Russia brands anti-racism body SOVA as a foreign agent

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By Andrew Warshaw

January 5 – Russia’s staging of the 2018 World Cup has been placed under fresh scrutiny following reports that a Moscow-based non-governmental think tank specialising in monitoring racism and extremism has been blacklisted by the authorities.

According to Football Against Racism in Europe, the widely respected network that reports cases of discrimination in European football, the highly authoritative SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis has been dubbed a foreign agent following an unscheduled inspection of its offices.

Since 2014 the SOVA Center has published two influential reports in conjunction with Fare on the situation in Russian domestic football and a third is due out soon. In 2015, the two organisations combined to produce a detailed breakdown of discriminatory incidents in Russian football over two years which cited, among other things, 72 displays of neo-Nazi symbols.

Organisers of the World Cup have constantly been at pains to point out that discrimination of all types is taken extremely seriously and that measures are being stepped up to eliminate racist incidents but Piara Powar, Executive Director of Fare, said the latest move, if true since it does not appear to have been corroborated officially, would prove counter-productive.

“Through the insights they offer SOVA conducts valuable work for Russian society,” said Powar. “ Without them a lot of extremist activity in Russia would go unrecorded and unknown.

“The impact of this move could be felt in football and in particular the World Cup in 2018. Reliable information on the activities of the far-right and nationalist groupings in football will become harder to follow and measures for dealing with it harder to implement.”

According to Fare, Russia’s 2012 law on foreign agents means NGOs face stiff police and governmental scrutiny and Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Centre, was quoted as saying: “According to Russian legislation, organisations are listed as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive foreign funding in any form (which we, of course, receive) and engage in ‘political activity’. The latter is interpreted very broadly. In our case it was suggested that we provide assessment of state bodies’ activity publicly. It is obvious that almost any NGO provides such an assessment. This means that in order to list us as a ‘foreign agent’ some additional arguments are needed.

“The inclusion of SOVA in the list of ‘foreign agents’ means a number of unpleasant things for us, including the obligation to indicate this everywhere. Most importantly, we know that some of our potential partners could be simply afraid to work with us. And this may lead to limiting our activity.”

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