What should I call you now, Dr. Nomokonov?

Posted: August 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:52 am

English Translation by Justin Cade

A law declaring a number of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) foreign agents has become reality. According to the law, all NGOs funded by foreign sources and engaged in political activity will be included in a special database of organizations classified as foreign agents.


Accordingly, the organizations’ accounting is becoming more complicated and control over them is becoming stricter. Any given materials widely distributed by the NGOs will be labeled “from a foreign agent;” punishment for violating this law is punishable by millions of fines, correctional work or up to four years’ imprisonment. The law has been primarily agitating Moscow NGOs, as the majority of such NGOs are directly registered in the Russian capital. In some regions this law is “exotica,” but in Vladivostok the opportunity is always available to declare agents in-hiding. Among the first nominees for such treatment is the Vladivostok Center for the Study of Organized Crime, founded and directed by Vitalii Nomokonov, a professor in the Law School of Far Eastern State University.

To provide some background information, the Center was formed in 1997 by a grant from the United States Department of Justice within the parameters of a project conducted by an analogous center for the study of transnational crime and corruption at American University in Washington, D.C.

On this subject, we met with the potential “agent” himself, Professor Nomokonov.

— Dr. Nomokonov, what should we call you now?

— From a financial standpoint, yes, we are precisely those about which you spoke and for whom the law has been written. I recall that our center was created as a result of the “cursed nineties.” On the one hand, it was time to activate all possible international ties and cooperation; on the other hand, it was a time of prosperity for organized crime in the country. It just happened to work out that way. It all began with us initiating the creation of a laboratory. We conducted research and published an academic text, “Organized Crime and the Fight Against It.” After that we received the invitation to participate in one of the “global” projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice (which is analogous to our General Procuracy) and American University in Washington, D.C., which also dealt with the problem of organized crime in different parts of the world. At the end of the nineties, academics from Washington, D.C. came to Vladivostok along with the Russian Federal Procurator and we arranged a meeting with the president of Far Eastern State University (at that point it was Kurilov), the idea of founding a center was approved and became affiliated with the Ministry of Education. That’s how we came to be.

— That is to say, it was a joint decision. And what about funding?

— The university provided us with office space and some technical equipment. Funding came from the United States. Every year the center was funded by a grant, although only for one year at a time. At the end of the grant period, we submit reports and if our work does not satisfy the granter, we agree to a new contract and conduct new research. At first we were funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, but recently we have been receiving funds from the State Department.

— So the State Department nevertheless requests “music” (as Vladimir Putin put it)?

— There are no “requests.” We don’t follow any “instructions.” On the contrary, we frequently engage in debate with one another and there is friction. The grant is for concrete research projects: we examined the fight against organized crime in Japan and measures of countering corruption in America itself. By the way, the Americans refused to fund this project.

— And suddenly the State Department has been using your work with some sort of subversive goals?

— What subversive goals?! Our research does not contain classified information, let alone government secrets. Our work is essentially rooted in public sources and data. We simply collect and analyze material, uncover tendencies, forecast and so on… This kind of work, the study of organized crime, is not performed by anyone in the Far East but us, although I am confident that this research is needed most of all by us. Those who frequent the center for consultation include procuracy officials and FSB officers, they participate in our events, we enjoy a fruitful partnership with them.

— So in fact “Uncle Sam” compensates our “needs?”

— We would put it differently; in this instance our interests coincide.

— Your “use” does not excuse you from responsibility and it is highly likely that you will be affected by the new law.

— But we don’t work on political issues, we research organized crime…

—… which includes corruption, which a number of experts consider the backbone of the current system. Is that not politics? Additionally, your famous “textbook” on organized crime (a fragment of it is on Winnie the Pooh) became major propaganda material in the 2004 Vladivostok mayoral election. So it’s doubtful that you will be able to refuse to have anything to do with politics.

— The vagueness of wording is the major shortcoming of the legislation. After all, that exact term, “political activity,” is not clearly defined in the Russian legislature. Any NGO could crap that out, to put it rudely. In addition, participation in politics is separated by a comma from “participation in the formation of public opinion in order…to impact the adoption of decisions by public authorities aimed at changing their public policies…”

— … which we are doing right now…

— But of course! Introducing “research for research’s sake” is pointless. The goal of our work is to study and somehow optimize the system, to change something for the better. And generally speaking, the majority of public NGOs are created precisely to make life better, meaning to influence those around us as well as the decision-making authorities. In that incomprehensible context we fall smack-dab in the middle of the “agents.” The other deal is that a double standard is at work here: for some reason religious organizations (largely supported by foreign funds) are exempt from the law as well as “subsidiary” NGOs established by government structures or by structures with partial state ownership. That is to say anything is possible for “ours,” but the law pertains to the others.

— And what are we going to do?

— I haven’t ruled out simply closing the center. Simply for me as a human being the term “foreign agent” is humiliating. I work for Russia.

Interview conducted by Marina Loboda (Actual Article in Russian)

August 8, 2012

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu