(New York, December 1, 2022) – A new law entered into force in Russia that drastically expands the country’s oppressive and vast “foreign agents” legislation, Human Rights Watch said today. The law is yet another attack on free expression and legitimate civic activism in Russia, and should be repealed.
Adopted in July 2022, the law’s entry into force was delayed until December 1. The law expands the definition of foreign agent to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials' conduct could be designated a foreign agent, so long as the authorities claim they are under "foreign influence." It also excludes "foreign agents" from key aspects of civic life.
“For more than a decade, Russian authorities have used ‘foreign agents’ laws to smear and punish independent voices,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This new tool in the government’s already crowded toolbox makes it even easier to threaten critics, impose harsh restrictions on their legitimate activities and even ban them. It makes thoughtful public discussion about Russia’s past, present, and future simply impossible.”
In Russia, the term “foreign agent” is tantamount “spy” or “traitor.”
The foreign agent designation remains extra-judicial, with no possibility to contest it in court before the designation is made. Those designated must comply with all requirements the day after the authorities add them to the registry, even if they challenge the designation in court.
When the first foreign agent law was adopted in 2012, only registered organizations could be designated “foreign agents.” Successive amendments gradually expanded the application from registered organizations, to media, to other categories of individuals, and to associations without legal entities.
The July law, On Control Over Activities of Entities/Persons Under Foreign Influence, replaces these with a consolidated, simplified, but endlessly broad definition to cover any person – Russian, foreign or stateless; any legal entity, domestic or international; or any group without official registration, if they are considered to have received foreign support and/or are considered to be “under foreign influence” and engaged in activities that Russian authorities would deem to be “political.” It also covers anyone who gathers information about Russia’s military activities or military capabilities, or creates or publicly disseminates information or funds such activities.
The law defines “foreign influence” as “support” from foreign sources that includes funding, technical assistance, or other undefined kinds of assistance and/or open-ended “impact” that constitutes coercion, persuasion, and/or “other means.”
Under this definition, any interaction with a foreign element can potentially be construed as “foreign influence,” Human Rights Watch said. There is also no requirement for any causal link between “foreign influence” and the “political” or other activities for the designation to be applicable.
Foreign sources include not only foreign states or foreign entities, but also international organizations, presumably including such multilateral organizations as the United Nations. The law considers Russian nationals or organizations “foreign sources” if they are respectively considered by the Russian authorities to be under “foreign influence” or to be beneficiaries of “foreign funding.”
To avoid the “foreign agent” label, an organization needs to ensure that no source of any donation was at any stage “tainted” by “foreign influence,” including indirectly.
In defining what constitutes “political” activities of a foreign agent, the law consolidates provisions of earlier iterations of “foreign agent” amendments to include “opinions about public authorities’ decisions or policies.” For example, a journalist who publishes a commentary about urban development plans could fall under the definition of foreign agent activity.
The new law also excludes “foreign agents” from key aspects of public life. These include bans on joining the civil service, participating in electoral commissions, acting in an advisory or expert capacity in official or public environmental impact assessments, in independent anti-corruption expertise of draft laws and by-laws, or electoral campaigns or even donating to such campaigns or to political parties.
Foreign agents are also banned from teaching or engaging in other education activities for minors or producing informational materials for them. They cannot participate in organizing public assemblies or support them through donations and are barred from a number of other activities.
The law expands the notion of a person or entity affiliated with a “foreign agent,” which was first introduced in 2021 in relation to electoral candidates. A person remains “affiliated” up to two years after they sever ties with the foreign agent, even if the “affiliation” started before the law entered into force, and even if the “affiliation” started before the entity was designated a foreign agent.
Since the adoption of the first “foreign agents” law, hundreds of civic groups and activists, including those that work on human rights, the environment, election monitoring, and anti-corruption, have been designated “foreign agents.” A large number of organizations had to close down because they either sought to avoid the toxic label or were unable to bear the hefty fines imposed for not complying with the law’s burdensome, arbitrary labelling and reporting requirements. The authorities used the “foreign agents” law as a legal pretext to close down other groups, such as the human rights group Memorial, one of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
“This new ‘foreign agents’ law is an unrestrained attack on Russian civil society aimed at gagging any public criticism of state policies,” Denber said. “It should be scrapped.”