Amid the continuing rift between Russia and the West, Russian authorities have cracked down on the remaining non-profit organizations with foreign funding operating in the North Caucasus. Russia’s Justice Ministry identified non-profit organizations from Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya as “foreign agents,” which will automatically lead to their closure. Kabardino-Balkaria’s Center for Human Rights, headed by long-time activist Valery Khatazhukov, reportedly received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American organization that is much disliked by the Russian establishment. The Chechen human rights center, headed by Minkail Ezhiev, reportedly received funding from the German and British embassies in Moscow. The government accused the Chechen rights activists of publishing brochures that “discredit the law-enforcement agencies of Chechnya abroad.” An obscure organization in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, the Union of Young Analysts, received funding from a group in Romania, the Black Sea Trust. A Stavropol-based organization, the Foundation for Peace in Russia’s South and the North Caucasus, also was designated as a “foreign agent” and ceased operations (Kavkazskaya Politika, October 29).
To be sure, the policy of exerting pressure on foreign organizations in Russia, especially in the North Caucasus, dates back at least to the second Russian-Chechen war of 1999-2000. The Russian government treated all foreign organizations that provided humanitarian aid to the Chechens with suspicion and many of them were either sent out of the country explicitly or shut down under various pretexts. However, in 2012, Moscow for the first time cracked down on nearly all non-profit organizations that receive foreign funding. Most analysts cite President Vladimir Putin’s fear that foreign-funded organizations could inspire a “color revolution” in the country as the pretext behind these moves.
The law on “foreign agents” was proposed in 2012, after the widespread protests in Russia that followed the rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011. The Kremlin at the time was reportedly quite scared that a revolution could happen in the country, and one of its responses was to crack down on non-profits that had received foreign funding. For example, the Golos association, which monitored electoral fraud, was one of the first targets of the Russian government’s crackdown (dw.com, May 15, 2013).
The latest attack on non-profits with foreign funding is much more comprehensive than the previous ones. The Russian government has compiled what is often referred to as the “patriotic stop-list” made of up of foreign organizations that are viewed as “undesirable organizations,” and any Russian citizen who interacts with such organizations may be subjected to administrative and even criminal prosecution in Russia, including hefty fines and imprisonment. President Vladimir Putin signed the legislation into law in May (Interfax, May 23).
Initially, the “stop-list” consisted of 12 organizations, including Freedom House, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and National Endowment for Democracy, among others (Interfax, July 7). Later, the Russian Federation Council proposed adding eight more organizations to the list. The latest update to the Russian “patriotic list” includes The Jamestown Foundation, along with the Ford Foundation, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia Foundation and several others. The chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, Konstantin Kosachyov, told the Izvestia newspaper that the creation of the stop list “is the start of a public discussion, not its end.” Kosachyov tried to reassure the public that the government was not targeting Russian civil society or curbing its contacts with foreign partners. The purpose of introducing the restrictions is to erect a barrier against those forces that are “openly demanding regime change in Russia,” Kosachyov said (Izvestia, July 9).
The reality, however, is that Russian civil society has suffered tremendously, especially organizations in the North Caucasus, where foreign aid for civil activists is perhaps most needed. The Russian government offered some “carrots” to the country’s civil organizations, apart from “sticks,” allotting $48 million for the country’s non-profits in 2015. However, as is usually the case in Russia, peripheral regions like the North Caucasus were far outpaced by other parts of the country. The North Caucasian organizations received only about 1 percent of the government funds. The Kremlin’s strategy in the North Caucasus appears to be the good old strategy of centralization, which includes starving regional organizations of resources and then implementing the policies top-down. Now, government-supported “civil organizations” are coming to the forefront in the country. The Committee for Civil Initiatives (Komitet Grazhdanskikh Initsiativ), which is headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin, has increased its activities in the North Caucasus. Kudrin’s organization appears to be paying special attention to the outflow of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus, thereby aligning with the Russian government’s main concern and effectively trying to solve the problems of the Russian state under the guise of a “grassroot organization” (Kavkazskaya Politika, October 29).
By halting the activities of foreign development organizations, the Russian authorities may have contributed to stalling the political development of the country and incremental political change, while the chances for abrupt political change have increased. The pressure on the non-profits in the North Caucasus is unlikely to help to improve security in the region, and will only increase the number of abuses by government agencies.