In November of 2012, Russia passed the infamous “Foreign Agent Law” that requires all organizations participating in political activities and receiving foreign funding to register with the state as foreign agents. This law follows Putin’s agenda to repress civil society to protect national security, but that repression has proved detrimental to human rights in Russia and around the globe. Many of the NGOs that the Ministry of Justice has deemed “foreign agents” protect women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and environmental rights, and conduct academic and political research. Under the Foreign Agent Law, criticizing the government in any way is considered a political act. The Foreign Agent Law is meant to intimidate NGOs into self-censorship and taint their public reputation for accepting foreign funding.
History of NGO Repression
The repression of domestic NGOs in Russia is not new. In fact, NGO repression has been constant throughout Russia’s post-Soviet Union political restructuring. Many civic organizations formed after the fall of the Soviet Union to advocate for their issues during political and social reform. Civic organizations are key actors in protecting human rights in all countries, and these organizations have proved equally essential to promoting human rights in Russia.
In January of 2006, Russia amended four existing laws to restrict NGO activity. After the passage of this new law, NGOs could be denied ability to operate in Russia if the organization’s “goals and objectives…create a threat to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, unique character, cultural heritage, and national interests of the Russian Federation.” Also, the state could ban any individual deemed “undesirable,” prohibit foreign NGOs from operating in Russia, and require NGOs to disclose the details of their funding. This law was an early attempt to restrict political activity of NGOs that stemmed from general fear of the national security threat of foreign funding to Russia. Most organizations continued their work, but the 2006 law established barriers that restricted NGO’s ability to protect human rights.
In August of 2009, Russia amended the 2006 NGO law to lessen restrictions on NGO activity. “Threat to the unique character, cultural heritage, or national interest of the Russian Federation” no longer justified refusal to register an organization, a few strict policies about registration were lifted, and the number of mandatory audits was lessened.
In November of 2012, Putin passed another series of amendments known as the “Foreign Agent Law” requiring organizations engaging in political activities and receiving foreign funding to register with the Ministry of Justice as foreign agents, even if the foreign funding does not go toward political activities. The definition of “political activities” is vague, and the Ministry of Justice is the sole determinant of which organizations are engaging in political activity. Any act of an NGO that is deemed by the state as a critique of the state can be considered political.
On November 15, 2017, Russia extended the Foreign Agent Law to include media. This legislation was apparently in response to the United States requiring Russia Today (RT) to register as a foreign agent under America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Media organizations and instant messengers do not need to be based in Russia to qualify for registration.
The evolution of foreign agent legislation reflects Russia’s historic NGO repression but also increased restrictions on civil society. The Foreign Agent Law, although established in the name of national security, has multiple key elements that restrict human rights.
First, the term “foreign agent” can only be interpreted as “spy” or “traitor” in Russian and alludes to Soviet-era spying and underground foreign meddling in Russian affairs. The term is inherently smearing, and many NGOs have restructured their work and self-censored themselves rather than face the blight to their reputation by being branded foreign agents. The NGOs that have not restructured themselves face the full brunt of the stigma alongside the legalities of being registered as a foreign agent: unlimited and unscheduled audits, registration of political activity prior to action, labeling all media as products of foreign agents, and presence in court. Punishments for not registering or failing to comply with the Foreign Agent Law include fines or legal responsibility for financing terrorism.
Historically, Russian NGOs have lacked domestic funding and relied heavily on foreign funding, especially from Western countries. By cutting off this outside source, the Russian government forces many NGOs to comply with the government’s will and standards to qualify for government funding such as the Presidential Grants Foundation (PGF).
Reaction of Human Right Defenders
Naturally, NGOs have resisted the Foreign Agent Law in fear for their reputations and their work. Despite government pressure, the majority of NGOs refused to register voluntarily until the law was changed in 2014 so that the Ministry of Justice could register organizations without their consent. In 2013, Russia’s then Ombudsman and Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin challenged the Foreign Agent Law in the Russian Constitutional Court, but the court upheld the law and claimed that there were no legal grounds that proved “foreign agent” had a negative connotation and therefore registration did not discredit the organization. Many human rights groups also protested against the law, but little legal progress has been made. Sergei Nikitin, the Director of Amnesty International Russia, argued that, “The foreign agents law was designed to shackle, stigmatise, and ultimately silence critical NGOs. It has caught a wide range of NGOs in its net and come[sic] at considerable cost to individual rights and the quality of civic discussion in Russia. The ultimate losers are not just NGOs but Russian society,”
The influence of Russia’s crackdown on civil liberties and foreign agents has spread beyond Russia’s borders. Other countries such as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Egypt, Bosnia, Israel, Ethiopia, Uganda, China, Ethiopia, and Venezuela have implemented their own versions of Russia’s foreign agent law, restricting free speech and free association in the name of national security. The success of this Russian model to suppress domestic and international opposition has tempted other countries, especially other semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes, to adopt similar policies at the cost of individual rights and human rights.
International human rights organizations and countries that support universal human rights must pressure Russia and other countries with similar foreign agent laws to repeal them to allow “the right to the freedom of opinion and expression” protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The international community and Russians should recognize the sacrifice of members of NGOs who protect the rights of individuals and are listed as foreign agents in Russia and beyond. NGOs play key roles in civil society and improving human rights, including holding governments accountable for human rights violations.