Why Russian Authorities Raided Amnesty International’s Moscow Office

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Joshua Foust to UN Dispatch. Joshua is a DC-based foreign policy analyst specializing in counter-terrorism, the former Soviet Union, and South Asia. His website is http://www.joshuafoust.com/ 

MOSCOW – On Monday, Russian prosecutors and tax officials demanded the Moscow offices of Amnesty International provide records for a surprise audit. It is part of a larger series of crackdowns on NGOs here that has accelerated after Vladimir Putin resumed the presidency last year.

Last year, the Russian government instituted new regulations governing NGOs, with particular focus on “foreign agent” organizations that accept money from outside Russia.

In March alone, Russian officials have raided more than 30 different NGOs, according to Amnesty International. In at least two, last week’s raid on Memorial and today’s raid on Amnesty, camera crews from NTV, a pro-Kremlin TV station, and accompanied officials to document and shout questions at NGO employees.

Much discussion in the NGO community has framed this new move as part of the Russian government’s attempt to stamp out human rights in the country – both Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have singled out Russia’s backsliding on human rights as a primary concern. But the crackdown also is taking place in a broader context worth considering.

The U.S. has taken an antagonistic turn toward Russia with the Magnitsky Act, which was attached to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik bill that normalized trade relations with Russia.

The bill itself doesn’t contain anything egregious – it rightly identifies Russia as a human rights abuser and puts in place specific sanctions against the individuals responsible for those abuses. But by singling out Russia for censure, the U.S. opens itself up to well-grounded charges of hypocrisy, given the lack of similar bills targeted at Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

That’s why the Russians pressured USAID into closing down its Moscow offices. It’s why U.S. democracy promotion NGOs NDI and IRI left the country. (Imagine the reaction if Russia spent millions of dollars trying to influence American elections the way the U.S. does so in Russia.)

Though also grounded in the Putin government’s own tendency toward authoritarianism, Russia’s crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs is also part of its response to the west trying to influence domestic Russian politics. That perspective helps inform the decision to go after human rights groups: they’re a two-fer, both antagonistic to the current regime and substantially funded by the west.

In the gradually escalating U.S.-Russia relationship, which is taking place against the backdrop of Putin’s push to consolidate his power after a surprisingly contested election, we should expect such moves to continue.