In May, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandr Dubinsky, a controversial member of the Servant of the People Party (Ukraine’s ruling party, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky), registered a draft law that would label certain civil society organizations as “foreign agents.” More specifically, this legislation—which resembles Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent” law—would:
- Oblige NGOs receiving at least 50% of their financial support from foreign entities to include the term “foreign support” in their organization’s name, and to include in any materials published by the NGO a disclaimer stating that the materials are published by an organization that functions with foreign support;
- Initiate the creation of a central register of such NGOs, requiring the Ministry of Justice to publicize a list of these NGOs on its official website and to publish annual reports of foreign-funded NGO activity in Ukraine;
- Require the management of these NGOs to undergo annual polygraph interviews in order to review whether or not these individuals have committed treason; and
- Prohibit any individuals in NGO management positions from working in the civil service or holding membership on supervisory boards or in the leadership of state enterprises for five years after working in a foreign-funded NGO.
While Dubinsky’s proposed legislation poses a serious threat to all NGOs that receive foreign funding (except for a few categories that the draft law specifically exempts, such as NGOs that work in the sphere of culture, arts, science, prevention and health of citizens, social protection, social support for the disabled, and environmental protection), this legislation would have a particularly adverse impact on the work of anticorruption NGOs.
The post-Maidan Revolution era witnessed an increase in the involvement of civil society organizations in national anticorruption reform. These professional organizations have sustained their advocacy efforts long after the initial honeymoon reform period that often follows serious upheavals. Organizations like the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, Transparency International Ukraine, and the Dejure Foundation have done invaluable legal and advocacy work to hold Ukraine’s government officials accountable and to push for significant reforms to Ukraine’s anticorruption laws—often in the face of resistance or opposition from Ukraine’s government. And while there is certainly much room for improvement in Ukrainian civil society activism (mainly on the grassroots level), on the whole the sustained work of Ukraine’s anticorruption NGOs has been vital in generating meaningful reform in an extremely challenging environment.
Many of these organizations depend on foreign support. The Anti-Corruption Action Centre, for example, receives most of its funding from abroad. In 2019, 33.3% of its funding came from the Pact ENGAGE (a USAID program), 12.6% from the European Union, and 6.4% from the International Development Law Organization. Similarly, in 2019 the Dejure Foundation received about 48% of its funding from USAID and 19% from the European Union Anti-Corruption Initiative. More generally, according to data from the OECD Development Assistance Committee, over the 2007-2016 period Ukraine received US$93.6 million in foreign funding directed toward improving civil society and anticorruption initiatives. These foreign-funded organizations and others like them have been indispensable in maintaining momentum for Ukraine’s anticorruption battle—and people like Dubinsky know it. Whatever pretexts they might offer, politicians who support this “foreign agent” law know, and likely intend, that the passage of such a law would cripple Ukraine’s vibrant and robust civil society movement to clean up the Ukrainian government. The law’s most threatening features are probably not the mandatory labeling of organizations and publications. In contrast to Russia, the Ukrainian public has a generally favorable view of international organizations and foreign support. The most worrisome features of the law are the mandatory polygraph tests and the five-year post-NGO employment restrictions for those holding managerial positions in foreign-supported NGOs. These requirements serve no legitimate purpose and appear deliberately designed to punish NGOs and to discourage talented people from working for them.
Furthermore, the danger is not limited to the foreign-funded NGOs that are the immediate target of the law currently under consideration. When Russia first introduced its Foreign Agent Law in 2012, the targets were NGOs, but by 2019, the law had been broadened to target individuals, mainly journalists and bloggers, in an effort to control media and curtail free speech. The passage of Dubinsky’s legislation in Ukraine will not only cause the persecution of the NGOs leading the war on corruption, but may lay the foundation for future attacks on civil society, journalists, and democracy itself.
I dearly hope that a majority of Ukrainian MPs decisively reject this and all similar legislative proposals. It is imperative that lawmakers, journalists, activists, experts, and others—including in the international community—call out this draft law as an assault on civil society and do what they can to defeat it. But the threat will not end even if Parliament rejects this bill. The fact that such a law has been drafted and registered by a member of the Servant of the People Party—whose founder and leader, President Zelensky, ran and won on an anticorruption platform, and that is supposed to be devoted to promoting good government—is worrisome. Moreover, Ukraine’s lawmakers need to take a strong stand in support of civil society—and not just in opposition to this law. Rather than trying to punish and stigmatize NGOs, the Ukrainian parliament should be working to enact legislation that will guarantee NGOs stronger safeguards against political persecution. If President Zelensky and his Servant of the People Party are serious about their desire to clean up Ukraine, that’s the agenda they should be promoting.