‘We never concealed our critical position’ These German NGOs helped students and people with disabilities, but now they’re banned as ‘national security threats’ in Russia
In late May, the Russian authorities designated three German nonprofits as “undesirable organizations.” Among other things, these groups helped people with disabilities, ran exchange programs for students, and contributed to Russia’s political discourse. However, according to the Russian Attorney General’s Office, their work posed a “threat to the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.” Meduza breaks down the work these organizations did in Russia, their reactions to the designation, and how the decision to ban them will impact Russian citizens.
Russia’s law on “undesirable organizations” was adopted in 2015. It empowered the Attorney General’s Office to confer this status onto any foreign or international NGO, if it deems the organization’s activities threatening to “the constitutional order, defense capacity, or security of Russia.” It also provides penalties for involvement or cooperation with undesirable organizations, up to and including criminal liability.
Initially, the authors of the legislation maintained that it would be used to counteract commercial transnational corporations that act “out of personal dislike for Russia” or want “to buy up Russia on the cheap.” In reality, the law turned into yet another instrument for carrying out reprisals.
On May 26, 2021, the Russian Attorney General’s Office designated three German organizations as “undesirable” — Forum Russischsprachiger Europäer e.V. (Forum of Russian-speaking Europeans), Zentrum für die Liberale Moderne GmbH (Center for Liberal Modernity), and Deutsch-Russischer Austausch e.V. (German-Russian Exchange). All three are nonprofits that employed Russian citizens.
The Deutsch-Russischer Austausch (DRA) came into being in 1992. Its sponsors include the German Foreign Ministry, Germany’s Federal Office for Migration, Refugees, and Integration, Germany’s Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, as well as various NGOs.
In Russia, this organization has been offering assistance to street children, people with disabilities, and homeless people since the 1990s. For example, it used to collaborate with the St. Petersburg-based charity Nochlezhki, which distributes food and clothing to homeless people.
“The DRA helped [us] find German charities, to learn from them, organize internships, and the like. Later, the DRA helped young Germans do alternative [military] service with Nochlezhki. This cooperation ended sometime in the mid-2000s, simply because our organization had grown, it was already looking for information and contacts on its own,” Nochlezhki director Grigory Sverdlin told Meduza.
Around the same time, in the early 2000s, Polina Aronson — then a sociology student at St. Petersburg State University — met two German women. One of them was coordinating the work of DRA volunteers, who had come to Russia from Germany to perform alternative military service. The volunteers were sent to work with the charitable organization Perspectives, which (to this day) helps people living in Russian “internats” — long-term care facilities for people with mental disabilities.
Aronson couldn’t understand why “young, beautiful, interesting people from Germany” would want to come to Russia to help people with disabilities. “I remember I went to visit one of the DRA employees. And he asked me: ‘Why don’t you hang sheets out the windows?’ He meant posters or banners, as is customary in Germany. And at the time I didn’t understand why one had to be active. I didn’t have any civic position, but these guys already had some convictions,” Aronson recalled.
For the past five years, Aronson has interacted with the DRA as an editor for the socio-political outlet openDemocracy — and she has consistently engaged with DRA staff members as experts on civil society. The DRA’s work in Ukraine has been of particular interest to openDemocracy. Several years ago, the DRA helped found CivilM+, an international platform that aims to bring together Russian, Ukrainian, and Western European civil society organizations to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine — or at least alleviate its consequences (for example, by helping refugees from the country’s conflict-affected regions). “I wouldn’t be surprised if the DRA received the status of an ‘undesirable organization’ for this activity,” Aronson speculated.
In addition, the DRA has been a consistent participant in the Russian-German civil society forum Petersburg Dialogue. It was created in 2001 on the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin and then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who is now the chairman of the board of directors of the Russian oil giant Rosneft). The last forum took place in Bonn in 2019: its theme was “Cooperation As the Keynote of a Peaceful Europe: The Contributions of the Civil Societies of Russia and Germany.” The forum’s speakers included its co-chairman, former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, and the current head of St. Petersburg’s working group on countering the coronavirus, Evgeny Shlyakhto.
The forum’s board was supposed to meet on June 8–9, 2021, but the German side canceled the meeting due to the three NGOs from Germany being designated as “undesirable.” That said, this isn’t the first clash within the Petersburg Dialogue over Russia’s law on “undesirable organizations.” Stefanie Schiffer, director of the Berlin-based organization European Exchange, sits on the forum’s board. However, Russia is denying her an entry visa because she also heads the election-monitoring organization European Platform for Democratic Elections, which the Russian authorities recognized as “undesirable” in 2018.
Meanwhile, German lawmakers from The Greens — in particular, the party’s parliamentary group co-chairman Katrin Göring-Eckardt and foreign policy expert Manuel Sarrazin — have called for a complete suspension of the forum’s work. In the words of the German politicians, “if more German organizations find themselves to be “undesirable” in Russia, [this] supposed dialogue of civil societies will finally turn into a show.”
The forum’s board has already expressed its support and announced that the next Petersburg Dialogue forum, which is set to take place in Kaliningrad on October 14–15, will only take place if organizations recognized as “undesirable” are allowed to take part on equal footing with other civil society groups.
In a comment to Meduza, DRA executive director Stefan Melle said that he can only hazard a guess as to why the organization was deemed “undesirable.” “Of course, we have disagreements with the Russian leadership, for example, [over] how to comply with international human rights standards and the sovereignty of Ukraine,” he admitted.
Before, the DRA implemented many Russian projects with the help of partner organizations (for example, delivering inclusive programs for people with disabilities). In particular, the DRA worked with the German-Russian Exchange, a company registered in St. Petersburg in 2005. After the DRA was declared an “undesirable organization” in Russia, these organizations ceased cooperation altogether. “This means the cancelation of many potential volunteer and youth exchanges, internships, and projects that would have facilitated better mutual understanding and the exchange of experience between Russian and German civil society,” the St. Petersburg-based organization underscored in a statement.
“I think that with the DRA being declared “undesirable,” people will have fewer opportunities, not only to travel but also to exchange experience, expand their expertise, negotiate, and learn the needs of citizens in other countries. To feel like equal participants in a common, open, free Europe and common, peaceful, and modern development,” Melle lamented.
A handful of experts from Berlin
The second German organization that Russia deemed “undesirable” is the Center for Liberal Modernity, which was founded by former Heinrich Böll Foundation director and former Green party co-chairman Ralf Fücks, and former Bundestag lawmaker Marieluise Beck. The center receives funding from the German government (for example, from the Foreign Ministry) and authors analytical reports on issues related to democratization in former Soviet states, the development of these countries, and the environment. It also holds conferences on these topics.
One of the center’s largest projects is its analytical work focused on how the Russian economy can develop in the context of the climate crisis. In addition, the organization is working on a German-Russian discussion project about the legacy of Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, and runs the website Russlandverstehen.eu, where it writes about Russia for a German-speaking audience. The center’s founders, Ralf Fücks and Marieluise Beck, also collaborate with the Petersburg Dialogue forum.
“Of course, our work isn’t particularly visible to a mass audience in Russia. The point is that we’re working to deepen contacts between our societies and offering a public space for democratic minds from Russia in Germany. Since our resources are limited, we focus on the expert community and opinion leaders,” Ralf Fücks told Meduza.
That said, Fücks added that the center “never concealed its critical position regarding the Putin regime” — it was particularly critical of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
“We, of course, find the official explanation that we pose a threat to the constitutional order and security of Russia ridiculous. This says a lot about the fears of the Putin regime, if it sees a threat from a handful of experts from Berlin,” Fücks commented to Meduza. “Our dream is a democratic and European Russia.”
The Forum of Russian-speaking Europeans was established in 2017 by Russian sociologist Igor Eidman, the cousin of assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The organization’s main goal is to unite native Russian speakers and people with Russian cultural roots living in Germany, who are “supporters of European, liberal-democratic values.” It also aims “to stop the advance of Putinism in Europe.”
As Eidman explained to Meduza, the forum works from project to project with no permanent staff. When asked about the organization’s main sponsors, Eidman replied that there “aren’t any and never have been.”
Eidman’s NGO organizes educational and human rights events. For example, it’s hosting an international conference in Berlin under the theme of “Russian-Speakers for European Values.” Asked about the aims of the conference, Eidman told Meduza: “The Russian authorities are trying to present emigrants as dyed-in-the-wool Putinists and Krymnashists [supporters of the annexation of Crimea]. This isn’t so.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the NGO took Russian human rights activists and cultural figures on a tour of major German cities. Speaking in front of students and Russian-speaking German citizens, the tour’s participants described the state of human rights protection in Russia. One of the tour’s participants, Russian journalist Artyom Troitsky (who now lives in Estonia), described it as follows: “All of this took place in a hall of 50–60 people. The people who came were quite different — for example, members of the Chechen diaspora and political refugees. In parallel, we stood in single-person pickets, seemingly against Nord Stream 2.”
In 2020, German human rights activists were taken on a similar tour of Russia. Among other things, the Germans talked about how police in Germany handle protests. “On [Russian] television they say that [if you] threw a tomato at a police officer in Europe they’d shoot you immediately,” Eidman told Meduza. “And on our tour an official from the Berlin Mayor’s Office spoke about how things really are, for example. Another specialist debunked myths about so-called juvenile justice.”
During the tour of Russia, Eidman noticed “unpleasant attention” from the security forces. For example, police officers showed up at one of their events in St. Petersburg — “Allegedly, someone called them from Germany and said we hung up ‘Putin is a thief’ posters,” Eidman explained. And after local journalist Irina Slavina covered an event in Nizhny Novgorod, she was summoned for a conversation with the FSB.
In conversation with Meduza, Eidman underscored that his organization isn’t going to shut down. “We will not cooperate with Russian citizens so they won’t be threatened with criminal prosecution. I will not tell various punitive agencies how to cut off all our contacts with Russia,” Eidman said. “But personally, of course, I will continue to cooperate with Russian activists. Although there’s no clear understanding yet of how to continue our work.”
Translation by Eilish Hart