“If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism“
I confess to a fondness for Oscar Wilde which extends far beyond his delightful nuttiness; he more or less wrote the book on cynicism. And cynicism, much more than negativity, is the polar opposite of optimism. Therefore, it is with a cynical eye that I’d like you to help me look at a couple of things I ran across which interested me, because I think you’ll agree there’s an awful lot of pretending-to-be-good going on over there. It’s instructive to remember what underrated comedienne Lily Tomlin had to say on the subject; no matter how cynical you get, you can never keep up.
“Over there” is a series of three articles over at Open Democracy Russia; all in some way connected with the new law regulating the conduct of NGO’s in Russia, all by different authors and all from a different perspective. I should mention, before we get too far from the title, that I am a believer in optimism, and hope. But I would be disingenuous if I did not point out that those who do not include cynicism in their portfolio along with optimism and hope seem to get taken for a ride far more frequently than might be accounted for by simple coincidence.
I should mention also that all three authors are involved, in some capacity, with NGO’s. Anyway, without further ado, let’s get to it. The first, by Almut Rochowanski, is rooted in the opinion that perhaps Mr. Putin should be thanked for the new NGO law, since it forces those civil-society organizations to wake up to the reality that the foreign lolly is all gone, and that they should be looking immediately to how they will get funding. The author is a co-founder and coordinator of Chechnya Advocacy Network, a U.S-based NGO, and argues at least to a degree from the foreign perspective; Russia’s recent spate of new regulations is a retaliatory measure against the U.S. Sergei Magnitsky Act, and as such, “reeks of mean-spirited hostility”. While the author does not attempt to pass off the Magnitsky Act as a noble piece of idealistic human-rights legislation, it is simply not accounted for at all. It is a given that the Russian government is being mean-spirited, without any mention that the Sergei Magnitsky Act was both unnecessary from an activist point of view – since plenty of legal boilerplate already provided for the denial of entry to anyone the U.S. government chooses to deny entry to and/or seizure of assets held in the USA – and a spiteful, mean-spirited measure to get a substitute for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment on the books so the USA could go on punishing Russia after Jackson-Vanik was sunsetted by WTO law. The temerity of Russia, to spit back after having its face spat in.
There’s a good deal more of this bilious bellyaching – and it’s worth noting that this is the most reasonable-sounding of the trilogy – including the suggestion the requirement to self-identify as foreign agents might be illegal, since it forces you to call yourself something you’re not, despite its being a virtual copy in that respect of the equivalent American law. The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires registration as a foreign agent by “every agent of a foreign principal, not otherwise exempt, to register with the Department of Justice and file forms outlining its agreements with, income from, and expenditures on behalf of the foreign principal. These forms are public records and must be supplemented every six months…that informational materials be labeled with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal. The agent must provide copies of such materials to the Attorney General…The agent must keep records of all his activities and permit the Attorney General to inspect them.” It’s curious, considering NGO’s in Russia and their supporters complained, way back in 2006 – when this law actually went into effect, it’s just that nobody paid attention to it because Dmitry “The Big Softy” Medvedev was becoming a big noise, and NGO’s and their supporters counted on him to render such laws toothless – that “burdensome reporting requirements”, “supervisory powers allowing for interference with internal affairs of NGO’s” and “The law allows the government to send a representative to all of an organization’s events, without restriction, including internal strategy sessions and grant selection meetings” as if the success of their activities depended on keeping those activities concealed from the government. That sound altruistic and in the best interests of Russians, to you? Also cited as an onerous requirement that is a barrier to advocacy was “The registration authority has authority to review the compliance of organizations with their goals – even though the registration authority itself lacks expertise needed to judge whether particular activities are designed to meet an organization’s goals.” I must say, that is cheeky of the government, to expect an organization to actually carry out charitable apolitical activities, if that’s what it said it was in Russia to do. Just register me, Comrade, and then get out of the way and mind your own business. Try and get away with that degree of freedom to advocate as a foreigner in the USA.
Scarce heard amongst the chest thumping and holier-than-thou blather is the apparent fact that the most support NGO’s were able to muster in a recent survey that deliberately excluded the qualifier “foreign” from the question, “Who does more to uphold the rule of law in Russia; governmental law enforcement agencies, or civil rights NGO’s?” was 17%. When “foreign” was added to the question, NGO support dropped to 12%. Even this dismal result is spun as a victory: “…a significant proportion of the sample believe that there are some areas of life where organisations representing civic society and supported by foreign governments are not only useful but also more effective than their own country’s governmental institutions.” It’s curious to see organizations which claim to be the spearhead of democracy and the rule of law, stubbornly carving out a role for themselves where they have less than 20% public support, and cheering from the sidelines as Russian NGO’s like the Moscow-Helsinki Group announce they will ignore the law. If Putin had gotten less than 20% of the vote in the presidential election, would that have been spun as “a significant proportion of the electorate”? Ha, ha. He got more than 60%, and western reporting declared it a squeaker.
The next howler was not far away; Russian NGO’s that take grants from foreign donors are not agents, because their donors never tell them what to do. Never. I daresay you, like me, remember Golos getting caught red-handed in the last election, taking its orders from USAID. Numerous videos, allegedly showing “ballot-stuffing” – words which are now as familiar to Americans as “cheeseburger”, thanks to relentless negative coverage of Russian elections – were found to all originate from the same server in California. Hacked emails show conversations discussing payments between Golos executives and USAID administrators; Lilia Shevtsova of Golos attempted to brush this off by insisting the Golos contact was an attorney who was being paid to review complaints, but even if that were true, it still implies collusion with an agency of a foreign government. The Obama administration quickly rushed out a statement; “We are proud of our support of Golos, which is intended to strengthen democratic institutions and processes – not influence elections – and we believe that citizens everywhere should have a right to report concerns about their electoral processes. The United States has supported and will continue to support those citizens and non-governmental organizations working for free and fair elections in Russia, as we do globally”. Thus the Obama administration set up a big fat strawman – that Russian citizens have no right to report electoral concerns unless that right is fought for in their behalf by Golos and other foreign-funded organizations, as justification for its blatant interference it continues to deny . It is also bullshit; Texas Attorney-General Greg Abbott threatened to have OSCE monitors, invited by liberal advocacy groups to monitor the U.S. presidential election, arrested if they approached within 100 feet of a polling place, saying “your legal opinions are irrelevant in the United States, where the Supreme Court has already determined that voter ID laws are constitutional”, as he ignored judgments striking down the Texas law and pointed to a Supreme Court ruling for another state. Keep your democratic opinions to yourself, OSCE, fuck you very much. How’s that for working for free and fair elections, globally?
Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce a helpful graphic from RiaNovosti, which summarizes the new law and its effects. NGO’s in this instance have morphed into NPO’s, or Non-Profit Organizations, but we’re still talking about the same thing. As you can see, if your NGO/NCO/NPO “works in the area of science, culture, art, health care, health protection, disease prevention, social security and support for individuals, protection of motherhood and childhood, social support for disabled persons, promoting a healthy lifestyle, protecting the animal and plant kingdoms, charitable activity, or promoting charitable or volunteer activity”, the net change will be…nothing. If your NGO “receives funding from foreign governments, states, international or other organizations, individuals, legal entities or stateless persons”, but does not “involve itself in political activity or carry out political campaigns in order to influence government decisions or form public opinion for its own purposes”, again, the net effect will be nothing. NGO’s do not have to forswear foreign funding, but those who accept it may not involve themselves in political activity. And it is this they are determined to accept no restrictions upon doing. If your NGO accepts foreign funding and insists upon engaging in political activity, then it must register as a foreign agent, mark its advocacy materials as originating with a foreign agent and obey special oversight requirements.
Having toed the party line thus far, the author proceeds to go off the rails, necessitating some quick damage control from NED, which you will see with the second article. She describes the phenomenon of “constituency confusion”, in which an NGO funded by foreign donors begins to forget who it was established to serve, and pay more attention to the interests of the donors than those it was set up to serve. For 20 years, she says, generous foreign funding allowed agencies to pursue programming for which there was little or no public demand – profoundly summed up, because it never had to be paid for by the public, it never had to be sold to them. This insight alone won the organization, and the author, my grudging respect. She winds up, and swings for the fences with “A human rights movement that fundamentally trusts that the people are with them in their belief in human rights, justice and democracy can survive these new laws.” Bravo, Almut; bravo.
The follow-up to get the narrative back onto familiar ground was not long in coming; the very next day, Mike Allen weighed in, from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); the Big Daddy of the NGO donors, and a prolific supporter of Russian NGO’s. Let’s get something straight, says Mike: Putin is owed no thanks for anything, and his administration is actively working to undermine civil society and make the public more dependent on the state. It’s just ridiculous, he continues, to expect organizations that are funded by a foreign government and who involve themselves in political activities to register as foreign agents, and “submit to onerous reporting requirements”. No civilized nation would stand for it.
He also quickly gets back to the familiar language with which the foreign press – and Open Democracy, I might add, which is why Ms. Rochowanski’s piece was an eye-opener – is so comfortable; Putin runs a tight authoritarian ship, he is persecuting gays and restricting internet freedom, and democracy for Russia under his rule is receding out of reach. NED loves all these domestic pitched battles, and does what it can to stoke the flames by coming down firmly on the side of the opposition every time. To hear him tell it, NED just loves homosexuals and only wants them to be happy, even though homosexual activity was legal in Russia for 10 years before it was in the United States, and the age of consent in Russia for both homosexual and heterosexual activity is the same – 16. Less than that age is a minor, so what ol’ Mike is advocating for is the freedom of homosexuals to pitch the gay lifestyle to children 15 years old or less. Because 16 years old and older is not a minor. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the internet law to take that one on, but I do know that if you are part of any social media network, such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, the U.S. surveillance state is watching you. FBI agents are encouraged, in a Department of Justice report, to “go undercover” on social media sites with the aim of establishing contact with suspects and targets, mapping social relationships and gaining access to non-public information. No U.S. organization is in a very good position to preach about internet freedom.
NED has, however, not lost its power to surprise. I was amazed, for example, to learn that Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case was a “clear example of political persecution arising from private initiatives to assist civil society”. That Mr. Khodorkovsky is incarcerated for his philanthropic activities, I have to admit, was one of the last arguments I would have expected to see made. Right up there with him being jugged for secretly being a caped superhero who fought crime at night, I mean.
And, right on time, the obligatory reference to “the most extensive, sustained and dramatic protest movement in post-Soviet Russia.”. We are going to have to resign ourselves, I’m afraid, to the reality that this is actually how these people see it – an unstoppable protest juggernaut that fizzled because of Putin’s authoritarian crackdown, but which had him shivering in bed and racked by nervous, hysterical sobbing as he contemplated being run out of Moscow on a rail by an exulting mob of millions. It has no more relationship to reality than Obama being a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya, or the South Pole being hot because…well, because it’s in the south – but if it brings you comfort, knock yourself out.
Mike’s activists, we hear, just want to engage with the wider public. Is that a fact? Let’s look. Who’s funded by NED in Russia? Well, there’s the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. At a time when American conservatives are engaged in union-busting at home to a degree not seen since the dawn of organized labour – and behind the union-busting legislation stand the Koch Brothers with their Americans For Prosperity Group – NED figures trade unions are just what the Russian Federation needs. I can’t forbear from pointing out that it might be the acquired knowledge that unrest created and encouraged in labour unions can shut down whole sectors of the economy in collective-bargaining disagreements that is more attractive than the plight of the Russian worker. A plethora of human-rights NGO’s focus on training activists, training organizations how to petition the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), educating activists in how to use the Public Relations system to their advantage and providing legal aid to those who run afoul of the authorities, while others such as Golos receive foreign money to raise public awazreness of the shortcomings of Russian electoral legislation and training in how to lodge a complaint of electoral violation. I doubt the USA would appreciate an American NGO financed by Moscow whose portfolio was education in the unconstitutional nature of voter ID laws and how to register a complaint with the electoral commission; U.S. lawmakers are of the opinion their laws are the fairest in the world, and do not need any improvement. Americans might, in such a case, reach a conclusion the said NGO was only in place as a troublemaker, to stir up revolt.
Still others focus on the history of political repression in the USSR, just to make sure nobody forgets. Again using an analogy, would the USA appreciate a Moscow-financed NGO in Washington whose mandate was to study and report on white repression during the enslavement of negroes in America, and keep the black folk all stirred up? I doubt it. NED might have saved the money granted to the Committee Against Torture to address the issue of torture by representatives of its own government, since the effort at home seems to be focused on legitimizing it. As laudable as the work of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee might be, a civilian agency in the USA financed by the Russian government which interfered with recruiting for the U.S. Armed Forces would be short-lived indeed. Ditto any Russian organization set up in the USA to “conduct a survey of young soldiers to analyze conditions in the U.S. Army and disseminate brochures to military installations.” Yeah; I can see that not happening. Golos’ instructions with its grant are, besides analysis of the elections themselves and dissemninating their findings both nationally and internationally, to “monitor the press, political agitation campaigns, and the work of regional electoral commissions”. We’ve already seen how the USA welcomes international monitoring of its elections – why should Russia be a willing host to organizations committed to its destruction?
If the true raison d’etre of NED-funded organizations is to help all Russians achieve freedom and democracy, why are all these organizations devoted to development of the complainers, stroking of the elites among civil society (who were actually supposed to have left Russia several brain-drains ago) and promoting advocacy and dissent? Because they destabilize the population and create problems for the government, that’s why. The west has had any number of opportunities to declare itself with respect to partnership in Russia, in crises large and small, and it has set up its stool in the opposition’s corner, every time.
Next up, Pavel Chikov, Chairman of AGORA. In his article, last of the trilogy, he introduces an interesting angle I had not heard before, and makes a startling admission. The interesting angle was that Russia wants to dump all the NGO’s because of its consuming interest in joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Russia tried and failed to achieve membership in 1996, and a major reason given for refusal is that the candidate country cannot be in receipt of any foreign aid.
I am so calling bullshit. Israel is a member in good standing of the OECD, since 2010. In that year, Israel received more than $2 Billion in aid from the USA. In this report on “Sustainability of CSO’s” (Civil Society Organizations, yet another mutation of NGO’s), along with the interesting statement, “CSOs themselves often play an important role in the election process, by pushing candidates to address issues important to their constituents, educating voters, and observing the elections” (according to repeated demurrals, NGO’s play no role in the election process) is confirmation that USAID remains active in Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia, all OECD countries. Evidently, being in receipt of foreign-aid grants is only a barrier to admissibility for the OECD if the decision-makers rule that it is. A new rule that says you are not allowed to have two “s’s” in succession in your name should be enough to exclude Russia without anyone else having to give up their membership.
The startling admission was that international sources were planning to pour 19 Billion rubles ($630 Million) into Russian NGO’s in 2013. Certainly doesn’t sound like a nickel-and-dime operation to me.
In story after story on the supposed booting out of American NGO’s from Russia, the source adopts a hurt tone of incomprehension, and wants to know what the USA has ever done to Russia, when these nice people only wanted to help cure Tuberculosis (still seen in Russia from time to time, I’m afraid, although nowhere near the killer it once was) and help find a cure for AIDS.
I emphasize once again, by slapping my palm with the back of my hand, those organizations are not affected. If an NGO is involved in medical research and not political activity, it is not threatened with anything and its status will not change, even if most or all of its funding is international.
Let’s roll that into a summary, just to hit all the high points before closing: (1) If your NGO/NCO/NPO/CSO – all of which mean the same thing for the purposes of the law – is involved in meaningful work and not involved in politics, nothing need change, and if it pulls up stakes and leaves it will not be because it was kicked out; (2) if your NGO is involved in politics but is staffed by Russians and does not receive any foreign funding, it can spout politics all the livelong day if it pleases; (3) If your NGO insists on being involved in political activity and receives foreign funding, it must register as a foreign agent and submit to Russian government oversight. If it complies and remains within the law, there is no reason to believe it will be kicked out of the country; and (4) if your NGO insists on being involved in political activity, receives foreign funding and will not obey the law by registering as a foreign agent and submitting to Russian government oversight, its activities will be terminated. That last provision might not even have been necessary were it not for the irresponsible chinsauce thrown around by leathery chowderheads like Lyudmila Alekseeva, to the effect that her organization would simply ignore the law. Well, no, you won’t. Or you’ll show up in the morning and find a pet store where you last saw the Moscow-Helsinki Group’s offices. Same goes for you, Masha Lippman, oft-quoted expert in all things Russian for the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
I don’t want to leave this with the impression that NGO’s do no good in Russia. Some are actually under-appreciated, and could do with encouragement and cooperation. There are more than 200,000 NGO’s in Russia, and only a handful insist on the absolute right to diss the Russian government in the most ignorant and unambiguous terms, while western governments pick up the tab and chortle in appreciation, and their media outlets lovingly record every word for the entertainment of the rubes back home. Many of the same actors insist on openly supporting and encouraging the political opposition, regardless of how weedy they might be or how tiny a following they might have, and indeed some of that following might melt away when those figures are no longer perceived to be supported by bottomless pockets. Every political party in power needs an energetic and hungry opposition to keep it on its toes, but that opposition must spring from popular support of the populace, and not foreign intrigue.