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Prosecutor General’s Office deems Open Russia “undesirable organization”. What happens now?

11:20, 27 april 2017

Top Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky seen on a screen as he speaks via live video conference with journalists at the Moscow office of the Open Russia movement on December 9, 2015.

Photo: Vasily Maximov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has called Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia and his son Pavel Khodorkovsky’s Institute of Modern Russia “undesirable organizations,” engaged in “destabilizing the internal political situation [and posing] a threat to the foundations of the Russian Federation’s [constitution].” Anyone cooperating with said organizations could now face criminal persecution. But Open Russia claims that the organization affected by this ruling is a United Kingdom-registered legal entity that has no connection with the Russian movement. So Open Russia will continue working unencumbered.

On the evening of April 26, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office announced that Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia was now an “undesirable” organization. According to a 2015 law, individuals and legal entities are prohibited, under the threat of criminal prosecution, from cooperating with “undesirable” foreign and international organizations. The office gave the same status to Pavel Khodorkovsky’s Institute of Modern Russia. In response, Open Russia said that the Prosecutor General’s statement had referred to a legal entity registered in the United Kingdom and not to the local Open Russia movement, which is a “purely Russian organization”. Indeed, the corresponding document refers to the UK-based organization OR (Otkrytaya Rossia).

The Prosecutor General’s news came shortly before Open Russia announced its upcoming “Nadoel” protest, in which, on April 29, the organization’s activists will deliver a letter to President Vladimir Putin asking him not to run for reelection in 2018. Moscow’s police has formally warned citizens against participating in the protest.

Inter-regional public organization Open Russia was established in 2001 by a group of individuals, mainly shareholders of the oil company Yukos, headed by company chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. For the most part, Open Russia was engaged in charity and educational projects. After Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, Open Russia continued to work through spring 2006, when, at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office, a Moscow municipal court froze the organization’s bank accounts. In September 2014, after his release from prison, Khodorkovsky announced that his project would be resuscitated with new goals and a new structure.

“The goal of the Open Russia movement is to influence the government so that it takes into account the interests of the European-oriented part of Russian society,” said Khodorkovsky at the time. In November 2016, an assembly was held in Helsinki to launch the Open Russia movement; Khodorkovsky became its chairman. On April 16, 2017, he was replaced by then twenty-nine-year-old graduate of the State University of the Humanities and coordinator of the Open Law project Aleksandr Solovyov. The movement’s official website – openrussia.org – acts as an independent media outlet.

Опубликовано Алексеем Карнауховым 29 июня 2016 г.
Open Russia representative Aleksandr Solovyov (center)

In an interview with Meduza, Alexander Solovyov said that the Open Russia movement does not figure into the Prosecutor General’s decision. “It does not interact with the legal entities [implicated] in the decision. The movement operates in Russian in accordance with federal law “on public organizations” (No. 82), which implies that the network does not need to be registered as a legal entity. The organization’s activity began with the adoption of the charter [in autumn 2016] at the assembly in Helsinki,” said Solovyov.

The charter in question establishes that Open Russia’s permanent governing is based in Moscow. The movement’s full name in English (Open Russia Civic Movement, Open Russia) partially coincides with the name of the previously-mentioned UK-based organization which the Prosecutor General’s Office has deemed as “undesirable.” Solovyov claims that the decision will in no way affect the movement’s operation. A similar statement was made by Khodorkovsky’s spokesperson Kulle Pispanen, who told Meduza that the British public organization referred to in Prosecutor General’s statement is neither legally nor financially related to the “Open Russia” movement.

“We comply with the laws of the Russian Federation, where it is written that a networked public organization does not have the right to have accounts and even more so to receive foreign funding on these accounts. I do not know whether they will block the foreign accounts of the British organization and whether they can do do that at all, but this will not affect our activity in any way,” Pispanen said. She confirmed that all of Open Russia’s Moscow-based projects, including the website, will continue working as usual and that the April 29 protest will go on as planned.

In an interview with Meduza, Open Russia movement coordinator Maria Baronova also drew attention to federal law No. 82. “We are a movement without [a] legal entity – a group of individuals who agreed that they wanted to change the Russian state [to be more] European and democratic. Therefore, through its decision, the Prosecutor General’s Office is trying, amongst other things, to inform me, a [Russian] citizen , that I am undesirable,” Baronova said.

In response to the question about how Russia’s Open Russia is financed and if any difficulties arise due to its inability to cooperate with UK-based Open Russia, Baronova stated that she would not “reveal [such] information in an authoritarian state.” She did, however, note that the movement “participants [were] not being threatened.” She also stressed that there could be no foreign financing for Open Russia, because the movement has no legal entity. The movement, she said, would not cease its activity.

Evgeny Berg