By Paul Goble
The Kremlin’s sweeping crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGO) in the Russian Federation reflects its belief that such entities inevitably work for foreign governments if they receive foreign funding. And that belief is underscored by its own behavior: At the present time, the Russian government is massively funding NGOs in the Baltic countries to influence the political discussions there by pushing Moscow’s political line and, in some cases, encouraging what can only be described as sedition.
That Moscow has been funding ethnic-Russian and other non-governmental organizations in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has long been the subject of discussion in the Baltic media and in the West. Yet, much of this debate has been speculative, allowing the defenders of Russia’s behavior to dismiss such suggestions out of hand. But now, the organization Re:Baltica has conducted a major study of Russian involvement in this sector, a study that documents some of what Moscow has been doing and makes it absolutely impossible for anyone to ignore the ways in which Russia is using this technique to subvert the three countries.
Re:Baltica is a non-profit based in Riga, which has conducted in-depth investigative journalism reports on a variety of issues since its founding in August 2011. It promotes transparency and reform. Its report on Moscow’s hidden funding of NGOs is, thus, completely consistent with its skill set and intentions (Rebaltica.lv/en/about_us, accessed September 10).
The study, entitled “Kremlin’s Millions: How Russia Funds NGOs in Baltics,” was published last week and shows that “there are more than 40 such organizations in the Baltic states.” Those in Estonia and Latvia “have received at least 1.5 million euros [$1.8 million] through legal means in the last three years, according to the most conservative calculations.” Critically, even this figure “excludes cash transactions [the preferred means of providing untraceable money] and financing through Russia-friendly enterprises and individuals.” Figures for Lithuania are not as easily available, because Vilnius does not have income reporting requirements for NGOs (Delfi.lt, September 4).
Pro-Moscow NGOs in all three Baltic countries have “some key features” in common. First and foremost, “they do not have significant alternative sources of funding, relying heavily on Moscow,” the report says. In addition, approximately two thirds of them are directly or indirectly connected to pro-Moscow political parties in the Baltic countries and may, Re:Baltica notes, even be a means for Moscow to funnel money to those parties. They frequently present themselves as “anti-fascist” groups committed to what they claim is the rise of fascism in the Baltic States. And in every case, these groups are seeking “to influence the public debate and society” against the West and in favor of Moscow.
A portion of the Re:Baltica report is devoted to each of the countries. In Estonia, nine Russian-linked NGOs and one individual focus on niche media. For the public record, they said they received 710,000 euros [$850,000] over the last three years, but they “do not report the sources of the grants on their annual reports.” The largest recipient was the Legal Information Center for Human Rights, a group the Estonian security services have classified as a Russian agent. That group also receives money from the Tallinn city government, headed by the pro-Russian mayor Edgar Savisaar. A second group is Estonia Without Nazism, and a third is the Integration Media Group, which prepares materials for the Estonian media on Russian themes. Yet another NGO is involved in supporting Paldiski Radio, which broadcasts to ethnic Russians in that northern port city.
In Latvia, there are seven major pro-Moscow NGOs receiving Russian funds, although only “four have acknowledged” doing so in their annual reports, Re:Baltica says. The public declarations total 680,000 euros ($830,000) over the last three years, but the real figure is almost certainly far higher. People involved with these groups do not want to talk about it. Aleksandr Gaponenko, who is active in several, angrily rebuked investigators by saying: “Is that a crime that I received money from Russia? It’s my right. You get money from America and I am not judging you.” The Russian activist continued: “I don’t want to talk to you about the financial matters, because I’m afraid you are from the CIA. You can get all the information at the American embassy; why are you asking me?”
But Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, has a different take on the situation. He told the researchers that “the goal of these organizations is not to build cultural ties and public diplomacy in the best sense, but rather to serve as a conduit for Russian foreign policy through the local Russian community as well as via the instruments of political influence.”
And in Lithuania, Russia is also actively involved, although information about the three NGOs and one individual thought to be funded by Moscow is far more difficult to track down as there are no reporting requirements. But the pattern is the same as in the other two countries: the four present themselves first and foremost as “anti-Nazi” and have close links with the Russian media and with pro-Moscow politicians.
It is clear that Re:Baltica has surveyed only the tip of the iceberg. Moscow’s involvement in this sector in the three Baltic countries is much greater than even its report suggests. That is troubling not only in and of itself but as an indication of what Moscow may do next. After all, the same pattern occurred in Ukraine before the Crimean annexation.