A new expanded law on “foreign agents” in Russia comes into force Thursday, signifying an intensifying crackdown on free speech and opposition under President Vladimir Putin that has accelerated as his fortunes in Ukraine have deteriorated.
It’s also further evidence of Russia’s determination to root out what it sees as Western liberal values, coming in the same week Russia’s parliament sent a bill expanding a ban on what it calls “propaganda” of LGBT issues to Putin’s desk.
The 2012 law on Foreign Agents, passed after a wave of public protests against Putin’s return to the presidency, required organizations engaging in political activity and receiving funding from abroad to register as foreign agents and adhere to draconian rules and restrictions.
That law has been gradually updated since then, forming the backbone of an ever tighter stranglehold on civil society in Russia over the past decade. From Thursday that definition is expanded to include not only individuals or organizations receiving funding from abroad but those who have “received support and (or) is under foreign influence”.
Further reading of the law does not offer much in terms of clarification. “Support” by foreign sources is defined not just as financial but “organizational and methodological, or scientific and technical help.” “Influence” can be read, according to the law, as “exacting an influence on an individual by coercion, persuasion or other means.”
This is the point, says Konstantin Von Eggert, a freelance Russian journalist now living in Lithuania. Laws like this that make up what he calls “Putin’s repressive system” are designed to be broad and vague, and selectively applied so as to “scare and paralyze.”
“Once the laws are applied across the board you might fairly quickly figure out how to game the system,” he said. If the laws are “applied in a haphazard way or readily, you don’t know.”
Andrey Soldatov, another exiled Russian journalist, known for his investigative work on the Russian security services, says this is part of a crackdown directly correlated to Russia’s defeats in Ukraine. “You cannot provide a really good narrative, an explanation why Kherson was given up,” he said. “The best way to do that is to add an element of fear.”
The further erosion of free speech and democratic freedoms in Russia has gone hand in hand with what the Kremlin euphemistically refers to as the “special military operation” in Ukraine almost since the start. 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 shut down and thousands arrested.
In early March, the government adopted 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 temporarily suspended broadcasting from Russia.
The defense of “traditional values” – part of Putin’s case for launching the war in Ukraine – has also proved another pretext for greater repression at home since the invasion. In his speech on February 24th, the day the war started, Putin claimed the US and the West “sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us.”
This week the speaker of Russia’s lower house, the State Duma, said a new law expanding a 2013 ban on “propaganda” of LGBT issues, pedophilia and gender reassignment to both minors and adults would “protect our children, the future of our country from the darkness spread by the United States and European states.” Human Rights Watch warned the law would have an “even more stifling effect on freedom of expression, well-being and security.”
The expanded foreign agent law is now an even more powerful tool in Russia’s legislative tool box to bring its population in line with its goals. Any person or organization designated a foreign agent (a phrase that carries clear Soviet undertones in Russia) will be banned from many teaching jobs, won’t be able to organize public events, or receive state funding for projects.
The law also bans any material published by a foreign agent to be distributed to minors. It will be required to be marked with an 18+ stamp and sold in a sealed opaque package according to the State Duma.
And the Russian Justice ministry will now publish the personal data of designated foreign agents according to state media – not just names, and dates of birth but taxpayer identification numbers and individual insurance account numbers (similar to a social security number).
Soldatov says the expanded law may be designed to target employees of state institutions. “If you are put on this list it’s not a big problem if you’re just an ordinary guy,” he says. But if you’re a “doctor or a teacher or a professor at some university that’s where you find yourself in some really big trouble, because you lose your job and its really really hard.”
Von Eggert though believes the decision to expand the law now (it was signed by Putin in July) is telling in its futility. “They missed the moment and those who were really active and that posed any danger, they are either already jailed or they are abroad. So who are they threatening? I don’t know.”
With Russia’s efforts in Ukraine faltering, he sees the law as “a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength.”