Russia lawmakers push to punish individuals, not just organizations, with ‘foreign agent’ label

NGO Grafitti In November 2012, the day the 'foreign agents' law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, 'Foreign Agent!' and 'Love USA' on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. (Photo: Yulia Klimova/Memorial)

A group of Russian legislators have suggested expanding the country’s law on NGOs so that individuals, not just organizations, can be labeled as foreign agents, recent reports from Ekho Moskvy independent radio indicate.

The proposed amendment targets owners of media organizations that are deemed foreign agents by the Justice Ministry’s vague and expansive law blacklisting non-profit groups that receive even small amounts of funding from abroad.

The lawmakers would open up the foreign agent label to Russian owners of newspapers, radio and television broadcasting services, as well as internet publishers that receive foreign money, subjecting them to the same fines and audits that have plagued Russia’s non-profit sector since the law was adopted in 2012.

The law would stipulate that these Russian citizens be identified in the company roster of media organizations as foreign agents, Ekho Moskvy reported, adding that lawmakers expect a vote on their amendment sometime this month.

The proposed amendments are part of a pushback against a November ruling in the United States that forced the Kremlin’s controversial English-language broadcaster RT, and its radio companion Sputnik, to register as foreign agents in that country following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Russia’s Justice Ministry immediately fired back by blacklisting nine US news outlets as “foreign agent” media, at the same time as the parliament passed a law allowing the government to block the websites of so-called “undesirable organizations.”

Among the foreign agent media groups named by the Ministry are Voice of America, Current Time TV, Radio Free Europe, and several of its local service broadcasting in Siberia and the Caucasus.

As ill-conceived as the US decision blacklisting the RT network may prove to be, a court based its ruling on an antiquated 1938 law targeting Nazi propaganda – which, ironically, is the same law the Kremlin cited in its initial efforts to justify its own foreign agent law to international critics.

Since its inception, the Russian law has forced the closure of over one third of Russia’s nonprofit organizations receiving even small portions of their budgets from foreign donors, and its brunt has fallen disproportionately on human rights and environmental NGOs, particularly those working to foster international cooperation.

Among those targeted by the law and eventually shuttered were Bellona Murmansk and the Environmental Rights Center Bellona – both of which spent the better part of two decades drawing international funding to crises like Russia’s dangerous backlog of Soviet Era submarines, hundreds of which sat in a state of dilapidated neglect loaded spent nuclear fuel. All of these submarines have now been decommissioned mostly with foreign funding.

Both groups were likewise instrumental in focusing tens of millions of dollars in funding from Norway and more than a half dozen other foreign governments on cleaning up Andreyeva Bay, a derelict nuclear submarine maintenance yard in the Arctic, which over the course of three decades amassed 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies. These assemblies, after decades of cooperative efforts by Bellona, are now on their way to secure storage, their road to safety paved by foreign funding.

But the foreign agent law continues to be a point of pride for President Vladimir Putin, who enacted the law following unprecedented street protests throughout Russia against his rule in 2011 – protests he said, without evidence, were fomented by the US State Department. In a November speech, Putin boasted the the number of nonprofit organizations operating within Russia that receive foreign funding had fallen sharply.

Among the public at large, the foreign agent law has had the desired affect. While opinion polls conducted last year show that not many Russians are familiar with the law itself, they overwhelmingly associate the term “foreign agent” with espionage.

The Levada Center, which conducted that poll, was itself named a foreign agent by the Justice Ministry after publishing another poll showing sliding support among Russian voters for the Kremlin-backed Parliamentary party United Russia.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no