The Russian Ministry of Justice has listed three groups associated with democracy activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky in its register of “undesirable organisations”1: the UK-based Open Russia and Open Russia civic movement, and the Institute of Modern Russia think-tank, based in the US..
A civic movement and a website in Russia sharing the name Open Russia (Otrkytaya Rossia)not legally related either to each other or to the British legal entities, but they are now also facing pressure.
How Open Russia Got Banned
On 26 April, the Prosecutor General’s Office declared “undesirable” three organisations associated with Khodorkovsky2 reasoning that they “carry out special programmes and projects aimed to discredit the results of Russian elections and dismiss their outcomes as illegitimate”, and that the activity of these organisations “is aimed at inspiring protests and destabilising the internal political situation, thereby threatening the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation and the state’s security”. According to the Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Alexander Kurennoy3: “Our initiatives concern only the companies registered in Britain.” It must follow from his statement that this decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office should not affect the Russia-based movement of the same name.
On the same day, the Open Russia website4 published a statement explaining that they had not been banned, since they were “an entirely Russia-based organisation and therefore cannot be declared undesirable”. A message sent out to the website subscribers stated, with reference to the Law on Public Associations5: “The Open Russia civic movement’s type of operation does not require registration with the Ministry of Justice, therefore Open Russia can carry out its activity in accordance with its Charter adopted in November 2016.”
Open Russia is not registered as a legal entity or media outlet in Russia, as Veronika Kutsyllo, editor-in-chief of openrussia.org, confirmed to Legal Dialogue.
In her interview to Meduza6, Khodorkovsky’s spokesperson Kulle Pispanen said that the British legal entity and the Russian organisation were not related financially either. “We comply with the laws of the Russian Federation, where it is written that a network-based civic organisation cannot have bank accounts, let alone receive foreign funding in such accounts. I am not sure whether they will freeze the British organisation’s bank accounts outside Russia – or whether they are able to do so at all – but this cannot affect our activity in any way.” In her interview to RBC, Pispanen confirmed7 that Open Russia has legal entities only in the U.K.
Open Russia faced problems two days before the Enough/We’re sick of him protest scheduled for 29 April. Activists in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities gathered to hand petitions to the Russian President “urging him not to run for a fourth presidential term but instead complete his political career and take no office in the new government”. Almost everywhere except Moscow, police arrested some of the protesters.
In Kirov, police stopped the movement coordinators’ car and confiscated blank appeal forms8. The organisation’s and its coordinators’ offices in Moscow9 and Kazan10 were searched. Two activists were arrested and detained for five days for distributing leaflets11.
On 28 April, REN TV broadcast “a revealing documentary” entitled Black Cash for Liberals12.
Open Russia was established as a charitable foundation sponsored by the Yukos Oil Company in 2001, but suspended its operation in 2006. The group’s bank accounts were frozen by the Basmanny Court in Moscow, and its website was no longer updated. Khodorkovsky announced Open Russia’s re-launch in 201413.
Undesirable organisations: what are they?
In May 2015, Russia adopted a law on “undesirable organisations” 14
Under this law, a foreign or international non-governmental (i.e. for-profit or non-profit) organisation may be declared “undesirable” and its operation in Russia banned.
What does it mean? In particular, if an “undesirable” organisation continues to operate, its director may face the following sanctions:
- Fines of up to 500,000 rubles or three years’ salary;
- Compulsory labour of up to 5 years;
- Imprisonment of up to 6 years with a 10-year ban on certain positions or occupations.
Over the three years since its adoption, no director has faced charges under this law, as “undesirable organisations” have discontinued their operations voluntarily.
Other restrictions include:
- Foreigners associated with “undesirable” organisations are banned from entering Russia;
- Russian entities face fines of up to 100,000 rubles for cooperation with such organisations;
- “Undesirable” organisations cannot operate as media outlets, conduct or organise public events;
- “Undesirable” organisations cannot publish, store and distribute informational materials, either on their own behalf or via mass media;
- Any programmes and projects run by such organisations are banned;
- “Undesirable” organisations can use their bank accounts and deposits in Russia only to pay their obligations under employment contracts, taxes and damages; and
- Banks and other financial institutions are required to refuse any transaction involving money and/or other assets of an “undesirable” organisation.
Who is undesirable in Russia?
Since May 2015, ten organisations have been listed as “undesirable”15, including the record three listings on 27 April 2017. Soon after the law was adopted, 12 organisations were nominated to the so-called “patriotic stop list”16 (the term did not stick with mass media).
- The National Endowment for Democracy (this and other organisations are referred to here as they are named on the Russian Ministry of Justice list) established by the U.S. Congress in 1983 to promote democracy. In 2016, after it was banned in Russia, the organisation awarded more than seven million dollars in grants17
- Open Society Institute (OSI) Assistance Foundation18 of George Soros. In Russia, they awarded grants to universities, supported academic exchange programmes and promoted human rights.
- The US Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law website19 does not provide activity reports or details of specific awards. The foundation’s stated goals are to promote entrepreneurship and public institutions in Russia.
- The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs20 founded by Madeleine Albright is associated with the National Endowment for Democracy and works to support and strengthen democracy, mainly through education and training of politicians.
- Media Development Investment Fund, Inc.21 founded in 1995 in the U.S. to invest in media business and promote independent journalism.
- International Republican Institute22 founded by Arizona Senator John McCain to promote democracy by educating politicians.
- Institute of Modern Russia23, a think-tank founded in New York City in 2010 and focused mainly on planning reforms in post-Putin Russia. In 2016, IMR produced three reports: on constitutional reforms, healthcare system and demonopolisation of economy. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel is the president of IMR.
- Open Russia Civic Movement, Open Russia (U.K.) appeared in 2013 and is associated with Anna Arkadyevna Sutton, Tristram Bishop and Tristram Stanley Bishop (the latter two are probably one person).
- OR (Otkrytaya Rossia) (U.K.), incorporated in November 2015, director Natalia Shachkova24
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