Less than three weeks before Russians go to the polls to elect hundreds of local and regional governments, the country’s biggest independent election monitoring group, Golos, is struggling to reinvent itself after being effectively destroyed by a new law that requires non-governmental groups that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” The outcome of Golos’ efforts will probably settle any debate over the intentions of Russian authorities when they framed the controversial NGO law, which requires all groups that receive any degree of foreign funding and engage in any kind of public outreach authorities deem political to register and self-identify in all their materials as “foreign agents” – a term that connotes “spy” in Russia. Russian authorities insist the law is just about reining in foreign influence and ensuring transparency in the NGO sector. Critics have argued from the start that the law is part of a battery of legislation that aims to straitjacket civil society, clamp down on free speech and, specifically, to prevent any repetition of the mass exposure of alleged electoral fraud in December 2011 Duma elections made possible by 50,000 trained citizen polling station monitors fielded by Golos.
Leaders of Golos say they want to reconstitute as a “public movement,” similar to the new Popular Front headed by President Vladimir Putin, which does not require official registration or strictly-controlled bank accounts the way NGOs do. They insist they can find ways – without foreign funding — to maintain a civil society force dedicated to monitoring campaigns and closely observing polling stations around the country.
“Golos was a pioneer in election monitoring in Russia, and now we find ourselves acting as pathfinders for NGOs which are in the position of being forced to cease activity under this new law,” says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos.