A new comprehensive law on “foreign agents” in Russia takes effect on Thursday, meaning freedom of speech and opposition under President Vladimir Putin are increasingly repressed as his fortunes in Ukraine deteriorate.
It is also further evidence of Russia’s determination to stamp out what it sees as Western liberal values, as it came the same week that the Russian parliament sent a bill to Putin’s office extending a ban on what it calls “propaganda”. ‘ of LGBT issues.
The 2012 Foreign Agents Act, passed after a wave of public protests against Putin’s return as president, required organizations engaged in political activity and receiving funding from abroad to register as foreign agents and abide by draconian rules and restrictions.
That law has since been gradually updated and is the backbone of an increasingly tight stranglehold on civil society in Russia over the past decade. As of Thursday, that definition will be expanded to include not only individuals or organizations receiving funding from abroad, but also those who “have received support and (or are) under foreign influence.”
A closer reading of the law does not provide much clarity. “Support” from foreign sources is defined not only as financial, but also as “organizational and methodological or scientific and technical assistance”. “Influence” can be read under the law as “the exercise of influence over an individual through coercion, persuasion or other means”.
That’s the point, says Konstantin Von Eggert, a freelance Russian journalist now living in Lithuania. Laws like these that are part of what he calls “Putin’s repressive system” are designed to be broad and vague and applied selectively to “terrify and paralyze.”
“Once the laws are applied across the board, you can figure out how to play the system pretty quickly,” he said. If the laws are “applied haphazardly or easily, you don’t know.”
Andrey Soldatov, another exiled Russian journalist known for his investigative work on Russia’s security services, says this is part of a crackdown directly linked to Russia’s defeats in Ukraine. “You can’t give a really good story, an explanation of why Kherson was given up,” he says. “The best way to do that is to add an element of fear”
The further erosion of freedom of expression and democratic freedoms in Russia has gone hand in hand almost from the start with what the Kremlin euphemistically refers to as the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Within days of the invasion, Russia had restricted access to Facebook, some Western news sites and independent media in the country. Peaceful protests were quickly halted and thousands arrested.
In early March, the government passed a law criminalizing the dissemination of what it called “deliberately false” information about the Russian armed forces. The maximum penalty is 15 years in prison. CNN and several other Western news organizations have temporarily halted broadcasts from Russia.
The defense of ‘traditional values’ – part of Putin’s plea for starting the war in Ukraine – has also turned out to be another pretext for more domestic repression since the invasion. In his speech on February 24, the day the war started, Putin claimed that the US and the West were “trying to destroy our traditional values and force their false values on us that would erode us.”
This week, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said a new law extending a 2013 ban on “propaganda” of LGBT issues, pedophilia and gender reassignment to minors and adults alike, “worn our children and the future of our country would protect against the darkness spreading through the United States and European states.” Human Rights Watch warned that the law would have an “even more stifling effect on freedom of expression, well-being and security”.
The expanded Foreign Agents Act is now an even more powerful tool in Russia’s legislative toolbox to align its people with its goals. Any person or organization designated as a foreign agent (a phrase that has clear Soviet overtones in Russia) will be barred from many teaching jobs, unable to host public events, or receive government funding for projects.
The law also prohibits material published by a foreign agent from being distributed to minors. It must be marked with an 18+ stamp and sold in sealed opaque packaging according to the State Duma.
And the Russian Ministry of Justice will now, according to state media, publish the personal details of designated foreign agents — not just names and dates of birth, but also taxpayer identification numbers and individual insurance account numbers (similar to a social security number).
Soldatov says the comprehensive law may target employees of state institutions. “If you’re on this list, it’s not a big deal as long as you’re just a regular guy,” he says. But if you’re a “doctor or a teacher or a university professor, you’re going to be in big trouble because you’re going to lose your job, and that’s really, really hard.”
However, von Eggert believes the decision to extend the law now (it was signed by Putin in July) speaks volumes about its futility. “They missed the moment and those who were really active and who posed any danger are already in prison or abroad. So who are they threatening? I don’t know.”
As Russia’s efforts in Ukraine falter, he sees the law as “a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength”.