The center’s chairman, and civic activists across Russia, says his group is neither political nor in the pay of foreign governments.
The law, they say, is being used to silence advocacy groups and frighten supporters, and it reminds some of the Cold War era, especially since many of the targets have U.S. connections.
“You know, Kostroma is a small city,” said Nikolai Sorokin, the historian, “and everyone’s talking about this, and everyone’s shocked by what’s going on. Some people say we shouldn’t even talk to foreigners, it’s dangerous. It’s like in Soviet times when you could go to jail for that.”
Howard Solomon, the U.S. Embassy’s political officer, had gone to Kostroma, a 12th century city on the Volga River, mainly to tour a plant where a Houston company is investing about $100 million in an oil rig factory, creating an estimated 500 jobs, the kind of project courted by the Russian government.
Solomon met with regional officials, including representatives of the ruling United Russia Party, visited the National Oilwell Varco plant in Volgorechensk, admired medieval frescoes and gave a long interview on local television. On Feb. 28 he participated in a roundtable with about 30 people, including activists, retirees, students, journalists — and a priest who gave him a hard time about American culture and Coca-Cola.
“Prosecutors believe that since we organized this roundtable with Solomon,” Sorokin said, “this is automatically political activity and that means that we are automatically foreign agents.”
The U.S. Embassy saw the visit differently, telling Russian media it was the kind of public diplomacy practiced around the world to increase mutual understanding.
Election monitor fined
In Moscow on Thursday, in the first case brought under the law, the nonprofit election monitor Golos was fined $10,000 and its director $3,300 for failing to register as a foreign agent. Golos was formed 13 years ago with help from the National Democratic Institute and received various U.S. grants over the years, but stopped accepting assistance when the law went into effect in November.
The case against Golos focused on the money it received as part of the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award given by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee — although Golos said it returned the $10,000 prize.
Sorokin said the center in Kostroma, a city of 268,000 about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, has had small grants from the International Republican Institute and the U.S. Embassy, which he took as an honor, a symbol of international recognition. “For us such a fine is a huge, huge amount of money,” he said. “Our organization will be bankrupt.”