Golos, Russia’s only grassroots election-monitoring organization, has been fighting an exhausting battle to prove it does not receive foreign funding. Otherwise, it would have to self-describe as a “foreign agent” – a term that connotes “spy” in Russian. But even though the organization has won some significant court victories, including a Constitutional Court order to lift the onerous label they were saddled with, Golos seems no closer to fielding its usual teams of observers when Russia’s next cycle of elections kicks off, with regional polls in October. Now, members of Golos and other nongovernmental organizations in similar conflict with the government are asking: Are there any terms under which the Kremlin will allow such a group to do its appointed job? “The basic problem is that authorities are not happy with what Golos does,” says Andrei Buzin, an analyst with Golos. “It’s this type of activity, making conclusions, publishing results, that they just don’t like.”
Three years ago, Russia’s State Duma passed a law requiring any nongovernmental organization which received any funding from abroad and engaged in “political” activities to register itself as a “foreign agent.” One of the original targets actually named in the law was Golos, whose independent observers had angered the ruling United Russia party by documenting thousands of irregularities and cases of outright fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections.
The “foreign agent” blacklist maintained by the Ministry of Justice has since swelled to over 80 names, including organizations that work for prison reform, environmental causes, and human rights. Even some cultural groups and a foundation that supports scientific education have been caught in the net.