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‘Pure pragmatism—nothing personal’ ‘Meduza’ interviews the author of Russia’s new law against ‘undesirable’ organizations

Meduza
Photo: Sergey Karpov / TASS

On Tuesday, May 19, the Duma approved the third and final draft of legislation against “undesirable” organizations. The document allows the Attorney General along with the Foreign Ministry to declare any foreign organization—commercial or civil—to be “undesirable” within the Russian Federation. Falling under this category are any organizations said to present “a threat to Russia’s constitutional order, defense capacity, or security of the state.” Even participating in the activities of such organizations will become grounds for civil or criminal charges. In the lead up to the vote, the international organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the Duma to reject the proposed law, saying it is draconian and repressive. In an interview with Meduza special correspondent Andrey Kozenko, Duma deputy Aleksandr Tarnavsky (one of the legislation’s coauthors) indicated that it is primarily directed against large Western companies, and said the new status will apply to organizations that really “give us trouble, who act arrogantly and impudently.”

Could you give us some of the backstory on the creation of this legislation? What is it for and who is it against? Why was it written with a deputy from LDPR [the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia—a right-wing nationalist group]?

I’m an active member of the Duma, and I’ve already spoken more than 300 times. Maybe I have yet to introduce a large number of new laws, but I remain a representative of an opposition party [Just Russia]. I am fighting so that, even if my projects are few, they will be adopted; that requires me to do a lot of preparatory work. Generally, I work in many directions. Yesterday, for example, the Just Russia faction nominated me to the post of deputy head of the Budget Committee. A lot of my work is business-related—in the sense of [regulatory] law. I am part of a group of active deputies who speak out on the main questions of domestic and foreign policy. Clearly this includes issues of inter-governmental relations with Ukraine and with Europe.

From my viewpoint, relations with Europe were spoiled when we were hosting the Olympics and what we consider a coup d’etat was carried out in Ukraine. Our Western friends were seriously tied up in the Ukrainian events, and a geopolitical reaction started. In certain cases it was possible to look the other way, but when it came to real political warfare, it was impossible not to take notice.

You mean that the law we are talking about is a response to the actions of the West?

Unequivocally. It is a response to concrete actions taken by a number of states against Russia, against our companies that do business abroad. A classic example was the decision by the US Presidential Administration to close their market to [weapons manufacturer] Kalashnikov. The company sold a significant share of its products on the American market, but what did the Administration do? It decided to declare the company an undesirable organization. Did they have the right to do that? I think yes.

The European Union adopted the same measures against Russian oil and financial firms. Then the question arose: can Russia act in the exact same manner against foreign companies? Especially under conditions in which the price of oil has dropped from 120-130 to 40-50 dollars a barrel. Was this a coincidence or a carefully planned action? Highly respected global experts said that this is a play against Russia. After all, our economy is tied to oil, and we receive a third of our revenue from the oil and gas industry.

Do I understand correctly that these undesirable organizations are specifically commercial companies?

That is exactly who we had in mind. Maybe our economy is weak, and we depend on stronger economies. Before we used to speak of the US and Europe, but now it’s also of the Chinese. Maybe it’s unprofitable for us to impose these sanctions, but when you cannot stand by, you have to [take such action]. If there is the example of Western sanctions against us, then we, too, can act against companies. But, in a democratic state, we have to set out regulations to do this: there’s no need to pretend that we’re just searching for maggots and bacteria in [imported] products. These decisions must be handled procedurally, so we decided to create this law.

I do not think that there is a particular company that has to fall under this list. But if a company suddenly starts causing a lot of trouble, starts acting arrogantly and impudently, then in theory it could fall under the list of undesirable organizations.

I concluded from the legislation’s memoranda that it’s intended primarily for civil organizations...

What is a non-commercial organization? They do not make money, they were given a grant, and they use it. NGOs are not, from our perspective, subjects of cooperation or opposition. They are merely channels for the transfer of funds, but these funds have an owner. I’m talking about governments and transnational corporations. Our President has said that a lot of what is done in Russia is done on foreign money through NGOs. But that is another story. Laws have already been adopted regarding these organizations, like the law on “foreign agents,” and now this is something different. The main risk is large transnational companies. Yes, we are seriously dependent on them. But the issue comes down to whether we keep quite and tolerate it or respond.

Why is that language not in the text of the legislation? There the term undesirable organization is used very broadly.

It says “foreign or international non-governmental organizations.” The term “non-governmental” was introduced later. The issue was that the UN or UNESCO might have been included under the original formulation. But I proceed from the idea that nobody will fall under this classification. Of course, we could include whomever, but that’s not in Russia’s interests. Especially when we are talking about commercial organizations––we have a greater interest in cooperation.

Developed countries can do without Russia, but they can’t do without oil and gas; and Russia needs technology, so cooperation is in our interests. So let this be a weapon hanging on the wall and that never fires. But it is necessary so our partners don’t think—look how we’ve brought Russia to its knees, with nowhere to turn. So we created this legal mechanism, taken from the experience of developed democracies. You’ve got this? Now we’ll have it, too.

Can you give an example of the kind of law in developed democracies that you’re describing?

As I’ve already said: the Kalashnikov conglomerate, as with the European Union, where these decisions were made by executive authority. They could have done it through the judiciary, but executive action is faster. We were offered the option of starting judicial proceedings, but that takes a very long time, and it draws out the process. And we followed the experience of Western countries: getting on the list can be quick, just as getting off of it can be. If the authorities don’t want you to get off the list, then take it up in court. It’s like when Rosneft appealed to the high court in London in protest against the sanctions. Plus, in the West, those who violate published sanctions face criminal liability. We decided to mirror that.

Let me clarify definitively: social movements that would say there are Russian troops in Ukraine, or an organization that counts votes at elections independently from the authorities—are they not entirely subject to regulations of this law?

No, they are. But there is an important issue here: the decision on classification will be made by the Attorney General’s office with the mandatory agreement of the Foreign Ministry. There has to be a public process. We have a mass media—let them come out and say, this or that organization is in violation. Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Attorney General will be listening. They’ll have to prove their case publicly to everyone—to Duma deputies, and all of the global community. It will not be a simple procedure, as if a single document could land you on this list. The official procedure has to be transparent. Also, our mass media is diverse; ask a question, nobody is going to twist your arm.

It is better to let the entire process be legislated than to carry out some sort of special operations. And if the Foreign Ministry doesn’t approve the classification, the Attorney General can go no further. It’s a normal and open process.

Who will initiate additions to the registry, the Attorney General or Foreign Ministry? In the bill, their interaction is unclear.

There were many adjustments to the process, including materials from the Federal Security Bureau. The Attorney General’s office decides, but it needs the consent of the Foreign Ministry.

Left to right: Attorney General Yury Chaika and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Left to right: Attorney General Yury Chaika and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Photo: Aleksander Miridov / Kommersant

And how exactly does the Foreign Ministry issue its consent?

We have written in a general rule: there needs to be agreement. We’re interested in something else: who takes on the political decision. If specific names are given, they will have to be justified before world leaders. The Attorney General and the head of the Foreign Ministry—these are public figures. Beyond that, let there be discussion. If it becomes a trend, let those organizations speak out—it will even be a form of PR for them.

It might be the last publicity they ever get...

But it will make the organization world-famous. It’s just what a lot of these groups hope for.

You excluded the courts from the process of declaring organizations “undesirable,” but why? As a result, you can be labeled “undesirable” just like that, but in court it’s only possible to prove the opposite, after you’ve been added to the registry. The presumption of innocence breaks down.

That’s how it is in Europe and America. State authorities make the decision and appeals go to the courts. We haven’t invented anything new. We decided—why don’t we also do just as they have? We demand parity.

Did any other agencies or security services take any part in preparing this legislation?

This is our technique: the authors introduce the bill, then it advances to the relevant committee according to constitutional statutes. That’s were various proposals were added to our bill from (mostly expert) agencies. In the end, five of the eight amendments to the bill were mine. I did my share of the work. Maybe the agencies you mention have an opinion about this legislation, but it didn’t come up publicly.

Why is there such vague wording in the legislation about “threats to constitutional order, defense capacity, or the security of the state”? Practically anything could be included here.

That is the path we meant to take. From the very beginning we tried to formulate a list of activities or grounds [to label organizations “undesirable], but there were too many variations. Then we approached it so that the possibility of inclusion on the registry would broad, but the decision could be made only by the Foreign Ministry and Attorney—creating personal accountability.

According to that arrangement, what situations call for administrative liability and what situations call for criminal liability?

Norms from previously adopted laws were taken as the basis (participating in the activities of the organization, and so on). All of that already exists in existing laws. There is nothing original here. If you cooperate, then it’s a fine of 5-15 thousand rubles ($100-$300). If it requires more forceful intervention, it becomes a criminal matter. If you’re called up twice in the span of a year—if they warned you once, and then a second time, but you plowed ahead like a tank to a third time—you’re prosecuted as a criminal. But this is all for show—the main goal is to respond to sanctions.

So you yourself are not prepared to say who will be first to fall under the classification “undesirable”?

Not only that, but I hope nobody at all falls under it. This is only for those who could gravely harm Russia. Even with non-commercial organizations, like Amnesty International, it’s better to listen to them, answer their questions, and ask our own in return. But with commercial organizations, I’d look at those involved in oil. And if a partnership develops, if they cancel sanctions, then the weapon on the wall will never be needed.

And your bill does not, in effect, duplicate the law on “foreign agents”?

That is another issue. That was brought by the President, who does not like that many NGOs live off of foreign money. And you know very well that he who pays the piper calls the tune. The fact that foreign money funds the World Wildlife Foundation and other similar organizations—sure, that’s great. But when activists are receiving money, the question always arises: why, for example, are you running to defend the [Ukrainian POW] pilot [Nadiya] Savcheko, but you’re silent about the Donbas, where there are millions of refugees—many of them children?

In 2012, you voted against administrative liability for “foreign agents." Now you have drawn up an entire bill on the same theme. What happened?

Well, at every session we have about 50 bills, and if we meet three times a week, that’s no fewer than a hundred total. There are different situations. And when the law on “foreign agents” was passed, I wasn’t even in the Duma yet—I took no part in those events. [Tarnavsky joined the parliament in October 2012, claiming the seat of Gennady Gudkov, who was expelled from the Duma the month prior.]

What were things like three years ago, and what are they like now? Events in Ukraine have offended me, like many other Russians. Western countries audaciously spoke to us of friendship, while their secret services staged a coup hoping to tear Ukraine away from us. You act like that to us, then we’ll treat you the same. It’s pure pragmatism—nothing personal.

Andrey Kozenko

Moscow