On July 26, the heads of two of the most famous human rights groups in Russia sent President Barack Obama an open letter with a pressing issue: were they, or were they not his spies?
It was a strange move, but also quite a clever one. In May, in the last week of its session, the Russian parliament kicked into overdrive and passed a raft of measures widely seen as trying to pull the rug out from under the increasingly vocal and increasingly numerous opposition. One of the new laws required that Russian NGOs that received money from abroad and did political work inside Russia register as “foreign agents.” It would also require them to add this label to all their publications, and to subject themselves to strict government oversight. Because it’s hard for Russian human rights groups to get money at home, they often turn to Europe and the U.S.; now the money would come with a tag that would make them even more alien and suspect at a time when the government has stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric. It would also make money even harder to get. This left the human rights community—as well as those groups that monitor elections, corruption, and police brutality—in a bind: Take the money and face domestic harassment and public hostility, or tighten their belts even further.
But then Lev Ponomarev, of “For Human Rights,” had an idea. “The law was sloppily written,” he explained. “It uses the word ‘agent,’ but doesn’t define it.” But the civil code already has a definition, and for someone to be classified an agent, there has to be a contract with the principal on behalf of whom the agent is working. Because Ponomarev’s organization takes money from three American funds—MacArthur, Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy—he decided to ask his supposed principal whether or not they had this contract.
Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded. “I would like to thank you for your letter. President Obama asked me to answer you,” she wrote in a letter that was posted, in Russian, on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, and a co-signer on the July letter. “Every American administration has always supported the important work of your organization in defending human rights in Russia,” Clinton went on:
In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so. The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.
The fairly quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years. He was an Oxford graduate student in Moscow when the Soviet Union started to crumble, and befriended a lot of the players on both sides of the barricades. He is also extremely close with the president, on whom he prevailed, early in his term, to give Russian-American relations far more ram space than most anyone expected, or thought they deserved. Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow, and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.
The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharanasky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.
“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told me. (In fact, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party called Clinton’s “a love letter.”) “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”
There was another aspect that particularly tickled Ponomarev: the international scandal aspect. Come fall, the law will go into effect and Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” will have to register as a foreign agent. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you get your money from? Whose agent are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘America,’” Ponomarev says. “I register as an agent, and Obama says, ‘Hey, that’s not my agent!’ That’s a little awkward, don’t you think?”