Russian foundation tarred with 'foreign' label

V&A Dudush/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

Russian foundation tarred with 'foreign' label

MOSCOW—Russian authorities on Monday branded the Dynasty Foundation, one of the country’s most important science foundations, a “foreign agent.” Dmitry Zimin, the telecom tycoon who established Dynasty, has vowed to shut it down.

Last year, Dynasty, based here in Moscow, spent about $10 million on 20 projects supporting young researchers (mainly mathematicians and physicists), competitions for school science teachers, science festivals, and public lectures by world-class researchers. Rumors that the Ministry of Justice would label the foundation a foreign entity had been circulating for weeks. Now that it has happened, scientists are devastated. “The main thing that we have lost is hope,” says Valery Rubakov, a physicist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ (RAS’s) Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow.

Dynasty was set up in 2002 by Zimin, a co-founder of VimpelCom, one of three nationwide cellular communications networks. According to Zimin, each year since then he has transferred about $10 million of his fortune to Dynasty. The foundation’s 2013 financial report also lists small donations from other sources such as the Royal Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and private donors.

As part of a campaign to crack down on nongovernmental organizations focused on human rights and free elections, the Russian government in July 2012 adopted the foreign agent law, which piles reporting requirements on designated organizations and compels them to label anything they produce, from conferences to reports, as such. Since then, 67 organizations have been caught in the law’s dragnet, including prominent names such as the Liberal Mission Foundation; Memorial, a historical and civil rights society; and the Bellona Foundation in Murmansk. Some shuttered their operations in Russia, and others are fighting the designation.

Dynasty is the first nonprofit supporting science to find itself in the Justice Ministry’s cross hairs. Earlier this month, a group of 28 RAS members petitioned Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov to spare the foundation, whose work, they wrote, is open and transparent and “has nothing to do with advocacy of foreign states' interests.” In designating Dynasty a foreign agent on Sunday, justice officials cited Dynasty’s funding from offshore accounts owned by Zimin. In an official statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declared that if Dynasty “gets money from abroad, then it is a foreign agent.” The government is not forcing Dynasty to close, Peskov added: That’s Zimin’s decision, he said.  

The designation infuriates Zimin. Reached by phone, he told ScienceInsider that he would simply “stop financing the foundation.” Dynasty officials are planning to meet on 8 June to decide whether to close the foundation. Zimin later told the Russian newspaper Vedomosti that if the ministry were to cancel the designation and apologize, he would “think it over.”

That apology is unlikely to be forthcoming. At a press conference today in St. Petersburg, Konovalov said that the ministry has no plans to reconsider the designation. “We do not exclude that there were positive motives for the foundation's activities,” he said, “but that does not exclude the necessity to implement the law.”