“We Don’t Scold or Praise—We Do Research”: Why the Authorities Want a Research Center Declared a “Foreign Agent”
April 3, 2015
Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) could be declared a foreign agent. Among the particulars laid against it are a video of a discussion during which someone spoke critically of the authorities, an abstract of a book with the word “politics” in the title, and a brochure containing advice for judges, which was vetted by judges themselves. CISR’s staff insists they do research and are proud of foreign financing. Paper got to the bottom of the conflict, finding out how sociological studies differ from politics, and how terrible the status of foreign agents is for sociologists.
How the work of a research center was deemed a “political action”
CISR was among the few research centers that the authorities demanded register as a foreign agent. On March 12, it received a formal written warning from the Ministry of Justice demanding that it place itself on the registry. The ministry deemed that CISR, which receives foreign funding, was engaged in political activity
As the center’s employees tell it, they had been expecting this since passage of the law on foreign agents in 2012, but had continued to hope, nevertheless, that the status of foreign agents would not be applied to research organization. In 2014, the Constitutional Court has issued a clarification to this end. Soon, however, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov was placed on the registry, and their fears arose again.
“According to the Ministry of Justice,” says Oksana Karpenko, executive director of CISR, “any form of public activity that does not involve praising Russian legislation or various government policies is a “political action” whose goal is to put pressure on the government and shape public opinion negatively. Under these circumstances, it is hard to explain that sociology is an apparatus for society to reflect on itself. When this apparatus breaks down, when society is incapable of taking a sober look at itself, taking joy in its achievements and admitting its weaknesses and imperfections, this leads to a loss of equilibrium. Without it, an upright position can be maintained only with prostheses that rigidly lock society into place. These prostheses are now being tried out on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and dissidents.”
The Centre for Independent Sociological Research was founded by researchers from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1991 as an alternative to the Soviet academic system. It was unaffiliated with any university and from the outset worked on an interdisciplinary level with experts from different universities.
CISR’s researchers say that its main methodological difference from classical sociological institutes has been its focus on qualitative methods. Karpenko explains that while most sociology has to do with statistics, polls, and charts, CISR’s studies are based on talking to people and trying to understand what guides them in making certain decisions, how conflicts arise, and how opinions on sensitive issues are shaped.
“We focus on those issues that are relevant. We don’t make diagnoses or prescribe treatment, we don’t scold or praise—we do research. We attempt to understand how society works, and we try and tell people about the outcome of our work in an intelligible form.”
According to Karpenko, CISR has no clear profile. The emphasis has been on the interests of specific researchers, and often their work has become an area of focus at the center. In the late 80s and early 90s, CISR’s founders were focused on social movements, including nationalist and democratic movements; they also researched the so-called brain drain, poverty, and genders. Later, CISR took up migration and ethnicity, environmental issues, the development of scientific research organizations, and the informal economy (corruption).
Three grievances: video of a discussion, the word “politics,” and advice to judges
The Ministry of Justice identified three grounds for its warning when it demanded that CISR register as a foreign agent. One of them was a video recording of a lecture by Irina Olimpieva, a Ph.D. in Economics, entitled “Russian Trade Unions in Search of Political Leverage: The Evolution of Political Strategies and New Political Ambitions.”
The lecture itself dealt with the influence trade unions have on social policy. According to Olimpieva, the role of trade unions in Russia is extremely limited, whereas in foreign practice, mechanisms for influencing social policy are often enshrined in law. However, in recent years, trade unions have been forced to become more active politically. Olimpieva’s study, launched in 2006, was funded by a grant from a Russian foundation.
However, the Ministry of Justice had no beefs with the lecture itself, but with the discussion of the lecture, which was posted on CISR’s website.
As the ministry wrote in its conclusion, “During the course of the discussion, seminar participants made statements that gave a negative assessment of current legislation.”
“Researchers are now expected only to approve current policy or, perhaps, as in Soviet times, mention ‘certain minor shortcomings.’ This is essentially a ban on criticism, at least on the part of independent research organizations,” argues Olimpieva.
Another project the ministry deemed “political activity” was a brochure entitled “Conducting Impartiality Training as a Basic Component of the Professionalism of Magistrates and Organizing Psychological Relief Rooms for Magistrates.” The brochure was intended for psychologists working in the judicial system, and was based on training workshops and interviews with judges conducted by CISR.
In its conclusion, the Ministry of Justice wrote that the brochure forms “a negative public opinion,” and “the judgments of the authors are aimed at generating a negative public response.”
The objective of the workshops was to enhance the impartiality of magistrates, an institution that has emerged relatively recently in Russia, in the early 2000s. During the sessions, the judges talked about the difficulties of making decisions and examined them with psychologists. CISR researchers said the judges themselves were enthusiastic about the training sessions.
However, they vetted the entire brochure. Otherwise, “it would simply would have been impossible to publish,” the people at CISR explain.
“Judges in all countries have problems with impartiality, so that is why similar workshops are held all over the world. And for this purpose special systems of psychological supported are developed that are aimed at helping the judge disengage from personal predilections when making decisions, and be objective and impartial,” explains Olimpieva.
The third grounds for the warning was a presentation of a book entitled The Politics of the Apolitical: Civic Movements in Russia, 2011-2013. The Ministry of Justice determined that the book had a “political focus” and could influence “decision-making by state bodies.” CISR staff claim the book is a purely academic monograph written by professional sociologists, graduate students from various universities.
“It is not even a matter of the book’s content: the research topic and the title were sufficient. But it remains a mystery how placing information about a research publication on the website of a research center constitutes what the law describes as ‘political activity,’“ says Karpenko.;
Artemy Magun, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in Saint Petersburg, says that by paying attention only to the word “politics,” one can go to absurd lengths and ban all political science departments at public universities, which a priori have no right to engage in politics.
“There is an element of politics in everything. The fact that you put up a road sign is also some kind of public statement. This border is quite flexible, and can be moved back and forth at will. But we believe that sociology exists as a science, and that it is not reducible to ideology or public relations. Meaning that we can arrive at more or less objective knowledge of society by examining it in the richness of its ideological affiliations.”
Why foreign funding is good for research
At CISR, they point out they have never concealed foreign funding and, on the contrary, have been proud of their research grants. Since the moment of its inception, CISR has subsisted mostly on money from foreign foundations and organizations. CISR has been supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Academy of Finland, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the German Research Society, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and European universities and institutes.
Since the law on foreign agents has been adopted, argues Olimpieva, everything the organization had considered an achievement, has now been considered a minus.
“In our view, grants from international foundations and organizations indicate the high level of professionalism of our staff. But when foreign financing is leveled as a charge, no one even wants to understand what the ‘foreign’ sources are and what they finance. The word ‘foreign’ is already grounds for accusations of hostile intentions. Paradoxically, the higher the professional achievements of an organization, the more suspicious it is from the viewpoint of the law on foreign agents.”
Magun says that, on the contrary, international foundations avoid influencing research altogether and act as impartially as impossible.
“In some cases, the Russian institutions set the agenda, while the international foundations nearly always give absolute carte blanche as to the work’s content. International foundations go out of their way to exclude the ideological influence of donors. Scientific rigor is the basis for issuing grants. It is simply a higher level of quality.”
According to Karpenko, the commonplace that the one who pays the piper calls the tune “manipulates people’s attention, causing them to see a threat in the very fact financing from abroad and closing their eyes to the content and quality of the intellectual product.”
Why sociologists cannot be foreign agents
In the near future, CISR intends to appeal the warning and prove they are not involved in politics. They are afraid of receiving the foreign agent status not primarily because of the additional required reporting or new inspections, but because of the negative image that would arise around the organization.
According to Karpenko, CISR’s experts can find it difficult to establish contact with an interlocutor. If they are forced to introduce themselves as foreign agents, an interview might be called off, and the sociologists would risk not being admitted to certain organizations at all.
“For the research we do, it is important to establish relationships of trust with informants. When we go into schools or talk with officials, policemen or pedestrians, we are trying to understand how society works in a particular segment, why certain problems arise. We do no want people to be afraid to talk to us. The Constitutional Court ruled that the phrase ‘foreign agent’ supposedly has no negative connotations. As sociologists, we can say this is not the case.”
Thus, the people at CISR say the status of foreign agent will simply make it impossible for them to work professionally, because many areas of society will be closed to them.
You can sign this letter of support (in English) for CISR. It has so far collected over 1,300 signatures of researchers and scholars from around the world.
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