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Agents Against Their Will: Failed applications for state grants force NGOs to seek support abroad

3 September 2013

By Diana Evdokimova

Source: Novye Izvestiya 

Novye Izvestiya has been contacted by the director of the Centre for Interethnic Cooperation, Ashot Airapetyan, with the news that his NGO has effectively been forced to become a foreign agent. The grant application submitted by the Centre in an open competition has been rejected, and the organisation now has no means of survival. “NI” has learned that many well-known human rights and charitable organisations have been deprived of financial support as a result of this competition, which instead awarded grants to projects proposed by pro-government patriotic associations.

Ashot Airapetyan, Director of the Centre for Interethnic Cooperation, has made repeated attempts to secure funding from the Russian authorities, but “all attempts to obtain financial support from Russia’s federal funds for our projects have failed”. The tipping point for the Centre came with the open competition for NGO grants held on the President’s orders. The results of the competition were released last Thursday, when it was revealed that the Institute for Civil Society Issues had chosen not to award a grant to the Centre’s project, entitled “The harmonisation of interethnic relations and the prevention of conflicts among young people”. "For many years we have been working on issues which cannot be resolved without state support. We naively believed – and continue to believe – that these projects should be funded by the Russian state," Mr Airapetyan told “NI”.

What is surprising is that this project was awarded first prize by the Institute at the exhibition and forum “Positive Change Summit: Best Social Projects in the Central Federal District” held in April. The Centre for Interethnic Cooperation and its director have received several commendations and awards for their work to promote interethnic peace, and Ashot Airapetyan was appointed to the Working Group on Monitoring of Enforcement of Laws on Federal Security, International Relations and Prevention of Extremism and Terrorism of the Office of the Prosecutor-General of the Russian Federation. Ashot Airapetyan has come to the conclusion that "fate itself” is forcing the organisation to become an “agent”, particularly since it has already attracted the attention of the Prosecutor’s Office. "Our work to prevent interethnic conflict will be impossible if we have no sources of funding. Furthermore, our status as a consultant to the UN Economic and Social Council means that we are obliged to focus our efforts on political issues,” said Mr Airapetyan, adding that the organisation’s “agent activities” would be to promote the Bahamas: “It’s a lovely place – surrounded by an emerald sea, with a never-ending summer. And there’s no need to carry your passport with you every time you leave the house.”

It is not only the Centre for Interethnic Cooperation which was disappointed by the results of the competition. Funding was also withheld from well-respected organisations such as the charitable fund Mother's Right, which submitted two project applications: "The provision of free legal aid to the families of deceased servicemen" and "The publication of a fifth edition of the book ‘Legal advice for the parents of deceased soldiers. Judicial best practices’ ". The state also regarded the projects submitted by Golos as unworthy of support, despite the impending Day of Elections. The fund "Volunteers to help orphaned children" also received no financial support for its projects, which involve distance and classroom education for orphaned children, preventing the abandonment of newborns and free long-term support for adoptive parents. "We will still put our plans into practice, just without state support. That will make it even more important for us to obtain support from non-state players," said the fund’s president, Elena Alshanskaya, on her Facebook page.

It is worth remembering that the fund was granted state support in the past, and Ms Alshanskaya has again questioned the lack of transparency over the procedure for awarding the President’s grants. “The biggest sums of money are usually given to bizarre organisations for one-off measures which cost huge amounts of money and offer no benefit to society. Nothing is known about the assessment procedure, the criteria or the experts involved. I was a member of an expert committee set up by Moscow’s Committee on Public Relations for the purpose of awarding grants, and the rules and the list of experts were publicly available. We would have rejected some of the applications which were awarded a President’s grant – they were of extremely low quality and devoid of any value," Elena Alshanskaya told "NI".

A great many questions have indeed been asked about the choice of grant recipients. For example, 850,000 roubles were awarded to a project with the mysterious name “Nizhegorod legends of Russian innovation”, to be implemented by the Cultural Fund for International Hospitality, “Atmosfera”. A further 1.8 million roubles were granted for the project “Our native Russia, a gift from God", proposed by the All-Russian Social Movement Union of Orthodox Citizens. The independent non-commercial organisation Night Wolves was awarded 3.5 million roubles for the project “Theatre productions on themes found in Russian folk tales, with a unique focus on Russian patriotism" in its Bank Centre, and Anatoly Sobchak’s Saint Petersburg Fund received 10 million roubles to publish a full collection of the writings of the late Mayor of St Petersburg. Financial support was also provided for the well-known StopKham project proposed by the Russian Youth Union.

Ramil Akhmetgaliyev, a lawyer for the Agora Human Rights Association Agora, has told “NI” that any NGOs which decide to become “agents” after failing to receive funding will sooner or later experience problems as a result. He believes that organisations which voluntarily take on the epithet of agent will find it difficult to build relations with officials and normal citizens. “Experience has taught us that restrictions and extra obligations will be imposed. We already know that there will be greater demands in terms of accounting and more frequent checks,” says the lawyer. He also believes that it is too early to lose heart; "an application against this law is currently pending before the Constitutional Court, and a number of organisations have brought applications before the European Court. Both courts still need to have their say," believes the lawyer.