oDR: Opinion

Why does Russia need a new “foreign agent” law?

Russia’s parliament has passed a law that will allow individual citizens to be labelled “foreign agents”. What effect will it have on the country’s most active citizens?

Ivan Davydov
4 December 2019, 12.01am
"Foreign agent" graffiti at the Memorial association, Moscow
Yulia Klimova

In case you missed it, Russian MPs have spent the past several years debating amendments to media and information legislation which would allow the state to give individual citizens the legal status of “foreign agents”. This month, though, these amendments were passed quickly and without deeper discussion.

Back in 2012, legislation was passed that limited the rights of NGOs. Many of them – from the Memorial association, which gathers information on the victims of Stalin’s Terror to Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which publishes information on the theft of state funds – have since been labelled as foreign agents, listed in a Justice Ministry register and experienced all the issues and problems appropriate to their status.

Now it’s the turn of Russian citizens who have somehow displeased the authorities.

An endless list of foreign agents

The authors of the amendments, who include Pyotr Tolstoy, a former TV host who is now a prominent member of the United Russia party, and his party colleague senator Andrey Klishas, who authored laws allowing fines to be imposed for criticising the government or “disseminating fake news”, are continuing the Russian tradition of citing other countries’ experience as justification.

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Indeed, the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was brought up during the development of Russia’s Foreign Agent Act in 2012. In the US, a “foreign agent” is defined as a person who acts under the control of a foreign principal and engages in political activity in the interests of that government. The reasoning used by the creators and supporters of the new Russian law are simple in the extreme: “How come they can do it, and we can’t? The US has the right to defend its national interest, and Russia doesn’t? Is this the politics of double standards yet again?”

Pyotr Tolstoy, one of the authors of Russia's new foreign agent law
Source: State Duma

Critics of the new law have reasonably responded that, in the first place, the concept of “political activity” in Russian legislation is extremely vague and could be subject to very broad interpretation. In practice, the use of Russia’s Foreign Agent-NGO law has shown that any social or even scholarly activity can be regarded as political whenever the government requires it. An obvious example is the International Memorial association: its interests lie in the field of history and civil rights, its research projects are centred on events connected with the Bolshevik Terror of the 1920s and 1930s, and it is funded by both Russian and non-Russian sources. Nevertheless, it has been registered as a foreign agent: it organises events commemorating the victims of Soviet repression and that has been defined as political activity.

In the second place, the law does not provide clear criteria for defining the individuals who should be added to Russia’s Foreign Agents Register. The relevant paragraph in the law doesn’t enlighten us on the question of whether anyone “who disseminates information to an indefinite number of people” and “receives funding from abroad” falls into this category, or is it only those who “while receiving funding from abroad” disseminate material from media outlets which are officially regarded as foreign agents in Russia and also engage in writing articles for these outlets.

The law also makes no mention of the fact that a potential agent should be in receipt of funding specifically for “the dissemination of information”, nor does it make any links between these two activities. If you follow the letter of the new law, a person who makes a reference to material shown by RFE/RL’s Current Time TV channel while receiving funding from a relative living aboard could well be seen as a foreign agent. There is also no requirement in the law for proof that a newly exposed foreign agent is actually acting “under the guidance and in the interests of a foreign power”.

Imaginary fears

The new law therefore gives an enormous potential scope for interpretation. The vagueness of the criteria stipulated means that just about any Russian citizen with a Facebook page could be considered a foreign agent – all they need is to be in receipt of money or “property/possessions” outside Russia. So a package of dried fruit from a grandmother in the South Caucasus could end up making her grandson a “foreign agent”.

In general, the Russian state’s experience of dealing with disagreeable NGOs shows that having foreign funding is not a problem – take, for example, the case of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. The Russian Justice Ministry accused him of twice receiving donations from abroad: a Russian working in Florida sent 50 dollars and a Spanish citizen donated a somewhat larger, but still not immense sum. Journalists at Meduza, an independent media outlet, have since identified the donor from Spain: he works as a bouncer at a nightclub and can’t explain why and to whom he donated money in Russia. But the formalities have been observed: since autumn 2019, the Anti-Corruption Foundation has been a foreign agent. All its publications have to be marked with the appropriate label.

Ella Paneyakh, a Russian sociologist, has even tried to console people in panic: after counting the number of staff at Russia’s Ministry of Justice (the body responsible for the NGO foreign agent register and the individual foreign agent register in the future), she realised that even if they dropped all their other functions they could add - at maximum - a few thousand names a year to the register.

Russia is entering an important pre-election cycle. In 2021, there will be an election to the State Duma. A protest mood is gathering, United Russia is losing its popularity; and its ability to preserve a constitutional majority doesn’t look good

Not that it matters: the new foreign agent law, like the rest of Russia’s recent repressive legislation, will not imply a massive attack on anyone who could theoretically be affected by it. Rather, it’s for targeted attacks on those whom the authorities of different levels see as dangerous to them. In today’s Russia, repression has a selective, not a mass character, but that doesn’t stop it from being repression.

Real dangers

Under Russia’s 2012 NGO law, organisations on the Foreign Agent register who don’t comply with the Justice Ministry’s demands (such as failing to label their publications and providing the Ministry with the necessary paperwork) may find themselves faced with heavy fines. The Memorial association, for example, has already paid more than two million roubles (£24,000) in fines - serious money for a small research organisation.

No punishments have as yet been announced for individual law breakers under the new legislation (which doesn’t say much for the quality of the legislators’ work). But at some point they might just remember and start prescribing fines – there’s no doubt on that score. On the other hand, that’s not the worst you could say for the law. Russia, after all, is a highly paternalistic country.

"Have you signed up to be a foreign agent?!"
Roman Yandolin / DP

In this situation, the appearance of a government list of “bad people”, compiled by the most fervent patriots in Putin’s Russia, could be considered a good excuse to launch a campaign of terror against them.

The Russian law decriminalising domestic violence in 2017 has worked in this way. Many Russian men took it as an excuse to beat their wives and children with impunity and the proportion of crimes linked to domestic violence noticeably increased.

The ultra-patriots, who see Putin as too soft a leader and can’t understand why Russia has still not occupied Ukraine or gone to war with the US, as well as why the government’s critics are alive and in good health, are not numerous. But they are active. The Kremlin plays various games with them: some of them are punished (mildly) for their excessive zeal; others, on the contrary, are encouraged.

The Russian government can’t, of course, guarantee that these “activists” won’t react to a list of individual foreign agents like a red rag to a bull, although it might well bear this potential effect in mind.

Another not unimportant element here: sociologists from the Levada Centre (another body also on the NGO register) have been looking at what associations are aroused by the term “foreign agent”. 62% of respondents said that it was a spy or an internal enemy. This attitude clearly doesn’t make the lives of new “foreign agents” any easier.

The run up to a major election campaign

The question arises of why a draft bill that had been debated over several years and aroused numerous critical appraisals was passed at this precise moment, and passed in a great hurry.

The answer, though, is pretty simple: Russia is entering an important pre-election cycle. In 2021, there will be an election to the State Duma. A protest mood is gathering, United Russia is losing its popularity; its ability to preserve a constitutional majority doesn’t look good, even bearing in mind everything we know about administrative leverage and falsification. Moscow’s city election this autumn showed that even if you ban opposition candidates from standing, the public can still find effective strategies for resistance.

The authorities are not particularly interested in the people who clearly “act in the interests of foreign countries”. They are interested in those who are ready to promote their own ideas of what Russia’s interests are

And then there is 2024 on the horizon – the presidential election year, in which, according to the current constitution, Vladimir Putin won’t be able to stand. The possibility of his actually surrendering power is out of the question, but any schemes to allow him to hang on to the reins of power require a totally controlled parliament.

Meanwhile, the Russian state propaganda machine is encountering ever more frequent glitches. The internet, which is difficult to control despite the plethora of prohibitory laws, is becoming a more important source of information than state TV. YouTube bloggers are now more popular than TV chat show hosts, and the internet is also the home of opposition ideas. It has independent media outlets, videos by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation get millions of views, and passions boil over on the social networks.

The situation is tense, and an extra means of attacking the most annoying online opposition figures won’t go amiss. It’s obviously calculated to undermine trust in information spread by “foreign agents” and also the reason for the fuzziness of the phrasing. The authorities are not particularly interested in the people who clearly “act in the interests of foreign countries”. They are interested in those who are ready to promote their own ideas of what Russia’s interests are; the authorities are interested in potential rivals inside the country, not real “foreign agents”.

A group of Russian human rights activists and cultural figures have sent Putin an open letter containing a request not to sign the new law (amendments don’t become law until the President signs them). The provisions of the law listed in the letter are referred to as “legally absurd” and “obviously anti-constitutional”. “The ‘foreign agent’ label discredits people in the eyes of their fellow-citizens and disparages their dignity, although they have done nothing wrong or illegal or fulfilled the desires of foreign employers,” the letter says.

The intention is valid, but the choice of recipient is somewhat odd: as major elections loom in Russia, it is Putin himself who needs this law.

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