An expansive new law on “foreign agents” in Russia took effect on Thursday, signaling an intensification of a crackdown on free speech and dissent under President Vladimir Putin that has accelerated as his fortunes have deteriorated in Ukraine.
It is also further evidence of Russia’s determination to eradicate what it views as Western liberal values, in the same week that the Russian Parliament sent a bill extending a ban on what it calls “propaganda” of LGBT issues in Putin’s office.
The 2012 Foreign Agents Law, passed after a wave of public protests against Putin’s return to the presidency, required organizations that conduct political activities and receive funding from abroad to register as foreign agents and abide by strict rules and restrictions.
This law has been gradually updated since then, forming the backbone of stricter restrictions on civil society in Russia over the past decade. As of Thursday, that file has been expanded to include not only individuals or organizations that receive funding from abroad, but also those who have “received support and/or are subject to foreign influence.”
A close reading of the law doesn’t add much in terms of clarification. “Support” is defined by foreign sources not only as financial assistance but as “organizational and methodological or scientific and technical assistance”. “Influence,” according to the law, can be interpreted as “imposing an influence on an individual by coercion, persuasion, or any other means.”
That’s the point, says Konstantin von Eggert, a Russian freelance journalist now living in Lithuania. Laws like this that make up what he calls “Putin’s repressive regime” are designed to be broad and vague, and applied selectively in order to “intimidate and paralyze.”
He said, “Once the laws are applied across the board, you can learn how to game the system very quickly. If the laws are applied haphazardly or easily, you don’t know.
Andrei Soldatov, another exiled Russian journalist known for his investigative work in the Russian security services, says this is part of a crackdown directly linked to Russia’s defeats in Ukraine. “You can’t give a very good account, explaining why Kherson was abandoned,” he says. The best way to do this is to add an element of fear. »
The increasing erosion of free speech and democratic liberties in Russia has gone hand in hand with what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine almost from the start. Days after the invasion, Russia restricted access to Facebook, some Western news websites, and independent media in the country. Peaceful protests soon ceased and thousands were arrested.
In early March, the government passed a law criminalizing the publication of what it called “deliberately false” information about Russia’s armed forces. The maximum penalty is 15 years imprisonment. CNN and many other Western news outlets have stopped broadcasting from Russia.
Defending “traditional values” – part of Putin’s arguments for going to war in Ukraine – has also proven another pretext for further repression in the country since the invasion. In his speech on February 24, the day the war began, Putin claimed that the United States and the West “seek to destroy our traditional values and impose on us their own false values that would weaken us.”
This week, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said a new law expands a 2013 ban on “propaganda” of LGBTQ issues to children and reallocates sex to minors as adults. Our children, the future of our country, will be protected from the darkness spread by the United States and European countries. Human Rights Watch warned that the law would have a “further stifling effect on freedom of expression, welfare and security”. »
The expanded foreign agents law is now a more powerful tool in Russia’s legislative toolkit to align its people with its goals. A person or organization designated as a foreign agent (a phrase with obvious Soviet overtones in Russia) would be barred from many teaching positions, unable to hold public events or receive state funding for projects.
The law also prohibits the distribution of any material published by a foreign agent to minors. It must be marked with an 18+ seal and sold in sealed, opaque packaging according to Still Status.
And Russia’s Justice Ministry will now publish the personal data of designated foreign officials 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 could be designed to target employees of state institutions. “If you were on this list, it wouldn’t be a problem if you were just a regular guy,” he says. But if you’re “a doctor or a teacher or a professor at a university, that’s where you have a really big problem, because you lose your job and that’s really hard.”
Although von Eggert believes that the decision to extend the law now (which Putin signed in July) shows its futility. They missed the moment and those who were already active and posed a danger were either already imprisoned or released. So who are they threatening? I do not know. »
As Russia’s efforts in Ukraine falter, he sees the law as “a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength.”