Russia's Crackdown On Foreign NGOs Strains Ties With Europe

Russia's Crackdown On Foreign NGOs Strains Ties With Europe
Grigoriy Tumanov, Elena Chernenko, Galina Dudina and Vladislav Litovchenko

MOSCOW - Since February, Russian authorities have been investigating all of the NGOs operating in the country in an attempt to root out any organizations with foreign ties or foreign funding sources.

The entire operation risks further alienating Moscow from Europe – particularly from Germany, after Russian authorities cracked down on two German NGOs operating in Russia.

Representatives from the agency in charge of carrying out the NGO inspections looked into the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Moscow, while in St. Petersburg they turned their attention to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), both supported by German political parties.

St. Petersburg prosecutors weren’t satisfied to look at financial reports or other documents, instead seizing the NGO’s computers. “The work at our office has been practically brought to a stand still. We never expected that something like this could happen. It’s an alarming sign if this is how the government treats organizations that are working to promote bilateral relations between our two countries,” said Lars-Peter Schmidt, head of the Russian branch of KAS.

Rudolph Traub-Merz, the head of FES in Russia, added: “This audit business has already had a negative impact on Russian-German relations, especially the confiscation of our colleagues’ computers.”

In addition, Russian prosecutors have audited five branches of the Alliance Francaise, an organization promoting French language and culture overseas. The Alliance Francaise was asked provide documents proving that the money it gets from the French Embassy was used only for cultural programs and not for political activity.

The massive NGO crackdown began at the end of February, and as of March 27, 90 different organizations in 24 different Russian regions are known to have been inspected. According to Pavel Chikov, from the Agora organization that monitors prosecutorial activities in Russia, all together there are probably more than 2,000 organizations that have been investigated.

Organizations like Amnesty International have criticized the investigations, but human rights organizations are not the only ones who are upset. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, characterized the NGO inspections as “raids,” and said they were “worrisome because they seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society activities in the country.”

Russia’s image problem

There has also been a very negative reaction in Germany, one of Russia’s closest friends in the European Union. Russian diplomats in Germany have been called in and asked to explain the inappropriate behavior of the Russian government towards many NGOs, including the German foundations. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle warned Russian diplomats that, interfering with the foundations’ work could have “a sustained effect on bilateral relations.” A source in the German foreign ministry explained that this announcement should be taken very seriously.

“It’s totally unacceptable that the offices of German foundations in Russia have been searched and their representatives summoned to the prosecutor’s office. It is especially unacceptable that long-standing German project partners have come under the suspicion of being ‘foreign agents.’ This practice violates the spirit of cooperation between the societies of Germany and Russia,” said Andreas Schockenhoff, Germany’s commissioner for German-Russian relations.

President Vladimir Putin will be visiting Berlin on April 7, and everyone Kommersant spoke with seemed sure that Angela Merkel will bring up the NGO raids. Many German politicians aren’t convinced that criticism will be enough to stop the investigations.

Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the German Parliament’s foreign committee, said in a radio interview that if the foundations were not able to operate without being subject to discrimination, then a more “energetic” response would be called for. “I, for example, think that in this situation it will be very difficult to talk about liberalizing our visa agreements for Russian citizens.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment on the prosecutorial actions.

According to political scientist Aleksander Kyinev, Russia can expect long-term negative effects on its relationship with Europe due to the NGO audits and raids. “These raids, first of all, damage Russia’s image," he said. "I don’t understand why the government is going after international organizations that are known around the world and don’t raise problems for anybody.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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