Russia’s most foreign agent How one human rights group became the country's most harassed organization
The independent elections-monitoring organization Golos is on the brink of closure. The organization has been branded a “foreign agent,” and NGOs placed on this list are banned from monitoring elections. In order to shake the label, Golos has had to restructure several times and surrender all of its foreign funding. For a time, Golos found itself in a peculiar situation: harassed by the Russian government on one hand, and a recipient of Russian government grants on the other hand. Now, the government won’t give out new grants, and other potential investors (Russian oligarchs) either don’t see the point of investing in a struggling NGO, or they’re scared of running into problems with state officials. Since 2011, there have been hundreds of court cases launched in connection with Golos’ activities. The leaders of the organization are sure that their phones are tapped and that state-funded tabloid journalists are waiting for them around every corner. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Kozenko tells the story of how Golos became the first victim of the Kremlin’s crusade against human rights organizations and “foreign agents.”
The noun “Golos” translates from Russian to both “vote” and “voice.” The Golos office looks just like any other office, unless you count the copies of government search protocols strewn across one of the desks. Law enforcement conducts searches here regularly. Since 2011, this is the sixth office Golos has occupied; they constantly run into problems with landlords asking them to leave, tabloid journalists waiting at their doorstep every day, and pro-Kremlin groups protesting against Golos at the office entrance.
The organization’s co-chair Grigory Melkonyants has a lot of stories to tell. Just recently, his home was searched at 6:30 a.m. A furious knocking woke him up, and eventually someone started sawing at the door. He thought it could be another provocation orchestrated by the pro-Kremlin media, but when he looked through his peephole, he saw it had been taped closed with a piece of paper featuring the words “Public Prosecutor’s Office.” The paper blocked from view whatever was happening outside. Eventually, the door was broken down, and people burst into Melkonyants’s apartment. “It was a good door, too,” he recalls. Police searched his apartment thoroughly.
Another time, Melkonyants got a call from Lilia Shibanova, the executive director of Golos’ Astrakhan office. “Come to the train station, I’ve got an envelope and salt-dried fish for you,” she said. When he got there, the police and journalists from Russia’s state-owned NTV channel were already waiting for him, demanding to see the contents of the envelope. The envelope had money in it for Shibanova’s and Melkoyant’s godson. But instead of paying attention to this minor detail, the journalists aired a smear report about Golos on TV that very evening, showing Shibanova passing undocumented foreign funding to Melkonyants for the organization’s activities.
Golos was established back in 2000. Shibanova says that year’s presidential elections were ridden with so much fraud that it was high time to establish civil-elections monitoring. The task was to set up a network of organizations that could observe how election campaigning is done, how elections are set up, and how the votes are counted. It took two years to coordinate the activities of several NGOs, including the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group, several eco-activists, and a women’s rights movement. It took another two years to work out a system for elections monitoring.
I talked to Shibanova via Skype. Two years ago, fearing criminal prosecution, she left Russia for Lithuania. She talked about 2007, when human rights activists could easily find ways to work with local regional electoral committees across 40 Russian regions. Electoral committee lawyers constantly attended Golos seminars on electoral law back then. It was harder to work with representatives of Russia’s Central Electoral Committee, headed by Alexander Veshnyakov at the time (Russia’s current ambassador to Latvia), but there were no open conflicts. Most of the 2007 elections violations had to do with pre-election campaigning, which included bribery and smear campaigns. The votes were counted more or less in an orderly and lawful fashion. Shibanova told me that most of the problems with vote counts were found in Russia’s Tatarstan republic and in the North Caucasus. Later that year, however, Vladimir Churov took over as head of the Central Electoral Committee. Little was known about him then, but he gained a reputation after his renowned interview with the newspaper Kommersant, which was titled “Can Putin Ever Be Wrong?” Shibanova told me that this marked the beginning of “all-encompassing pressure” on electoral committees and on those who monitor elections. NGOs were banned from monitoring the 2004 elections, but Golos managed to bypass this rule by registering their election observers as journalists. To do this, Golos founded its own newspaper to cover elections, and Melkonyants became chief editor. “This was a sly move, but it wasn’t too deceitful,” he says. “Everything that happened during the elections was reported in the newspaper anyway.” After that, Churov began to push the press out from voting stations, too.
Shibanova recalls that the removal of observers, the rewriting of protocols, and vote rigging using the “carousel” method (when buses of voters are driven to cast multiple ballots at different voting stations) began that year. “The 2008 presidential elections were not very different from elections in 2011 in terms of the amount of dirt,” said Shibanova. “It’s just that in 2008 there wasn’t any public outcry, people weren’t interested in elections, at all. The first spark of interest came one year later, and in 2011 it quickly snowballed.”
In September 2011, independent polling organizations estimated that the ruling United Russia party would get 20-28 percent of the vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections in December. Polling organizations with government links (such as the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, or VTsIOM) estimated that United Russia support stood at 47 percent. Shibanova said, “that September, we warned that this difference [in estimates] means only one thing: get ready for mass elections rigging.”
That fall, Golos and the Russian newspaper Gazeta.ru launched an online “Fraud Map” ahead of parliamentary elections. Activists from across Russia would photograph or film election fraud and report it to the newspaper. “Fraud” included violations of campaigning rules, violations of media use, using government resources for unfair advantage, the influence of law enforcement on citizens, the influence of employers on employees, bribery, violations of candidates’ rights, vote rigging, protocol rigging, and so on. The map was soon covered in red dots. In one of their elections reports, the state-owned news channel NTV called these red dots “zits” and claimed that NGOs funded by foreign countries are trying to cover Russia with acne.
This was just the beginning of Golos’s problems. At a time when human rights organizations across the country were struggling, Golos was arguably fighting the hardest battle. “It’s hard to say which Kremlin tower was behind all of it, but it doesn’t really matter,” says Shibanova. The Golos office was frequented by Russian secret service officers and officials from the Attorney General’s Office. Gazeta.ru also fell under intense state scrutiny at that time, and the newspaper was forced to remove links to the “Fraud Map” from its homepage. In an act of protest, deputy chief editor Roman Badanin left the newspaper. By the time elections came around, the “Fraud Map” was covered with almost 4,000 red dots. The vast majority of rigging instances gave the ruling United Russia party an advantage.
Parliamentary elections were to take place on December 4. On December 1, everyone from Golos was called into court. On December 2, the judge fined Golos 30,000 rubles (nearly $980, according to the exchange rate at that time) for violating “the informational coverage of elections.” The website featuring the “Fraud Map” came under a massive DDoS attack. It became accessible only on December 6, two days after the elections. Moscow’s residents poured out into the streets, protesting the official elections results.
Also around election day, the hacking began. The personal inboxes of Golos employees were broken into; the phone lines of regional offices of Golos were cut off. On election day, Golos observers were deliberately sought out and removed from polling stations by force.
But according to Melkonyants, the presidential elections (which took place three months later, in March 2012) were much easier to work in. “They probably realized that they went overboard with all the media attention focused on us, and this made their fraud obvious,” he says. “After that, the number of volunteer observers grew, so [the state’s actions] had the opposite effect.” Melkonyants noted that presidential elections in Moscow were more fair than the parliamentary elections. “But the day of reckoning was bound to come,” said Melkonyants.
That day came in April, 2012. Detailed tax inspections began at all organizations that participated in Golos activities. The inspections lasted for an entire year, and the only violation police uncovered was that one accountant distributed income to employees on a Friday, but notified the tax office only the following Monday. The organization was fined 4,000 rubles ($130, at the time). “It was a huge amount of work. They interviewed all of our observers who ever got any reimbursements for their train tickets or meals. The tax inspectors came with their experience of checking businesses, and they were sure they would find something. You can always find something in businesses, but NGOs are different. We only had target expenses, and we were constantly audited. If you distribute money wrongly once, you never get money again. This is a question of reputation. The inspectors later told us they had never seen such ‘clean’ accounting before,” recalls Melkonyants.
In September 2012, Russia informed the United States that USAID must stop its activities and end its Russia programs. USAID had worked in Russia since 1992 and was the main sponsor of Golos projects. Two months later, the law on “foreign agents” was passed, requiring all organizations that conduct “political activities” and receive foreign aid to register as “foreign agents” and undergo debilitating levels of bureaucratic scrutiny. Shibanova recalls that Tatyana Vagyna, a representative of the Justice Ministry, came to one of the Presidential Human Rights Council meetings and simply said that the law was written specifically to target Golos. Since then, countless other NGOs in Russia have fallen victim to this law.
Officials decided that Golos’s political activity includes publishing an “electoral code” for Russia, which is a series rules and regulations for conducting elections, drawn up by several NGOs over the course of two years. It was more difficult to prove that Golos had any foreign funding, as they had been cut off from USAID money, by that time. In 2012, however, Golos had received an Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, which included a prize of 7,700 euros ($8,500). Golos declined the money, but the Norwegian Helsinki Committee sent it to a transit account at an intermediary Russian bank anyway. Golos declined the final transfer of the funds to its account, and the intermediary bank sent it back to the issuing organization. Despite the fact that Golos never touched the funds or finalized its access to them, the court ruled that it had the chance to use the money as it pleased, which counts as foreign funding. Thus, Golos became the first Russian “foreign agent.” In April 2013, a court fined the organization 300,000 rubles ($9,630) because it failed to enter the “foreign agents” registry voluntarily, and Lilia Shibanova was personally fined 100,000 rubles ($3,200).
As the court hearings were going on, the tax inspections were wrapping up. Inspectors did not find any violations, but announced that USAID money was not used as target funding, and should have been taxed. The inspectors maintained that Golos must also pay a fine for receiving aid from USAID, since it was banned in Russia. The fine amounted to 12 million rubles ($385,000). Shibanova’s lawyers said that she could face a prison sentence for failing to pay this fine, and she departed for Lithuania. That was the closest the organization had come to complete dissolution.
Golos spent all of 2013 and 2014 dealing with courts and taxes, and struggled to shake the “foreign-agent” label. The organization ended up paying off its tax debt using donated money and funding from various European organizations for democracy development. They took the very law on “foreign agents” to Russia’s Constitutional Court, but the court ruled to keep the law in place. Nonetheless, human rights activists managed to push through one major change: the Constitutional Court ruled that funding can only be considered “foreign” if it was transferred to the organization’s account and recorded in its accounting reports. This had not been done with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee funds, and by September 2014, Golos won a lawsuit, and a Moscow court ruled the organization did not owe the fines associated with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee money. Next, the Justice Ministry was supposed to take Golos off the “foreign-agent” registry, but this never happened. The same Moscow court ruled that the 2013 fine for failing or register as “foreign agents” was still lawful, despite its own previous ruling that the Norwegian Helsinki Committee funding was never finalized. So the same court issued two contradictory rulings: one stating there was no foreign funding, and one stating that Golos was a “foreign agent.” Ultimately, Golos remained on the registry. And in 2014, “foreign agents” were banned from all election-related activities.
Remarkably, Golos survived and continued to work in Russia. The organization became a social movement modeled after the All-Russia People’s Front, a movement launched by Vladimir Putin in 2011 as a coalition between the ruling United Russia party and various NGOs. The organization gets its money through two independent legal bodies called Golos-Povolzhye (located in Samara) and Golos-Ural (located in Chelyabinsk). Human rights activists argued through the Presidential Human Rights Council that if NGOs were discouraged from receiving foreign aid, the Kremlin should provide its own grants instead. The Kremlin listened to the human rights lobbyists, and allocated grants to Golos-Povolzhye and Golos-Ural. Some of the activists say this was a face-saving move on the part of the country’s leadership.
Golos received two grants totalling 12 million rubles ($202,000). This money has been used for monitoring small local elections in villages and rural areas. Melkonyants says this was an enriching experience: the observers learned a lot, and the local administrations did not want to risk anything by rigging local elections in front of them, so the organization really had an impact. Moreover, Golos’s appearance in some of Russia’s regions stirred up the population and its regional leaders. They were surprised that state TV channels were branding Golos as spies one day, and the next day the very same organization is coming to observe elections for Belprudsky Village Council in Volgograd region. Regional officials could not fathom how an organization branded as a “foreign agent” could be working at the local level with papers saying they have a Presidential grant. What will happen when presidential elections come around?!
But it looks like Golos might not live to see Russia’s 2016 presidential elections. Golos’ latest grant will last until this coming September, and no new grants are expected. The human rights lobby has lost its steam, more and more Presidential Administration members are becoming part of the grant-making committee, and Golos did not make it into the lists of finalists in the last two rounds of grant applications.
In addition to problems with grants, the Samara and the Chelyabinsk chapters of Golos have run into issues with taxes and police raids. The homes of former and current Golos employees in Samara and in Moscow have been searched by law enforcement. Moreover, investigators have requested that Lyudmila Kuzmina, the head of the Samara Golos chapter, undergo a psychiatric assessment. A pamphlet written by the late opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was found on her desk, and law enforcement has labeled this “political activity.” In Chelyabinsk, tax inspectors found traces of foreign funding, and Golos-Povolzhye has already been registered as a foreign agent. Golos-Ural will soon follow.
The Central Electoral Committee would not comment on the complaints against Golos, but its representatives recently sent out a press release to all Russian regions stating that Golos “is acting in the interest of foreign governments” and that its activities on election day “may lead to the defamation of the institution of observers, as well as to creating conditions for destabilizing the democratic process of public office formation.” The press release has since been deleted from Central Electoral Committee’s website.
Shibanova says the current situation faced by Golos is “catastrophic.” She is working on a letter to the Presidential Council on Human Rights. Notably, she is still a member of this council. She says that the story of Golos is an example of what might happen to all other NGOs in Russia.
Melkonyants is trying to think of ways the organization can survive. He is trying to attract investors from the private sector. Golos doesn’t need much; organizing observers for one day of general elections of public officials countrywide costs only 3 million rubles ($50,500). But businessmen are wary of getting involved. One potential investor told Melkonyants that Golos is “legitimizing an illegitimate process” by participating in the elections at all. “What you’re doing is basically describing a dead man’s reflexes,” he said. “You can take a blood sample from a dead man and see how good his hemoglobin levels were. You can give him an electric shock. But what’s the point?”
The “Fraud Map” (which now has its own website) is already breaking out in red dots. Election day in Russia is less than two months away.