My new Russia Magazine column, “Happy Birthday Foreign Agents!” Given that Ukraine is all the rage, I managed to make some Ukrainian connection.
“The events in Ukraine are more like a riot than a revolution,” says Vladimir Putin about the protests that have thrown his western neighbor into political crisis. “What is happening now suggests that these are, apparently, well-prepared actions, and, in my opinion, these actions have not been prepared for today’s events, they have been prepared for the presidential campaign in the spring of 2015.” Veiled in these comments is the suggestion that the protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich were orchestrated from abroad. The idea that political machinations are the fruits of foreign plotting is tried and true Putin. He thought similar the last time Ukraine was rocked by revolution nine years ago. When protests hit his own country in the winter of 2011-2012, he reiterated the belief that foreigners—particularly the US State Department—were behind them. A political chill descended upon Russia in the aftermath of each. Pushback against the Orange menace and the Russian protests are hallmarks of Putin’s second and third presidential term.
If the present political chill in Russia will become a full blown political freeze in the wake of Ukraine remains to be seen. It all depends, I think, on whether Yanokovich survives and in what shape. Either way, Putin already has a number of tools at his disposal to further tighten the screws on Russian civil society. Principle among them is the infamous foreign agents law. The law had its one year birthday two weeks ago. So given the current situation in Ukraine and what it might portend for Russia, I thought I’d give an update on its impact on Russian civil society.
“On Introducing Changes to Certain Pieces of Legislation of the Russian Federation as Regards Regulation of Activities of Non-Commercial Organizations Performing the Functions of Foreign Agents,” or simply the foreign agents law, was enacted on 21 November 2012. In a nutshell, the law requires any non-governmental organizations operating in the Russian Federation to register as a “foreign agent” if it receives funding from abroad and engages in “political” activities. Organizations deemed “foreign agents” that fail to register are subject to fines (up to 500,000 rubles or $16000 for organizations and 300,000 rubles or about $10,000 for individuals) and, if they continue to resist, closure. As Putin likes to point out, other countries have similar laws, including his favorite example, the United States, which enacted the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938. I leave the reader to decide the virtuousness of both the American and Russian version. I only want to note that in Russia the label “foreign agent” has a sordid history that recalls the dark days of Stalinism. The term essentially demonizes these organizations as spies and traitors. For this reason, Russian NGOs roundly reject the idea that grants from abroad makes them an agent of a foreign government. To date, not a single organization has complied with the law.