Ksenia, Bellona was one of the first NGOs that faced a prosecutor visit under the recent wave of massive inspections. Please tell us more about it.
Yes, Bellona was one of the first NGOs visited by the inspections. As soon as regional prosecutor offices got an instruction to conduct inspections in NGOs, the inspection group came to our office. It was on Tuesday, 19th of March. Representatives from the Prosecutors’ office, the Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Consumers’ Rights Protection Department came in the morning, before the beginning of our working day, when there was only one our employee in the office. They spent half a day, inspecting all the premises and looking for violations of the fire safety rules and working conditions of employees. Fire safety rules is often a "Klondike" for authorities to put pressure on the organizations, both non-profit and commercial. It is literally impossible to meet all always changing requirements of fire-fighters. Meanwhile, the pprosecutor handed over a letter with a three-page list of documents, copies of which we had to prepare in 3 days.
Were you ready for that?
Morally we were prepared for the inspections but we were expecting them in December. Just recently the Ministry of Justice has published a list of planned inspections for 2013, where we found Bellona in the schedule for December. Of course, with the current state of play in Russia with all the laws on foreign agents, state secrets, increasing pressure on NGOs, we always consider the possibility of unexpected "guests", but thought we wouldn’t be the first to come.
Did you have enough time to prepare all the documents?
Of course we managed to prepare aall the necessary documents within the required time (3 days). But in order to do that all three days and the last night everyone in the office was not doing his/her professional work but working to satisfy our authorities: to copy all the documents on financial and economic activities of the organization for the three previous years, stitch it, write explanations.
Did you get any reaction already?
Only by words so far. Executive Director of Bellona and a chairman of the board visited the prosecutor on 28th of March to hand over some additional documents — copies of software licenses — and give additional clarification about activities of the organization. During the meeting, the prosecutor showed drafts of documents from the officers of the Ministry of emergency situations and Consumers’ rights protection department. According to those documents the prosecutor will start an administrative procedure, which will lead in his words to a fine of 500 thousand rubles in total. The next week we will also get a conclusion on the extremism examination of Bellona. It is difficult to say what exactly they were investigating, but they carefully studied all books in our library.
In general, we had an impression that they had some informal task to find any kind violations for a fine of the approximate amount, because the list of violations in the document is rather chaotic, and on the day of the inspection they did not write any act fixing their findings.
What will be your next steps?
We will try to resist this pressure with legal means. Our lawyers will probably need to precisely investigate the administrative law in addition to the environmental law. We are not going to pay fines silently, because there is no guarantee that they will not come again and find some other violations. Moreover, we will still have an inspection from the Ministry of Justice in December — as we were explained, the spring prosecutor’s inspection does not cancel the planned one from the Ministry of Justice.
What do your colleagues from other organizations say about these inspections?
Colleagues from friendly NGOs were sharing their experience and details of inspections between each other during the last and this week. Each inspecting group had its own specific features. Some came with the police, some – with NTV journalists, some prosecutors were more rude than others, but generally everywhere the procedure was more or less the same – a visual inspection of offices and a request for a long list of documents. The results of inspections are still unknown. Everyone is waiting and thinking of different scenarios for actions — from closing down their organizations and continuing with underground work to fighting in the courts and writing counter-claims to prosecutors.
How do you assess this wave of inspections? How do you think it might be developed further?
Unfortunately, current inspections fit well within the policy of increasing pressure on civil society, which began after the 2012 presidential election. I think the aim of the government now is to interfere the work of civil independent NGOs, creating a variety of obstacles for them — organizational and financial. And at the same time, gathering materials and developing the cases against NGOs and their chairs. If it would be necessary for any reasons, they would be closing particular organizations. Their expectation is that with so many open cases and inspections, attention of civil activists will be distracted.
Ksenia, you are member of the Steering Committee of the Forum. Last week the Steering Comittee issued a statement "About massive inspections of non-profit organisations currently conducted in Russia". What should be the next steps of the Forum?
The Forum now should serve as a bridge to deliver information from Russian NGOs, which are under pressure, to Russian and EU officials. Early declared position and concerns about the processes, put on the agenda at the highest level, can prevent Russian authorities from taking radical decisions regarding NGOs. Even now, when officials from France, Germany, UK as well as EU representatives criticized the massive inspections and pressure on NGOs, Putin had to give some public explanations. Of course, this is not the end, and now our NGOs should be prepared for long-term communication with Russian bureaucracy through letters, complaints and lawsuits. In this situation our advantage is openness and transparency. We have nothing to hide.
Interview conducted by Polina Baigarova, EU-Russia Civil Society Forum
Environmental Right Center Bellona is member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum since 25.05.2012.