‘Foregin Agents 2.0’: will Ukraine repeat Russia’s experience and what threats come along with the draft bill on civic associations with foreign support’
On May 29, the Verkhovna Rada has registered draft law No. 3564 on making changes to certain legislative acts of Ukraine to ensure transparency of activities of civic associations with foreign support. The draft bill was initiated by MP Oleksandr Dubinsky from the Servant of the People political party.
The draft law has introduced a definition of a civiс organization with foreign support, which means an organization that receives more than 50% of its entire funding from foreign sources, or which receives annually more than 50 thousand EUR from abroad; an NGO shall be also considered an organization with foreign support if it deals with socio-political issues (for example, constitutional order, domestic or foreign policy) or seeks to influence the public policy making. According to the draft bill, information materials prepared within the framework of the projects with foreign support shall be marked respectively, while their copies shall be sent to the Ministry of Justice. The draft bill provides for special reporting on activities and sources of funding; managers of such associations shall (upon agreement) be subjected to a polygraph test for high treason; reporting requirements to disclose sources of funding, amounts of funding and activities apply to charitable organizations.
What risks come along with the draft bill No.3564 for civil society in Ukraine? Are there due conditions in place to ensure NGOs can fulfill their mission without foreign support? Is there any chance for this draft bill to be voted into law? Why do such initiatives appear in the Parliament? To answer these and other questions, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center initiated a public discussion of this initiative and invited representatives of civil society and representatives of Ukraine’s donor countries.
The discussion was moderated by Valeriy Chaly, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center Board Chairman.
The event was attended by:
• Maria Geletiy, USAID Deputy Project Director, Ukraine Civil Society Sectoral Support Initiative
• Oleksiy Dorohan, Executive Director of the Better Regulation Delivery Office (BRDO)
• Igor Koliushko, Board Chairman of the Center for Political and Legal Reforms
• Maksym Latsyba, Deputy Executive Director of the Ukrainian Independent Center for Political Studies
• Andriy Sukharina, Political Analyst, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation
• Oleksandr Sushko, Executive Director of the Renaissance Charitable Foundation
Does the draft bill have a chance in the Verkhovna Rada and why do we have to respond to it?
Valeriy Chaly, Board Chairman of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, said that it is vitally important to respond to such initiatives in order to prevent a possible attack on civil society. “This bill is currently being considered by parliamentary committees, but it seems to have been drafted in a very unprofessional way and injected with a purpose to incriminate some people in high treason and commit a provocation. The problem is that this draft bills comes as a legislative proposal of the ruling party, therefore a discussion is needed in order to prevent the negative consequences of such initiatives […] In the information space, this issue needs to be responded to and closely monitored. Otherwise, should the civil society fail to respond to this issue immediately, later on we all might expect new problem issues of the same nature to be created by the authorities as a repressive apparatus,” he said.
Igor Koliushko, Board Chairman of the Center for Political and Legal Reforms, believes that the bill has no chance in the parliament, given the way it is written and its openly subversive nature that might potentially cause a great resistance in the society. “To me, the draft bill looks like a joke. Every MP has got enough resources not to put together such a low quality legislation. An MP simply shall have no right to be involved in this nonsense. Such legislative proposals are designed to undermine the state,” he said.
In turn, Maksym Latsyba, Deputy Executive Director of the Ukrainian Independent Center for Political Studies, believes that such activities of MPs representing the ruling party should be carefully monitored. Even if the bill is not adopted in its original form, some parts of it might get implemented. “I would not say that the bill has no chance. Under the Rules of Procedure of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, it shall be considered. The bill may become a reality. This is dangerous, we need to respond. I call upon civic organizations to raise this issue with the MPs and the Servant of the People faction, whose MP has filed such a draft bill, and to try to amend the issue by holding a public discussion,” he said.
Why are such initiatives taking place in the Ukrainian Parliament today and whose interests are they intended to serve? Civil society representatives believe the draft bills like #3564 and similar have emerged as a part of the comprehensive plan of certain policical players aimed to disrupt Ukraine’s movement towards the European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
“This is a manifestation of attempts of political players to declare their interests. In this way, they are trying to say Ukraine is going in the wrong direction. Over the last 20 years, the definition of the movement towards European integration has changed significantly. Earlier, the conversation was about the choice of vector of movement: to Russia or to the EU. We now see different forces regrouping as their interests get affected. The attack against the so-called ‘Soros offsprings’ and ‘foreign agents’, public organizations with foreign support, is about the pro-European segment of civil society, which has been able to significanty advance Ukraine on its European path,” said Oleksandr Sushko, executive director of the Renaissance Charitable Foundation.
“Today we see that the Russians are buying up the assets of the media market, the oligarchs are beginning to work with Russia, and the only thing that has been an obstacle to them in that is the ability of Ukrainians to unite and fight for Ukraine’s European integration vector. This bill is not written for us, but for law enforcement officers and civil servants. This means that, as in the Soviet Union, civic activists whose views differ from those of the authorities shall not be able to enjoy rights and freedoms granted by the Constitution and the laws of Ukraine, ” said Oleksiy Dorohan, Executive Director of the Better Regulation Delivery Office (BRDO).
“This draft bill is also called a ‘bill about foreign agents’ because it resonates well with the similar practice introduced in Russia. It would discriminate against some Ukrainian charitable organizations, restricting their access to international aid (legal or humanitarian). Some time ago, Putin has also begun to put pressure on civil society. Now, as a result, we can witness that there is no civil society in Russia. MP Dubinsky is pushing Ukraine on the same path. He is against nongovernmental organizations that have provided assistance to hundreds of thousands of people, facilitating Ukraine’s European integration, and implementation of reforms,”said Maksym Latsyba, Deputy Executive Director of the Ukrainian Independent Center for Political Studies.
Why would the bill, if adopted, work not only against the civil society but against the state?
Andriy Sukharina, Political Analyst, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said that at present, according to the latest opinion polls, the most trusted institutes in Ukraine are the army, church and civil society. The former government used the potential of civil society to implement unpopular but necessary changes. “Civil society, when trusted, has a chance to protect the country from ill-advised decisions, and to make sure certain sectors can grow and be useful. The previous government depended on the support and consultations with the civil society because the former did not enjoy a great public trust. Joint efforts with NGOs were conductive in the implementation of reforms. Reforms are painful and difficult, but if they are supported by trusted NGOs, the way to their implementation may be much easier. Obviously, the government, which enjoys little public trust, would not be able to cope with the reform agenda on their own,” he said.
“This strategy is directed not against the civil society organizations, but against the state. If we look at wealthy countries, we are going to see that there is a large number of independent think tanks, different manifestations of community self-organization, and various civic initiatives. Otherwise, should it be the government’s responsibility to finance all fields of activities in which public organizations are working, it would be very expensive,” – said Igor Koliushko, Board Chairman of the Center for Political and Legal Reforms.
“Working in the previous government, in my capacity of Ambassador, I was tasked to help foreign aid come to Ukraine. Thanks to the United States, we have received support in implementation of all major reforms. Similarly, organizations that provide funds to Ukraine also influence public opinion about Ukraine abroad and contribute to forming a positive image of our country,” said Valeriy Chaly, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center Board Chairman.
Maria Geletiy, USAID Deputy Director of the Ukrainian Civil Society Sector Support Initiative, said that Ukrainians believe that the initiative would come from a foreign donor that would address a civic organization with a proposal of cooperation with an ultimate goal to implement a foreign donor’s country agenda in Ukraine. She said that this statement is manipulative and its dissemination may result in Ukraine losing the financial support. “Technical aid means we work to achieve our targets for the money of donors who are ready to help us. Such actions of authorities may affect the desire of donors to allocate money to Ukraine in general. Instead, politicians shall foster the strategy to enhance this support and make sure money is coming to Ukraine,” she said.
What consequences should the civil society expect, should the bill be passed?
Should the bill be passed, it won’t affect the work of organizations that have long been working in Ukraine, experts say. Instead, new players will abandon the idea of entering the civic sector, taking into consideration the difficulties and restrictions in doing business.
“This draft bill won’t affect the work of long standing organizations, however, it will make it more difficult for active Ukrainians to enter the civic sector. This will not create problems for those who work for a long time, because they are experienced, they have lawyers and accountants, however, the creation of new organizations will be more challenging. The best thing the state can do is not to interfere,” said Oleksiy Dorohan, executive director of the Better Regulaltion Delivery Office (BRDO).
“Various studies show that financial sustainability is the major problem in the civic sector. Today, in addition to fighting for better conditions, we have to fight against negative conditions,” said Maria Geletiy, USAID Deputy Director of the Ukrainian Civil Society Sector Support Initiative.
“They want all organizations to be labeled with the ‘Star of David’ or the like, to create an impression that those labeled organizations cannot be trusted, because they work for foreign money. Of course, if you keep on getting this message across, people eventuallhy will get to believe it”, said Andriy Sukharina, Political Analyst, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Valeriy Chaly, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center Board Chairman, summed up that the purpose of this draft bill is to make civil society ‘toxic’, which might eventually cause its strong resistance.
“The purpose of such initiatives is to discredit Ukraine, to make Ukraine a grey zone, to paralyze the vibrant part of society promoting the pro–European, Euro-Atlantic integration. As our pro–European and pro–NATO integration movement was not robust enough, it has actually led to the Russian aggression,” he said.