The trials of Open Russia How the Russian government uses laws against ‘undesirable organizations’ to target activists from a single human rights group
In early April, Russian investigators opened three new criminal cases against members of the nonprofit organization Open Russia, which is associated with exiled opposition politician and former oil company executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The defendants were charged with participating in an “undesirable organization.” Although Open Russia was officially liquidated in Russia, security forces have continued to write up the group’s activists, and at least five more people are at risk of facing criminal charges. In the meantime, the organization has attempted to reorganize and regain legal status in the country it is named for. We asked Mediazona journalist Maxim Litavrin to analyze recent persecution against Open Russia’s members.
What does Russia’s law against “undesirable organizations” do?
The law has been in place since 2015. “Undesirable organizations” are forbidden from opening their own branches in Russia, distributing materials within Russian borders, and organizing events or programs. Russian banks are also supposed to freeze their assets. Russian citizens who work with these organizations can face penalties.
Alexander Tarnavsky, one of the law’s co-authors and a member of the Fair Russia party, stated directly that the new restrictions are first and foremost a response to international sanctions against Russia. He also emphasized that the law is intended to target international organizations that collaborate with intelligence services within their own countries as well as anyone who aims to “buy Russia for cheap.”
The law’s definition of “undesirable organizations” is quite vague: it covers organizations that present threats to the defense readiness, security, social order, or health of the Russian population. The country’s prosecutor general or their deputies can make the decision to deem an organization “undesirable,” but the law does not prescribe how that should occur or on what grounds. The Justice Ministry maintains a registry of organizations the Prosecutor General’s Office names.
The first groups to land on the registry were foundations that have close government ties in the U.S. or European countries and frequently made grants available to Russian nonprofits. Those included the National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Several organizations left Russia on their own to avoid being added to the registry.
Article 20.33 of Russia’s Codex of Administrative Violations penalizes collaboration with an “undesirable organization” with fines from 5,000 to 15,000 rubles ($78 – $234). Those penalties can be raised against individuals or organizations. In the latter case, fines typically go to organizations that link to their “undesirable” counterparts on their websites or who have shared grants with those groups. Cases against individuals have thus far been used to target activists from Open Russia.
Why and how was Open Russia named “undesirable”?
Open Russia was the first organization added to the list that is located in Russia and openly carries out political projects in its own name.
Three legal entities registered outside Russia in the U.S. or U.K. — OR (Otkrytaya Rossia), the Institute of Modern Russia, Inc., and the Open Russia Civic Movement — were formally added to the Justice Ministry’s registry in April of 2017. Representatives of those organizations said that they had no ties to their Russian counterpart. Prosecutor General’s Office representative Alexander Kurennoy affirmed that the ban on the three international entities would not affect Open Russia activists within Russia. However, the first police protocol targeting collaboration with Open Russia was filed in Krasnodar just one month later, and in October of the same year, security forces began searching the organization’s offices.
Russia’s Prosecutor General’s indicates that Open Russia was added to the register because it allegedly organized programs “with the aim of discrediting the results of ongoing elections in Russia by describing them as illegitimate.” The movement’s representatives have said that accusation may be related to the “Nadoyel” (“We’ve Had Enough of Him”) protests, during which protestors collectively urged Vladimir Putin not to run for another term in office.
Half a year after Open Russia was added to the registry, the State Duma passed a law allowing the Russian government to block websites belonging to “undesirable organizations.” On December 12, 2017, it blocked Open Russia’s website, which was framed as a journalistic project that operated separately from the political movement of the same name. Now, the site’s editors have moved on to run MBK Media, which has also been blocked several times.
How do government officials target activists for administrative penalties?
Alexey Pryanishnikov, the coordinator of Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia’s Human Rights Project, the process begins when Federal Security Service (FSB) or Center for Combating Extremism (Center E) operatives begin collecting information about the activist in question. Almost anything linking an individual to the group can serve as evidence of participation, including social media photos with the organization’s symbols, online shares of the movement’s posts, and participation in events or protests organized by Open Russia. For example, one activist was penalized in the Chuvash Republic because he gave the speaker of his regional government council a bouquet of yellow tulips. In Chelyabinsk, another member of the movement was fined for running a webinar called “How to like memes without getting put in jail.” In both cases, security forces decided that the accused had been acting on behalf of the “undesirable” British branch of Open Russia.
After evidence against the activist reaches prosecutors, a regulatory agency sends a subpoena to the activist’s home asking them to appear in court and explain their actions. Sometimes, police officers deliver the subpoena themselves. Pryanishnikov explained that the subpoena is a legally significant part of the process: if a defendant can demonstrate in court that they were not informed of the administrative case against them, the case itself can be cut off. For that reason, the attorney said, police officers do everything they can to hand over the subpoena. “They waited for me in the airport, for example. Or there was a case where an activist, his wife, and his child weren’t allowed to go into the lobby of their apartment building until he signed off saying that he had received the subpoena.”
Prosecutors then send their decree opening an administrative case along with all the evidence they have gathered to a court. Pryanishnikov said the judges simply check to see whether the documents were all formulated correctly. “The fact that we don’t belong to any recognized ‘undesirable organization’ doesn’t matter to them. What’s important is that all the papers are in order.” The attorney estimates that about 15 percent of cases are sent back to prosecutors or are tossed out entirely due to formal technicalities. The rest lead to administrative fines.
Is it possible for prosecutors to charge individuals who are totally unrelated to the group?
In 2019, prosecutors began charging Russian residents under Article 20.33 who had no relationship with Open Russia at all. For example, the editor-in-chief of the Kuban media outlet Svobodnye Media was charged for using an Open Russia video in one of the outlet’s publications. A local legislator from Krasnodar Krai was fined 5,000 rubles ($78) for reposting an image from MBK Media on Facebook. Even before then, while openrussia.org was blocked in Russia, the country’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, prohibited journalists from citing it. The agency warned that to do otherwise would be to “spread materials created by an undesirable organization” and threatened to block websites that did not comply. Ultimately, it did not block any outlets in that specific instance.
Article 20.33 of the administrative codex has gone unmentioned in Russia’s annual reports on administrative violations that have been considered in court even though the reports do include data for every other statute in Part 20 of the codex. The Prosecutor General’s Office also does not publish reports on the matter, meaning that there is no precise, publicly available data on the number of cases filed under the statute. Pryanishnikov estimates that prosecutors have formulated approximately 130 decrees against Russian residents for collaborating with Open Russia.
What do we know about criminal cases against Open Russia members?
If an activist is fined under Article 20.33 of Russia’s administrative codex twice in a single year and both decisions take effect within 12 months of each other, that activist can be charged with acting on the part of an “undesirable organization,” which is a criminal offense under Article 284.1 of Russia’s Criminal Codex. That statute can lead to fines of 300,000 – 500,000 rubles ($4,657 – $7,761), mandatory labor, or between two and six years of prison time.
The first person to be charged under that statute in Russia was Anastasia Shevchenko, a member of Open Russia’s federal board from Rostov-on-Don. On the morning of January 24, law enforcement officers searched her home as well as several other addresses in Ulyanovsk and Kazan. After the searches, Shevchenko was arrested. She spent the night isolated in a temporary holding sell before the court assigned her to house arrest.
The decree naming Shevchenko as a defendant included two protocols: one saying that she organized a debate in Taganrog in October 2017 and another related to a lecture she organized for the group’s members in Rostov-on-Don in April 2018. The document went on to say that although Shevchenko “recognized the criminal nature and the social threat posed by her actions,” she continued to participate in the “undesirable organization.”
Cases against other activists have been carried out along similar lines. The second one after Shevchenko’s was brought against Maxim Vernikov, the former Open Russia coordinator in Yekaterinburg. On the morning of March 14, Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) fighters broke down his door and searched his home. The fact that Vernikov had left the organization a month beforehand didn’t save him. His decree also covered two administrative cases that stemmed from his participation in a conference run by the Ural branch of the movement in November 2017 and a post he made on VKontakte about Open Russia. According to the decree, Vernikov continued to “publish, store, and spread” information about the organization on his page despite the two fines.
At the time of this publication, a third and final criminal case had been brought against the Krasnodar activist and pediatrician Yana Antonova. She was charged for using the movement’s symbols during protests — once in April 2017 during a Nadoyel rally and once in an individual picket in July of 2018. Afterward, investigators claimed, she continued to participate in Open Russia and posting information about the movement on Facebook although she “recognized the criminal nature of her actions as infringements on the foundations of [Russia’s] constitutional structure.”
Antonova and Vernikov will be able to walk free while they await trial. Shevchenko remains under house arrest. Alexey Pryanishnikov said that there are five more people in Russia who have faced two administrative fines under Article 20.33, meaning that they could face criminal charges at any time.
Can Open Russia defend itself and its activists?
Open Russia’s Human Rights Project provides attorneys to all administrative and criminal defendants to represent them in both in preliminary investigations and in court. The movement’s position on its own “undesirability” has never changed: its members insist that they are unrelated to the British organization by the same name. Open Russia representatives also argue that the movement’s networked structure does not include member registration at all. Open Russia’s Human Rights Project attorney Sergey Badamshin also mounted a legal challenge to the decision to add the British organization to the registry of “undesirable” groups and attempted to challenge the Russian government’s decision to block the group’s website. He lost both appeals.
Now, the movement is trying to gain legal status: the old Open Russia has announced plans to dissolve itself. Registration documents for a new legal entity called the “Open Russia” Russian Social Organization have been submitted to the country’s Justice Ministry.
Open Russia Acting Director Andrey Pivovarov explained that the new movement will focus on three primary causes: human rights, education, and election volunteering. Its activists plan to organize workshops for local candidates, help them prepare the documentation they need to campaign, and organize a primary system. “The new organization isn’t the one we had before,” Pivovarov said. “We’ve chosen a new board, a new chair. On our end, we’ve done everything.”
At the same time, Pivovarov admits that he can’t answer for Russia’s law enforcement agencies. He doesn’t know whether reorganizing Open Russia will stop their persecution of its activists.
Translation by Hilah Kohen