Thursday, January 30, 2014

Russian Gay Transparency: HRC, American Apparel& Foreign Agents Law

(Photo courtesy of American Apparel.)

My campaign following the money flowing to an assortment of Russian LGBT cultural organizations from American nonprofits and the American Apparel company, has produced initial transparency steps. Previous blogging on this topic is here, herehere and here.

A recap. The Human Rights Campaign and Arcus Foundation have raised and allocated at least $100,000 to the Russian Freedom Fund, which is passing the money along to Russian groups. I've asked how these entities do all that and either comply with or challenge Putin's laws. Anastasia Smirnova, pictured on the right, was asked to address my concerns since she was quoted in HRC materials. She writes:

It seems from your text that you understand this law as making foreign donations to Russia-based non-profits illegal. However, the law does not ban such donations – it aims at labeling certain groups in a discrediting way as ‘foreign agents’. The labeling can occur under two conditions: NGOs receive foreign finding and engage in ‘political activity’ (which is defined in an extremely open way in the law). [...]

In short, foreign donations per se are not illegal. Failure to register as a ‘foreign agent’ is if the above two conditions are in place. [...]

Registered organizations are of course abiding by Russian law and providing all documentation and reporting that is required from non-profits to the Ministry of Justice and other relevant government agencies. How exactly it is possible to mitigate risks while being transparent is not a subject of an open discussion – as no one here would like to make life difficult for any Russian organization. [...]

The donation by HRC [...] was donated to the Russia Freedom Fund, not to any Russian recipient directly. It will be further reallocated by the Fund to the activities in Russia under the issued call for proposals.

While I appreciate Anastasia's substantive response, I have respectfully disagreed with her contention that we cannot have an open discussion about these matters. When you have HRC, Arcus and their associates and supporters widely circulating solicitations for funds, and political backing, it is unwise to have any of the parties involved draw a curtain over their activities. 

This is not in any way to make light of Putin's laws against NGOs, but genuine transparency, and not just "Trust us" statements, is quite necessary. 

I asked Anastasia if the documentation Russian NGOs file with their government is available on the web, perhaps like US IRS 990 tax forms are posted online, and suggested getting it on the web would greatly enhance transparency. She has not replied and I will followup on this.

Also weighing in is Polina Andrianova:

How do we do it? First of all, we, the Russian human rights NGOs, continue to maintain that what we do is not “political activity”, but human rights activity. “Coming Out” LGBT organization, for example, is not a political organization, does not represent interests of any foreign state, but works in the interests of the Russian citizens, defending their universal rights. 

However, the prosecutors are not of the same opinion. When we are charged, we defend our rights to freedom of association in courts, and this also becomes part of our human rights work.

Secondly, there are ways for the Russian NGOs to mitigate risks. To discuss them publicly is to increase risks for us, for other Russian NGOs, and for the human rights activists working for these organizations. At this point in time, we are not willing to do that. 

My response to Polina asked for additional communication to create additional steps for transparency and expect the conversation with her, Anastasia and other interested parties will continue after the Sochi Olympics are over.

Finally, I asked leaders of the NYC-based AllOut nonprofit what are the costs to create the gear they're hawking from American Apparel with proceeds designated for unnamed Russian group, if the manufacturer is opening the books, and if so, where online is that info? Regarding any proceeds, how will they make that info transparent along with the agreements they have with American Apparel? Wesley Adams replied:

The cost of producing the apparel ranges from about 15-30% depending on the item and the size.  For items sold through one of American Apparel's brick and mortar stores, there are also additional shipping and stocking costs.  After covering these costs and the costs of promoting the sale of the apparel (e.g. pr, website, etc) that All Out and Athlete Ally have advanced, the net proceeds will be donated to several Russian LGBT groups.

American Apparel has indeed been transparent with us about their costs and has also supported the campaign out of their own pocket through PR and online advertising. [...]

For safety and security purposes, I am not able to answer your questions about the destination of the funds or method of transfer. In the last six months, All Out has raised and distributed about $55,000 to directly support organizations on the ground.

As with Anastasia and Polina, followup questions were sent to Wesley, especially about getting this info and more transparency details posted to the AllOut and American Apparel sites and I hope he will soon enough address my concerns. Russian gay transparency is only beginning and must expand in the coming months.

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