Human rights activists admit financial trouble

Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group, is puzzled about how to raise money in Russia for the continuation of the organization's activities. Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group, is puzzled about how to raise money in Russia for the continuation of the organization's activities. Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

The ousting of USAID has left Moscow Helsinki Group on shaky financial ground. With this loss of one of its largest foreign donors, the human rights group has turned to its domestic audience for help. While the head of Moscow Helsinki Group claims to prefer domestic funding to foreign aid, she has also observed that the Russian public may not be so willing to donate to human rights activists.

Russia's oldest human rights organization, Moscow Helsinki Group, has made an open appeal for funds to allow it to continue its activity.

The appeal was prompted by the ban that came into force in October against Russia's largest foreign sponsor, USAID. The non-commercial organization’s list of beneficiaries included Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the Echo of Moscow radio station reported.

USAID's activities in Russia were shut down at Moscow's behest: it was believed that the agency was seeking to influence political processes in Russia (including elections at various levels) through the distribution of grants. Washington flatly rejected all such allegations.

Daniel Meshcheryakov, program director at MHG, explained that, until recently, around 90 percent of its donations came from foreign sources, while only 10 percent came from Russian sources and less than 1 percent from individuals.

According to Lenta.ru, MHG head Lyudmila Alekseeva admitted that she cannot afford to refuse overseas donations, because it would impoverish the organization and put most of her employees out of work. She noted that Russian government, business and civil-sector actors are reluctant to give money to human rights activists.

The possibility of having to decline foreign aid is now being discussed in connection with a set of amendments to the law on nonprofit organizations, which requires NGOs in receipt of funds from abroad to register as "foreign agents" (a phrase basically synonymous with the word "spy").

Many civil society organizations, including MHG, have announced a boycott of the law. Alekseeva had initially stated that her organization would reject foreign assistance so as not to be registered as a "foreign agent," but she later retracted her words.

According to Meshcheryakov, MHG's annual budget is, on average, 30-40 million rubles ($964,000-1,280,000). "About half of that money goes toward supporting various partners in joint projects, training, etc., mainly for regional human rights groups," he said. To maintain the current level of activity, "the same amount is needed (including regional support), or about 15 million rubles (excluding support for partner organizations)."

"The bare minimum necessary to keep the organization afloat without any specialized projects is 3-5 million rubles," said Meshcheryakov.

MHG staff expect to raise this amount from donations, including microfinancing from individuals, larger donations from businesses, and proceeds from various charity events.

MHG's website states that all funds raised will be used for the following: to maintain back-office functions and the website itself; to continue monitoring human rights situations and prepare the annual report on violations; to handle individual complaints filed by citizens; and to set up a community liaison service that includes legal support for human rights organizations and activists that are being persecuted.

If the required funds cannot be found, according to Meshcheryakov, the organization will be forced to "cut operations and staff, and utilize volunteers."

On the first day of the donation plea, MHG collected nearly 100,000 rubles ($3,215). Meshcheryakov said that there had also been a good response from volunteers.

In an interview with RIA Novosti, MHG’s director also said that she had received many calls from people willing to help. "Today, for example, I got a call from a lawyer who said: 'We have no special funds to significantly help out, but we are willing to take cases that the Moscow Helsinki Group is involved in.' Their best lawyers will handle them, which is very important. We have no special legal department to deal with these things ourselves," said Alekseeva.

She told Russian News Service (RSN) that the organization would not exist on donations alone, as it had received a presidential grant and would not need funding until May. "Calling for donations online does not mean that we'll get some serious money. We've appealed to the public before, because I always prefer funding from Russian sources, not foreign. And we got some small amounts," said Alekseeva, on the air with RSN. However, she also noted that the presidential grant given to MHG would "likely be the last."

This article is based on materials published by Echo of Moscow, RIA Novosti, Lenta.ru, and Russian News Service.

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