Ten years ago, I had the honor of speaking at a press conference in Moscow with several revered defenders of human rights in Russia. We were sounding the alarm that a “foreign agents” bill, which the Russian parliament had just begun debating, would be used to demonize independent voices.
A week later, President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law, and the human rights landscape in Russia has since become almost unrecognizable.
The Foreign Agents Act has become the authorities’ tool of malice in their war of attrition against civil society.
In the years since, a number of other anti-civil society governments have threatened to pass imitative laws or repeat the malicious rhetoric of “foreign agents” in campaigns against independent voices.
To some observers, it might seem that Russian leaders have imposed silence and harsh censorship only since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But in fact, the muzzling of Russian citizens is the result of a decade of progressive repression.
The original law required any non-governmental organization that engages in public advocacy and accepts even a kopek of foreign funding, place themselves on a “foreign agent” register, submit redundant and time-consuming reports, and mark all documents with the stigmatizing “foreign agent label”, which in Russia is equivalent to “traitor” or “spy”.
Later amendments allowed the government to forcibly register organizations and, possibly, individuals.
At the time, the government cynically claimed that the act only promoted transparency in funding.
From the outset, vitriolic public smear campaigns and a wave of nationwide “inspections” in early 2013 to ferret out “foreign agent” organizations made it clear that this law had nothing to do with it. to do with transparency and everything to do with discouraging civic activism.
Foreign money “tied”
Later, parliament sporadically widened the scope of the law to apply not only to any group or media, but also to any individual, activist, blogger or journalist who publicly criticizes the authorities. and has a tenuous connection, however tenuous, with strangers. silver.
For example, the mere fact of participating in training abroad is enough to make an individual a “foreign agent”. New draft amendments now replace the foreign funding requirement with the vague notion of “foreign influence”.
Other amendments also increased the penalties for individuals to up to five years in prison.
The whole range of Russian civil society groups have been hit by the law: those working on human rights, election observation, women’s rights, the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, the environment, health – even a homeless shelter. Others designated as “foreign agents” were prominent YouTubers, political scientists, artists and journalists.
No offense was too absurd for the authorities to sanction. They sued people for not adding the ‘foreign agent’ label to social media posts before the law was passed and issued warnings for incorrectly posting the disclaimer. foreign agent”, minor reporting errors and not voluntarily registering as a “foreign agent”. .”
Tied up with paperwork
Civil society groups and individuals have had to waste countless hours preparing unnecessary and tedious reports required by these laws. Persons designated as foreign agents must file regular reports on their personal expenses, including groceries, as well as any income. They also spent countless hours in court and paid millions of rubles in fines and legal fees for specious violations.
Some have tried to adapt to the law, finding loopholes.
A group that documents torture has closed and reconstituted each time the Justice Department has named it. Other organizations, including even a support group for people with diabetes, found the burden insurmountable and felt compelled to close their doors.
Many activists and journalists have left the country after being designated “foreign agents”.
When the Justice Department finally decided in 2021 to “wind up” an organization for violating the Foreign Agents Act, it’s no surprise that its first victims were Memorial, the world’s oldest human rights group. the man of the country, which commemorates the victims of Soviet repression and its sister organization. , the Memorial Human Rights Center, which documents human rights abuses in Russia today.
Violating these absurd laws and regulations can trigger criminal charges for felony, forcing people to live with the constant threat. For Semyon Simonov, who documented violations of migrant worker rights in Sochi, it was more than a threat.
After two years of criminal prosecution, in 2021 a court convicted him of failing to pay a “foreign agent” fine. Alexandra Koroleva from the environmental group “Ecodefense!” had to flee the country after five separate criminal cases were brought against her for non-payment of “foreign agent” fines.
Russian authorities have many other tools they can use to silence critics, including vague “extremism” offenses, bogus tax offenses and the new wartime censorship laws.
Why do they bother to continue to innovate and use the legislation of their foreign agents?
Probably because of its usefulness in confusing independent thought and civic action with something alien and harmful, and in excluding criticism from public life. With rare exceptions, designated human rights groups are now barred from engaging with government agencies, even those with which they have cooperated for many years.
Experts, government officials and others are now reluctant or unwilling to grant interviews to media designated as “foreign agents”. Amendments passed in June propose to extend this denial, prohibiting “foreign officials” from engaging in educational and other public activities.
Authorities also use the process of appointing foreign agents to mobilize public witch hunts to parade new “agents”.
In June, the European Court of Human Rights found that the law violated the right to freedom of association and noted its chilling effect. But Russia left the Council of Europe in March and refuses to implement the decisions made since.
A decade of insidious enforcement of the ‘foreign agents’ law and its adjunct, the ‘undesirables’ law, has led to the decimation of civil society space in the country. Independent Russian groups, in Russia and in exile, need support, through funding, visas, scholarships, etc.
Since Russia left the Council of Europe, it is time to turn to the United Nations to restore some control and pressure. The main UN human rights body, the Human Rights Council, can do this by appointing a special rapporteur dedicated to human rights. This is an initiative that the EU is best placed to champion and lead.
We have sounded the alarm throughout a decade of government attacks on free speech. Now is the time to act.