Levada Centre may close as a result of 'foreign agent' designation

posted 12 Sept 2016, 09:24 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 12 Sept 2016, 09:27 ]
6 September 2016

Source: HRO.org

According to Rosbalt, Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre, a world-renowned sociological research institute, has said that his organisation may have to close if the decision taken by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation cannot be successfully challenged.

The television channel Dozhd reported Gudkov as saying that, "If the decision is left to stand, the Levada Centre will be forced to wind down or discontinue its activities,” since the label of ‘foreign agent’ would make it “simply impossible to carry out public opinion polls”.

Gudkov said that the Levada Centre intended to challenge the Ministry of Justice’s decision in court.

Accusations had been lodged against the Levada Centre by activists from the pro-government movement “Anti-Maidan”, in particular the Senator Dmitry Sablin.

According to Gudkov, Sablin accused the Levada Centre of “carrying out intelligence work”, and requested the checks which took place between 12 and 31 August.

Gudkov also pointed out that the authorities had only taken an interest in the Levada Centre after it had recorded a drop in ratings for the United Russia party, leading him to believe that the inspection was motivated by political considerations. “From what I could see, the inspection was carried out carelessly and in an extremely biased fashion, on spurious grounds and with no attention to detail – the officials were merely acting on the orders of politicians.”

Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, said that the Levada Centre had been placed on the list of ‘foreign agents’ as a result of the legislative provisions under which any organisation could be included on this list.

Fedotov stated that organisations such as the Russian Peace Foundations or the Russian Authors’ Society may also be included on the list of ‘foreign agents’, since “their funding or other assets come from abroad, and they are engaged in public activities which can easily be interpreted as political under the law.”

The Levada Centre is an autonomous NGO based in Russia which carries out sociological and market research and which is one of the foremost sociological research institutes in the country. The Centre’s research team started to carry out regular country-wide public opinion polls in 1988.

The witch-hunt against ‘foreign agents’ in Russia’s non-profit sector was launched in 2015, and by the end of that year there were already 109 organisations on the list of ‘agents’. The organisations identified as ‘agents’ by Ministry of Justice officials have been forced to pay disproportionately large fines as well as facing significant damage to their reputations and finances, and several have been forced to close down.

Environmental and human rights NGOs have been the at the forefront of this persecution. At the 70th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2015, a resolution recognising the importance of human rights advocates and the necessity of defending them was adopted and supported by 117 countries.

In 2015, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, stressed in a special report that, “new regulations have led to the closure of a series of human rights organisations, and other NGOs are engaging in self-censorship, taking extra precautions, and avoiding participation in activities which could be deemed ‘political’.”

The International Memorial Society has stated in a special announcement: "[...] The very idea behind the Law ‘On Foreign Agents’ is essentially alien to the principle of the rule of law, and not a single problem exists which it could potentially solve. The goals pursued by its authors were purely political and opportunistic, and its wording deliberately and blatantly introduces legal uncertainty. In effect, the Law ‘On Foreign Agents’ establishes a presumption of guilt for a group of organisations which have been selected on an entirely artificial basis [...]".

Amnesty International, the largest international human rights organisation in the world, has emphasised that, “the Law on ‘foreign agents’ is one of a series of measures aimed at suppressing civil society and freedom of expression in the country.”

Russian NGOs have repeatedly made known their opposition to the law and lodged appeals against it, inter alia at the European Court of Human Rights.

Human rights defenders have stressed that the law is blatantly discriminatory and has extremely negative historical overtones.

90 members of the Russian PEN Centre, which brings together historians, members of the Free Historical Society and Russian academics, have called on the Minister of Justice to put an end to the arbitrary treatment of NGOs identified as “foreign agents”.

As stressed in the report by the NGO Lawyers’ Club, Development of civil activism despite everything: Russian NGOs in the aftermath of the Law on ‘Foreign Agents’, in 2015 and early 2016 there was a marked upswing in the enforcement of state control (frequently on an arbitrary basis) against the activities of NGOs in Russia, as well as the emergence of new legal problems in connection with their existence, placing in question the legal existence and activities of Russian NGOs as an integral part of an independent civil society.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds