Russian NGOs and media with ties to the West are “foreign agents” by law
Considering the fact that Russia’s historic self-image is beleaguered by foreign influence and malefactors, the term “foreign agent” carries considerably derogatory implications. Kennedy, Hitler, Napoleon are all anti-Russian symbols. So an NGO (non-governmental organization) forced to identify itself as a “foreign agent” is bound to suffer from loss of credibility among Russians.
Russia’s lower house of Parliament just recently passed legislation imposing new restrictions on NGOs that receive funding from abroad. While this new legislation does not prohibit any organization’s operation, it is expected to severely hinder the activities of all western-connected groups. The new law is obviously a by-product of Russia’s historic mistrust of the West. Observers also state that it’s a direct reaction to Vladimir Putin’s fear of the opposition gaining momentum and wider support in becoming a viable alternative to the president’s United Russia party.
Specifically the law requires all NGOs that receive foreign funding – it doesn’t matter the source, be it governments, groups or private individuals – and engage in political activity (not specifically defined) register itself as a “foreign agent”, provide detailed reports of its finances and designate itself as a “foreign agent” in any material it produces. Political activity includes acts that are done routinely by NGOs engaged in advocacy such as supporting policy changes or influencing public opinion.
In addition to the above legislation, parliamentarians of United Russia are set to include media outlets on the “foreign agent” list. Any newspaper, magazine, news portal with at least 50% investment from abroad, will have the same designation. The logic here is that “any media concern that receives more than 50% of its finances from abroad cannot possibly have an independent-thinking editorial stance. Its foreign sponsors must surely control it. It’s a propaganda tool of the West that interferes in Russia’s domestic affairs”.
The intent of the law stretches back to 2005, when the first legislation was created to control political opposition. Deliberately designed by the United Russia party to suppress independent civil activity, they knew exactly the connotation associated with the term “foreign agent”. It can only be taken to mean foreign spy.
New legislation also toughens the punishment for libel. It will be returned from the Administrative Offence Code – where it resides in most democratic countries – to the Penal Code. Observers see this as a definite trend in protecting bureaucrats from critics and targeting ordinary people, journalists and rights activists by intimidation, stifling their right to publicly voice their opinion.
Russian human rights groups see this as a major obstacle to any prospect of political liberalization. Russian authorities and businesses do not have a history of sponsoring the civil sector and the non-wealthy are similarly not used to donating to non-profit groups.
Human rights groups both in Russia and abroad have sharply criticized the new legislative initiatives. The veteran organization ‘Memorial’ commented on the speed with which the changes in law happened: “One may think that the enemy is at the gates and only [this bill] can save the fatherland. The reason for such a rush is obvious. The only goal of the law is to establish formal grounds for labelling opponents as enemy hirelings.” The Committee Against Torture said it was an attempt to besmirch an organization’s reputation: ”Just like the Jews in ghettos were obliged to wear a badge with the Yellow Star of David, we are obliged to wear a sign of foreign agent.”
United Russia accuses US critics of hypocrisy in that the new Russian law is similar to the US Foreign Agent Registration Acts (FARA). Human Rights Watch however states that this is misleading and disingenuous. FARA covers those organizations and individuals that operate under direction and control of a foreign principle. It doesn`t apply to NGOs that receive foreign funding and advocate policy changes. In Russia even NGO`s that make tacit criticism of current conditions are to be considered political and therefore a “foreign agent” if supported from abroad.
PEN International, for decades an enemy of censorship, freedom of expression and harassment of writers, put the trend in Russia succinctly: “The “foreign agent” proposal comes amid a wave of legislation clearly aimed at squelching dissent. Lat month Putin signed a bill imposing massive penalties on peaceful protesters and protest organizers, and the Duma is currently considering a bill that would give the government substantial control over internet content.” Of course, why would we expect the Kremlin to leave any leaf unturned.”