MOSCOW — Two months ago, a civic-minded history professor in the picturesque city of Kostroma invited a U.S. diplomat to take part in a roundtable about Russian-American relations. The event was open, the conversation spirited — and Monday the professor’s organization goes to court, accused of being a foreign agent.
The Kostroma Center for the Support of Public Initiatives has run afoul of a new law requiring organizations that receive funds from abroad and engage in political activity to register as foreign agents.
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.
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.”
The group’s director is a low-paid, 22-year-old human rights activist, he said, who doesn’t have $3,300. “He would have to save a couple of years to pay such a fine,” Sorokin said.
The roundtable dragnet also swept up the Kostroma chapter of the Soldiers Mothers, which defends draftees. Irina Reznikova, the chairwoman, attended the roundtable and not long after got a call at home from prosecutors who wanted to examine all records.
Soon deemed guilty of political activity, the group got off with a warning: Do it again and you’ll be fined. Its crime — some of the Mothers had served as election observers in December 2011, and small grants have been received from the National Endowment for Democracy.
“We are not foreign agents, and we will never say we are,” Reznikova said.
Lev Ponomaryov, a longtime activist who is head of the Movement for Human Rights, is also worried about a law imposing stiff penalties for disclosing state secrets that is so broadly defined that simply talking to foreigners could be evidence of guilt. It hasn’t been enforced yet, but he fears it will be.
“This is a very serious thing,” he said. “We can say this Soviet time is returning. You can be a criminal for nothing, and it won’t be two years like with Pussy Riot [the punk rock group.] It will be many, many years.”
Prosecutors began investigating non-government organizations after President Vladimir Putin made it clear he wanted action on the foreign agent law, publicly stating that 654 Russia organizations were receiving foreign money, said Pavel Chikov, chairman of Agora, an association that offers NGOs legal representation.
“They needed to find something that can be considered political in terms of the law,” he said, “and in Kostroma they found the roundtable.”
A new report from Human Rights Watch describes the law as part of a systematic crackdown that is harming Russian society. When Rachel Denber, the organization’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director, attended the Golos hearing, the row of 14 television cameras documenting the proceedings gave her a chilling insight into what the law is all about.
“It’s to have that moment, when a trial, a jury, a ruling,” she said, produces an indelible image for the TV audience. “Here’s the foreign agent.”
That effect is already at work, Sorokin said.
“If Kostroma residents become scared that if they go to a roundtable the police will visit them, of course they won’t go,” he said. “Journalists will not be covering our events, because they don’t want to have problems with prosecutors.
“The damage has been done. We’re paralyzed. We were punished well before the verdict.”
Will Englund contributed to this report.