A Russian citizen living in Florida says he donated $50 to an opposition politician seeking to run for a Moscow city-council seat.
Now the Justice Ministry is using that as part of the reason to brand the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) — which has produced searing reports on the undocumented wealth of Russian officials and their friends — as a “foreign agent.”
The October 9 ministry decision may impact the foundation’s ability to raise funding from citizens to keep its operation going, as well as discourage Russian citizens living abroad from contributing to political causes in the future.
Interfax quoted a Justice Ministry official who oversees nongovernmental organizations as saying that Navalny’s FBK received about 140,000 rubles ($2,150) from abroad. A Justice Ministry document listed two donors — the U.S.-based Star-Doors.Com LLC and a person in Spain. Russian media reported that the total came from two tranches from Spain and one from the United States.
The amount was enough to label the nongovernment organization as a foreign agent, a designation that it must include in all of its promotional material, including its popular YouTube videos.
The FBK, which was founded by prominent opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, will also be subject to tougher audits from the government that could reveal detailed information about its activities.
“This is just a pretext. The authorities can’t totally make something up, so they are desperately looking for any minuscule reason to weaken Navalny,” says Maria Snegovaya, a Russian political analyst and fellow at the Center for European Policy.
‘From One Russian To Another’
Yury, the owner of Star-Doors.com, who asked that his last name not be used, said in a phone interview with RFE/RL that he sent the $50 donation to the campaign of Ivan Zhdanov, the director of the FBK, from his PayPal account around June.
Zhdanov sought to run for the Moscow city council and asked on social media, including Facebook, for donations with a link to his campaign’s PayPal account.
Yury said he made the transfer from his personal account and not, as the Justice Ministry indicated, his U.S.-based corporate account. He also said he only possessed Russian citizenship, though he is seeking U.S. citizenship on the grounds of political asylum.
“This was a transfer from one Russian citizen to another Russian citizen,” he said.
The United States does not prohibit the foreign funding of NGOs, regardless of whether that foreign funding comes from governments or nongovernment sources.
Likewise, U.S. citizens living abroad are allowed to use their foreign-earned income to donate to American campaigns. However, they are forbidden to make those payments through a foreign limited-liability company that they own, according to the Federal Election Commission.
‘Scare, Blacken, Pressure’
Members of the Anti-Corruption Foundation rejected the ministry’s findings and said it was another attempt by the government to halt its operation of exposing graft.
“The ministry has not presented us with any proof of foreign financing; however, it has managed to spread the ‘news’ to the propagandists. Another attempt to scare, blacken, and pressure us,” Lyubov Sobol, a member of the FBK, said in a tweet.
In later comments to independent Russian TV channel Dozhd, FBK head Zhdanov confirmed that the organization had uncovered a donation from what he said was a company in Spain.
Zhdanov said that the money was sent to a blocked account, and thus it “was impossible to return, even if we wanted to.” He said the situation was an “obvious provocation.”
He also said the payment was unusual because the vast majority of donations come from individuals; the Justice Ministry’s document, however, does list the donor as an individual named Roberto Fabio Monda Cardenas from Spain. Cardenas could not be reached for comment.
Zhdanov also said that the organization had not found any payments from Florida, where Star-Doors.com is registered.
More than half of Russians say they have a negative association with the term “foreign agent,” according to a survey carried out in December 2016 by the independent pollster Levada Center.
The designation is the latest in a series of moves by the state that hinder Navalny and his organization. Russia’s Investigative Committee launched a $1.2 million money-laundering probe against the foundation in August, freezing its bank accounts in the process.
A month later, it carried out searches at 43 of the foundation’s 45 regional headquarters.
‘Foreign Agent’ Navalny
The FBK has produced widely popular videos on YouTube exposing the officials undeclared assets — including mansions, yachts, and other luxuries. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is one of the most prominent to be scrutinized by the foundation.
Navalny demonstrated his growing political influence in September when many of the candidates his team recommended for office defeated pro-government incumbents.
A day before the Justice Ministry’s decision, Russia media reported that the Kremlin admitted that Navalny’s strategy worked and will seek to counter it.
“Today’s decision is a further warning to opponents of the Russian government, and to any independent political initiatives in Russia, that the authorities will not tolerate anything that can effectively galvanize critical public opinion and protest,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International Russia’s director.
Russia passed the “foreign agent” law — which requires all NGOs receiving foreign funding to register — in 2012 following the biggest wave of anti-government protests since Vladimir Putin came to power at the end of the 20th century. Putin blamed Western influence and money for those protests.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, in 2017 called the law “devastating” for local NGOs, saying more than a dozen had been forced to close their doors.
The designation of the FBK as a foreign agent follows months of street protests its members have led. The wave of protests were the largest in seven years.
Russian officials were quick to blame the West again this summer when tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest the exclusion of candidates from the Moscow city-council elections.
“All of these false press releases are issued with one goal — that [TV news anchors] broadcast from morning until night that the Anti-Corruption Foundation is a foreign agent,” Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.
Navalny has loyal supporters and they are unlikely to believe state media that he is a foreign agent, analyst Snegovaya says. However, the government will learn more about the people and companies that cooperate with him and that could have a negative impact. The information the FBK will have to turn over “potentially exposes who they cooperate with,” Snegovaya says.
The FBK will struggle in its legal case against the state. Only one NGO has been able to get the foreign-agent designation removed, she notes.
With contributions from Carl Schreck