ZOiS Spotlight 7/2021

The Tightening Grip of Russia’s Foreign Agent Laws

by Tatiana Golova 24/02/2021
St. Petersburg, 31 January 2021. Police officer is filmed holding a demonstrator. Journalistic reporting on protests in Russia will be restricted in the future. imago images / ITAR TASS

From 1 March 2021, any politically active person in Russia can face administrative or criminal prosecution for failing to register as an ‘individual acting as a foreign agent’ or submit regular paperwork on their activities to the authorities. A so-called foreign agent is defined as a person or a formal or informal organisation that both engages in political activities and receives support from abroad. Both of these criteria have the potential to ensnare large numbers of people. Due to the broad interpretation of political activities in Russian judicial practice and legislation, the penalties for uncooperative foreign agents could affect virtually anyone involved in social, political, or environmental activities, victims’ advocacy, or human rights protection. The criterion of foreign support has not been sufficiently defined, either: it is not restricted to money and does not necessarily relate to the activities in question. It could therefore be easily claimed to exist in almost all cases.

So-called foreign agents are not allowed to take up positions in local governments or state bodies or stand for election. People on the foreign agents register have to state this during all their public activities, as do any mass media outlets that mention them. The newly introduced criminal penalties for flouting these measures range from a large fine to up to five years’ imprisonment.

These are the latest additions so far to a series of measures passed by the Russian parliament at the end of 2020. That package introduced new opportunities for repression and increased government control over small-scale protests, social media communications, the mass media, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). State actors said the restrictions were justified by the needs of national security and ‘Western examples’. Critics argue that the measures are designed to clear the political field for future elections. In particular, the restrictions target informalisation, which is a crucial tool for many independent political and social activists.

Informalisation under the spotlight

Russia’s original legislation on foreign agents was introduced in 2012 and targeted NGOs. The obligation for an organisation to clearly declare its foreign agent status in all public activities and publications obviously hinders its ability to collaborate with any public or publicly funded bodies. Meanwhile, the additional paperwork and hefty penalties for breaching the obligations have substantially worsened the working conditions of organisations in fields such as human rights and electoral monitoring. The reputations of these organisations have suffered badly, as potential partners do not want to be tainted by association.

Dozens of NGOs have challenged their stigmatisation as so-called foreign agents in the courts—and almost all have lost. Another survival strategy has consisted of organisations giving up their formal legal status and operating informally without registering with the authorities. This strategy comes at a cost: informal groups do not have access to formal grant procedures and face specific challenges to coordinate and finance their actions internally. Informal working also restricts the development of large formal coalitions and transnational cooperation. On the plus side, informal structures were less susceptible to repression in the past, because repressive processes targeting supposed foreign agents were tailored to legal entities.

Informalisation has helped Russian organisations and activists adapt to constrained opportunities. That is why informal networks and individual activism have recently been in the crosshairs of Russia’s foreign agents legislation. This affects organisations such as Golos, which has been conducting independent electoral observations even after giving up its formal legal status.

Formal versus informal journalism

Shortly after the foreign agent laws were amended in 2020, the Russian Ministry of Justice for the first time designated several individuals as ‘mass media acting as foreign agents’, using another similar law. New and potentially repressive legislation on the mass media was introduced, and while it does not adopt the foreign agents discourse, it likewise targets informalisation in the media sphere.

Hybrid media products, web-only media projects, blogs, and private messaging services have flourished and changed power relations worldwide. But digital media have been especially important to Russia’s NGOs, activists, and opposition because the traditional media barely function as a critical force in the country. Aside from opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s enormously popular videos, YouTube, Telegram, and, more recently, TikTok have been used to provide alternative views of Russia’s social and political problems as well as to mobilise protesters and report on these events. This activity is the focus of the new media restrictions.

Journalists who report on protests will now have to wear a specific form of identification tag. These tags will be available only to journalists who work for a registered mass media outlet as employees or contractors. This excludes various forms of less formal journalism, such as freelance work or blogging, as well as the documentation of protests by human rights activists, social researchers, and participants. It is highly likely, therefore, that anyone caught filming during protests without an identification tag will be subjected to police repression.

At the same time, wearing a journalist tag without the proper authorisation will also become an offence. The outlawing of informal, mostly digital reporting is flanked by broader restrictions on journalism, as journalists will have to follow the same rules as protesters, such as leaving an area when ordered to do so by the police.

Selective enforcement and self-enforcement

With the latest changes to Russia’s foreign agent laws, this legislation can now be used to justify repression of any kind of activism that does not comply with the state’s official narrative. The legislation’s broad definitions will make controlling all potential foreign agents impossible, so selective enforcement seems likely. That is hardly a relief for the law’s possible targets, because people will not know how to stay safe and repression of the few could unsettle the many.

Rule by force is costly and does not function without rule by fear, which allows the authorities to save time and effort. At the core of Russia’s new legislation on foreign agents is the idea that the state’s work will do itself: supposed foreign agents must denounce themselves before being identified by the authorities.

Tatiana Golova is a sociologist and a researcher at ZOiS.