The Kremlin vs. the NGOs

By Gessen, Masha | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Kremlin vs. the NGOs


Gessen, Masha, International New York Times


The state's repressive machine won't quit until it has vacuumed up every last bit of independent activity.

A number of strange protests -- small, mild and held in a sort of minor key -- took place in Russia's main cities this week.

A bookstore in St. Petersburg wrote in its window on Tuesday, "We are proud to be selling books published by the Dynasty Foundation." The Dynasty Foundation, a charitable organization that funds research and educational projects, had just been designated by the authorities as a "foreign agent" -- contemporary Russian-speak for an "enemy of the state." In Moscow, a school teacher stood in front of the Justice Ministry holding a cardboard placard. Later, a writer wearing a graduation gown stood in the same spot, holding a sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve. The teacher's sign said, "Dynasty is not an agent"; the writer's said, "Agents yourself."

Dynasty is one of the oldest and largest charities in Russia. Its founder and leader, Dmitry Zimin, seemed, atypically for a rich Russian, to have no enemies -- at least until Monday. Mr. Zimin, 82, is widely liked and admired. The oldest of the oligarchs of the 1990s, he is a former radio engineer who made his fortune by starting a cellular-phone network. In 2001, he left the company he founded in order to start a charity to fund scientific research. He then branched out into popular-science publishing, science museums and educational projects. Old enough to remember the Great Terror and his relatives who perished in it, Mr. Zimin had been careful to stay out of political controversies.

The "foreign agent" designation, created by Russian law three years ago, is reserved for NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity. A sort of scarlet letter, it carries practical consequences. It means that state organizations cannot work with any such organization, and it imposes financial-reporting requirements on NGOs that can paralyze them.

For a charity like Dynasty, which works with schools, libraries and museums, the blow, both moral and practical, is huge. Mr. Zimin has said it hurt him "almost to the point of tears" and that he will no longer finance the foundation. He cannot unilaterally decide to shutter it, but the Dynasty board is likely to make that decision at its meeting early next month.

But how can an educational foundation started by a Russian businessman be considered a "foreign agent" at all? The Justice Ministry points out that Mr. Zimin keeps his money in foreign banks. This is a common practice, used by the Russian government itself, among others, but it does mean that when Mr. Zimin uses his own money to fund his charity, which is in Russia, the money technically travels into the country from abroad. …

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