that Remmler ended up winning. The investigation believes that Savva made a prior agreement with his old friend that he would pay her for the research using non-government funds, and that the two would split the 336,000-rouble share of the grant equally between them. Savva’s arrest warrant repeats this claim, stating that Savva paid Remmler for her work using “other sources.” The investigation didn’t specify which ones.

Lyskina said that in addition to SRRC documents relating to the government funds, officials also seized reports on two American grants. The U.S.-based MacArthur Fund had granted the Centre $150,000 to use over the course of three years. SRRC used this money to pay for legal assistance to migrants. The second grant was from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which ended its activities in Russia after the adoption of the law on “foreign agents.”

“For this project, Mikhail Savva travelled around parts of the North Caucasus and met with local deputies and local government officials to explain to them how public hearings operate, what are administrative acts, and about NGOs. To put it plain and simple, he promoted administrative reform through action,” Lyskina explained. She said the research on migrants in the Krasnodar district was not needed for the purposes of either project, and the Americans wanted detailed reports of how their money was spent; taking money from their grants to finance outside research would have been impossible.

The district administration didn’t find any miscalculations in the financial reports Savva gave them. According to the Krasnodar district administration’s director of internal policy, Vladimir Svezhenets, it wasn’t the local authorities that had alerted the FSB. The activists, for their part, emphasized the fact that several days before the federal investigation began, Savva was removed from the governor’s Public Council. But Svezhenets countered that it had nothing to do with the authorities’ interest in Savva; instead, it was because Savva didn’t attend the Council meetings. “Everyone was really satisfied with him as an expert, but there are laws and procedures that have to be followed,” Svezhenets said. “We interacted at various events. But I wouldn’t exaggerate Savva’s importance to public life in the region. Believe me. Like everyone else, he tried to contribute something to society. His participation in the grants is a testament to that. But whether the money was used effectively is a different question. That’s what the authorities are now trying to figure out.”

Savva’s university did not stand up for him. Despite the fact that Savva made it onto the list of the 100 best professors at Kuban State and appeared on another ranking of the most-cited professors, University Rector Mikhail Astapov said he doesn’t recall Savva’s scholarly accomplishments. “I’m bothered by something else: that what happened was a mixing of the good with the bad,” Astapov said. “Economic problems with political problems. Although from the point of view of the charges—and I’m speaking only as a layman—the accusations are of an exclusively economic nature. Moreover, the charges have nothing to do with the activities of the University.” He believes the students who stood up for Savva did so “under the influence of adults.” The rector is sure that if the lawyers hadn’t called this a political case, it would have been to the professor’s benefit. As the student Olga Zazulya said, the staff and the dean of her department had already asked her class not to defend Savva too strongly.

Savva’s wife is convinced that the federal case against her husband had been ordered from above. His colleagues at the NGO maintain the professor’s innocence and worry about their future. An FSB investigation is too serious a hit for a regional, non-governmental organization, said Tatyana Tribrat, adding that FSB officials are also targeting her partners—including the firm that sewed the eco-bags for her grant-funded project. From now on, finding partner NGOs will be more difficult. Tribrat’s accountant, who was already working for a reduced salary, had quit, while Tribrat’s friends constantly ask her whether she’s registered as a foreign agent, and why she still hasn’t left for the U.S. Adelia Rybkina put it more concretely: “They just went and dumped all their s**t on us. Put that phrase in your story, please.”