Another Day, Another ‘Foreign Agent’ Designation in Russia

by Rachel Denber Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch 21.04.2015

Anyone lucky enough, as I have been many times, to spend an hour with Svetlana Gannushkina, one of Russia’s top advocates for the rights of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, gets used to the conversation being interrupted at least a dozen times by phone calls. They’re almost always from people trying to navigate Russia’s asylum system, desperate for legal help, material assistance, you name it. And she talks to each and every one of them.

There is probably no other organization that has done more to help refugees and migrants in Russia than Civic Assistance Committee, which Svetlana has lead for 25 years. And there is probably no one more knowledgeable on these issues in Russia than Svetlana, who has been decorated with prizes and awards ranging from the French Legion d’Honneur to the Cross of Honor of the Russian Cossacks.

So, maybe – and sadly – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Civic Assistance has become the latest target in the Russian government’s unrelenting campaign against independent nongovernmental groups. Today Russia’s Ministry of Justice added Civic Assistance Committee to its list of so-called foreign agent organizations, a term ubiquitously understood in Russia to be mean traitor or spy.

Following amendments adopted in 2012, independent groups that accept foreign funding and engage in broadly articulated “political activity” were supposed to register themselves as “foreign agents.” When, not surprisingly, no groups did, new rules in 2014 authorized the Ministry of Justice to unilaterally designate the organizations as “foreign agents.”

Civic Assistance is appealing the ministry’s action.

In July 2014, when the ministry branded the first five groups – all of them prominent – it was big news. Now that the ministry has forcibly registered 50, the branding of Civic Assistance will hardly raise an eyebrow, even though the absurdity could not be more glaring. Civic Assistance is first and foremost a humanitarian group. Russian government agencies frequently send people in need of services to Civic Assistance. Russian officials from various government agencies seek Svetlana’s expertise.

The anti-“foreign agents” campaign is the centerpiece of the Russian government’s efforts to annihilate independent activism and critical thinking in the country. It’s hard to say what its next steps will be, or what it will do next against Civic Assistance. I do know one thing – the main victims will be the thousands of people Civic Assistance helps every day.


Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, specializes in countries of the former Soviet Union.

Previously, Denber directed Human Rights Watch's Moscow office and did field research and advocacy in Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. She has authored reports on a wide range of human rights issues throughout the region. Denber earned a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University in international relations and a master's degree in political science from Columbia University, where she studied at the Harriman Institute. She speaks Russian and French.


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