The Russian LGBT Network, known for its commitment to fighting for civil rights in the country as well as its critical role in helping to evacuate over 250 LGBTQ+ people from Chechnya ahead of its rumored purge of gay men, has, along with five layers, been labeled as "foreign agents" by the Kremlin's Justice Ministry.
This designation comes with new accounting burdens and administrative procedures, including the need to preface official communications with a warning about the label. The intent is to stigmatize the group, a method that has proven effective in the past as several independent media groups were forced close when the foreign agent label led advertisers to no longer associate with them.
The Kremlin, however, says the label is just to help identify groups that are receiving "foreign funding" and engaging in "political activity."
The Russian LGBT Network pushed back on the label in a statement. "We don't know why we have been declared a 'foreign agent.' The Russian LGBT Network disagrees with this status," it wrote. "We are not involved in political activities, we offer legal and psychological aid (and) defend the rights of the LGBT+ community."
Commenting on the designation, international human rights group Amnesty International's Moscow director, Natalia Zviagina, said in a statement, "Beyond shameful, the justice ministry's decision reveals that committed, principled lawyers defending the rights of people targeted in politically motivated cases and frontline LGBTI rights defenders are unwelcome and 'foreign' in Putin's Russia."
Zviagina added, "The authorities cite the need to protect 'national interests' and resist 'foreign influence' in their incessant destruction of Russia's civil society. But what's really in the national interest is to protect, uphold and respect all human rights for everyone. These reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society organizations must stop, and the 'foreign agents' and 'undesirable organizations' laws must be repealed immediately."
The Russian LGBT Network was founded in 2006 and has provided both legal and psychological assistance to LGBTQ+ people in Russia during a time when both their rights and safety have been under threat.
Along with the Network, attorney Ivan Pavlov, whose specialty was in prosecuting sensitive political cases before he was forced to flee Russia in September, was also labeled as a foreign agent by officials, along with his team of four other lawyers. In response, Pavlov says the designation is a "state honor for service to freedom of speech and information."
Dilya Gafurova, press secretary for Charitable Foundation Shere, an organization carrying out all the programs of [the] Russian LGBT Network, told The Advocate that while they anticipated the steps taken by the Russian government, they didn't know when it would occur. "We're still taken aback. There's really no preparing for such a situation," says Gafurova. "Additionally, it needs pointing out that Russian LGBT Network is only the third organization ever to be added to the list of unregistered social movements fulfilling the function of a foreign agent (it is not a media outlet or a legal entity as such). Meanwhile, Charitable Foundation Sphere has been on the list of 'foreign agent' organizations since 2016, so this is not a particularly new situation for us."
As of now, Gafurova says they do not know exactly why the Russian Ministry of Justice made the decision to label the Network, but they have their suspicions. " Currently we have reason to believe that, same as many NGOs in Russia, we are but the result of a continuous government crackdown on activism, and it could be said that pressure has recently increased on both Charitable Foundation Sphere and Russian LGBT Network, authorities are actively looking into our activity."
And they have plans on how they intend to move forward, undaunted. "First and foremost, we would like to find out what prompted such an interest and the consequent adding us to the list of 'foreign agents, and we are keen on appealing this status. We are also planning on continuing our work just as before, offering legal and psychological help, assistance in emergency situations, conducting monitoring and advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in all Russian regions," pledges Gafurova.