23 September 2021
Commentaries on the ‘foreign agent’ law by Moscow Helsinki Group co-chair Vyacheslav Bakhmin (pictured) and Valentin Gefter, director of the Human Rights Institute
Russian human rights activists are skeptical of the idea of reforming the law on “foreign agents,” but they believe that amendments of the legislation’s most odious provisions are still possible.
Let us recall that on 22 September, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko stated that no repeal of the law on “foreign agents” is envisaged for the near future, but legislators are prepared to “adjust” the law’s content and intend to monitor its enforcement in practice. At the same time, according to Matvienko, the law’s framework provides for no discrimination in Russia against NGOs or the media.
Meanwhile, a mass campaign against the odious law is spreading in Russia. In September, more than 200 media, nonprofit, and other organizations published a petition demanding its repeal. Since the law has been in effect, many NGOs and publications that landed on the blacklist have been forced to shut down, and the rest find themselves under constant pressure from oversight agencies.
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: “The fact that this law is discriminatory from beginning to end is clear to any independent person”
Moscow Helsinki Group Co-Chair Vyacheslav Bakhmin believes that inasmuch as the adjustment of the law on foreign agents and the media was undertaken so hastily, without any preparation or logic, then there truly are elements that simply do not interface with each other and are quite preposterous. For this reason alone, in his view, adjustments must be made in the document. “Matvienko, of course, spoke about this against her will,” he added in an interview for Voice of America’s Russian service. “Evidently there is some consensus here in the legislative organs, which more than likely received instructions from the presidential administration that something had to be tweaked. Tweaked without changing the law’s purport, naturally.”
At the same time, the human rights activist thinks, those rough edges being eliminated will not greatly change the law for the better, though they will make it slightly less contradictory.
Commenting on Valentina Matvienko’s words about how the law is not discriminatory in nature, Vyacheslav Bakhmin noted that she should be made a foreign agent, if only for a while. Then, in his opinion, she could appreciate the full “charm” of her new provision. “Actually, she couldn’t have said it any differently, that’s what’s expected with them,” he continued. “But the fact that this law is discriminatory from beginning to end is clear to any independent person. Some media have been forced to shut down because it has become impossible to function. And the idea that a physical person is being turned into media acting as a ‘foreign agent,’ and that they are also forcing it to create a legal person, that is utter nonsense. NGOs have been shut down, too, but the majority have nonetheless quietly learned to work under the weight of this status, extremely onerous though it is, of course.”
So that now, as it seems to the Moscow Helsinki Group co-chair, making certain changes in the odious law is inevitable. At the same time, he thinks the authorities will limit themselves to cosmetic measures.
Valentin Gefter: “It would be better to establish a temporary moratorium on the law’s implementation”
In turn, Valentin Gefter, director of the Human Rights Institute, noted that we must also look to see in what direction they are planning to reform the law. In the human rights activist’s opinion, it needs to be reexamined at minimum at its root. “Even better would be to declare a temporary moratorium on the law’s implementation,” he clarified. “It seems to me, the main thing wrong in the law’s content is the linking of an organization’s foreign financing and what is understood (legislatively) as political activity. Because it is when these two factors are made to coincide (by the law’s enforcers) that the corresponding conclusions are drawn. Here what is required is a radical reexamination; simply updating isn’t appropriate here.”
From Valentin Gefter’s point of view, if legislators are so eager to keep the law in effect, then they need to reexamine fundamentally, first of all, the linkage to financing sources. “And in general, it would be better to concentrate on the law on lobbying, which lies in the Duma like a dead weight,” he thinks. “And when everything gets mixed up in one pile, as in the instance of the law on ‘foreign agents,’ then the legislator, let alone the ordinary citizen, cannot understand what’s what or how an NGO’s ordinary practical activities differ from ‘ill-intentioned’ ones.”
Therefore, at best, the “reform” won’t change anything, and at worst it will aggravate the situation for those who have landed on the register of “foreign agents,” concluded the Human Rights Institute director.
Translated by Marian Schwartz