“Our goal for the next year?” asked Roman Udot, director of the Golos regional association. “To survive.”
Sitting in a small Moscow office crammed with four desks and unpacked boxes, Udot was cheerful and determined. “We can meet in cafes if we have to,” he said.
Prosecutors accused Golos of accepting foreign money after it won a prize in December from a Norwegian human rights organization, even though it refused to accept the prize money.
“I pray we will not receive another prize,” Udot said.
Golos has assembled volunteers from all over the country who provide election information. One video on the Golos Web site shows a precinct worker taking a wad of ballots out of her shawl and stuffing them into a ballot box. Later, election officials gave that precinct an award for conducting elections so well.
Golos, Udot said, has no intention of registering as a foreign agent. “It’s absolutely crazy,” he said. “The authorities want us to come to them and say we are something we are not.”
Still, repeat violations come with a possible jail term of up to two years. And when the justice minister used the word “liquidate” in speaking of shutting Golos down, it made Udot queasy. “It’s a word from Stalinist times,” he said, “when people were disappearing. It was rather unpleasant to hear.”
An important opportunity
Hundreds of NGOs nationwide are being investigated under the law, according to Human Rights Watch, including Assistance to Cystic Fibrosis Patients in Istra, near Moscow; the Muraviovka Park for Sustainable Land Use; a crane refuge in the Far East; and, in Moscow, the Memorial human rights society, Transparency International and the Levada polling organization. More than 50 have received official warnings.
When the head of the Levada Center, which provides independent polling data, said the center might have to close rather than register as a foreign agent, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul tweeted support: “Since the mid 80’s @levada_ru team has conducted sociological research-the engine of science.”
Among those told to register as foreign agents is the Baikal Ecological Wave, one of Aron’s case studies. It formed in 1990 to prevent a paper mill from polluting the world’s deepest lake, which contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. “Not only do they try to preserve this jewel,” Aron said, “but they also help to retrain the workers and look for clean industries.”
If such organizations disappear, he said, the authorities will have lost an opportunity for a constructive relationship with citizens.
“What’s coming is senseless and destructive,” Aron said. “Civil society is the school of democracy.”