Sergei Lukashevsky: A new level of unfreedom. Bills have been introduced to the State Duma that will virtually outlaw civic activity in Russia.

3 December 2020

By Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

Having begun to trample down free political, media and educational projects, officials cannot stop until they have eliminated all of them.  New repressive bills will restrict education, give the authorities the power to halt the activities of “foreign agents,” and allow anyone of whom the political regime does not approve to be branded as a “foreign agent.”

In November, a large package of bills containing amendments to existing legislation was submitted to the State Duma.  The bills aim to regulate the activities of NGOs and public associations, the organisation and holding of public events, and the activity of the mass media and educational organisations; they will also put pressure on those allegedly guilty of violating the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.

Preparations to adopt these repressive laws is in full swing.  At least twelve bills – the aim of which is to tighten control over public life – are moving rapidly toward approval by parliament.  The supposed reason for the legislation is the need to fight against foreign interference.  The promoters of these bills are parliamentary deputies and senators from the Commission on Foreign Interference in the Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation.  The Commission has been working since Summer 2019, and the time has now apparently come to present the results of its work.

If the bills are adopted in their current form, Russian society will move to a qualitatively new level of unfreedom.

There are too many prohibitions to list them all here.  These are those that seem to me to be most important.

The authorities will have the right to prohibit an NGO that is classified as a “foreign agent” from carrying out any programmes, without providing any reason for the prohibition.  NGOs will be required to inform the authorities of their programmes well in advance.

NGOs will be required to include in all the documents that they issue notifications about their status of “foreign agent” (the only exception being reports to the Ministry of Justice).  This will apply to everyone who is involved in the activities of the organisation.  This relates, of course, to participation “in the realm of political activity.”  But, as we already know, that means taking part not merely in elections, but in virtually any public activity.

Eight years ago, when the law on “foreign agents” was adopted, it was already clear that, regardless of what the authorities asserted, the introduction of this status would lead to the emergence of a special legal regime (a “legal ghetto”).  It was also clear that it would subsequently become possible to introduce more and more new restrictions on those who fell into this category.  Over all these years, this is what happened: “foreign agents” were forbidden to nominate members of the Public Oversight Commissions [which monitor prison conditions – translator], to obtain the status of “socially oriented NGOs,” or to nominate election observers.  Now we have reached the direct regulation of their activities.  Might it perhaps be easier to introduce a procedure for approving foreign funding or to prohibit it outright?

This will not happen for one simple reason.  In 2018, organisations classified as “foreign agents” received 759 million roubles from abroad, while NGOs in total received 85 billion rubles.

That is, NGOs classified as foreign agents account for less than 1% of all foreign funding received by NGOs.

Considering that not only human rights defenders are registered as foreign agents, but also organisations that provide aid to patients with diabetes, it is not worth thinking that some “political NGO” will escape the watchful eye of the Ministry of Justice.

What this money is and who gets it is probably worthy of a special investigation in itself. But it is obvious that for someone, it is an important and convenient channel for importing money into the country.

New regulations for “foreign agent” NGOs are not just additional burdens and difficulties in their work. Authorities will be able to present them with a choice: to stop any activity officials object to, or to disband. Both options constitute the virtual destruction of NGOs. Such a prospect would be a tragedy for the country.

Entire fields of human rights advocacy may be “cleaned up”. But “foreign agent” NGOs have held this status for several years. They have chosen their path and are prepared for the worst — they already expected that the situation could get worse. It will be worse for those who are not prepared for this development of the situation.

Let’s say you are a group of citizens who do not want to register an NGO. You don’t need a stamp, invoice, or grant. Nothing, but you could still be made a “foreign agent”. In this case, how is it determined that you receive assistance (not necessarily money) from abroad? At the discretion of law enforcement agencies, ie as widely as possible. Let’s say one of the group members received money under a contract for their work in a company that has a foreign beneficiary who owns more than 25 per cent of the shares. And then your group organised a picket about something socially important. There is foreign money, and there is political activity — and there you have it, congratulations: your group is a “foreign agent”. Now you have to submit reports to the Ministry of Justice twice a year and put labels everywhere.

Or imagine that you are not a group, but a concerned individual. All of the above applies to you. And it’s enough to receive not even money from abroad, but “organisational and methodological assistance”. You took part in a workshop? Please take a label.

I will specifically note that, unlike the American FARA law (where there are also “foreign agent” individuals), the Russian legislator deliberately refuses to link specific money to specific activities. Money and any other resources may have nothing to do with the topic on which you have decided to speak out publicly.

It only matters that the funds (reflected in your income) can be considered foreign, and your activity political. As the FBK’s experience [the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Aleksei Navalny – ed] has shown, it is easy to substitute a person or organisation by making a transfer from abroad to their address: the recipient’s consent is not required for this.

Starting from February 2020, citizens can be outed as “foreign agents” in the press. So far, no one has received this status, but in May the Ministry of Justice issued a special order. Apparently, it will start working soon. It will also be possible to recognise candidates for elected positions as “foreign agents”, and the media will have to include this in any mention of all representatives of this large involuntary family.

Meanwhile, the fight against “foreign interference” is just a backdrop of information, which, in my opinion, is intended to set off other, no less destructive innovations of the draft laws.

Now imagine that you are not a “foreign agent”, but you want to organise a large rally. You need to pay for sound, medics to attend, and other expenses. In accordance with one of the draft laws, you must have a single bank account (as in elections), and you can only spend money for the purposes of the rally from this account. Do you want to transfer money to this account?

Meanwhile, the fight against “foreign interference” is just an informational backdrop which, in my view, should serve to highlight other, no less destructive innovations of the bills.

Imagine now that you are not a “foreign agent” but you want to organise a big rally. You need to pay for the sound system, the presence of medics and other expenses. Under one of the bills, you have to have a single account (as for elections), and you can only spend money on the rally from it. Do you want to transfer money to this account?

Please provide your passport data (they may appear with the state in relation to suspicious transactions). Anonymous donations will be prohibited. “Foreign agents” will generally be prohibited from financing any public events. And how can Memorial carry out the “Return of Names” project in a situation like this?

Journalists at rallies will have to wear identifying marks and will be prohibited from any displays of their own political positions. Writing a critical article on the internet about the next constitutional referendum may become an excuse for the Election Commission to accuse you of illegal campaigning and demand to block your blog, or even the entire platform upon which it is published.

Fines for violations of this have increased significantly. 5,000-rouble fines have become 50,000 roubles, while 50,000 rouble fines have become half a million.

There are two more bills attached to this. One would allow the authorities to disable YouTube, Facebook and other foreign platforms if they block Russian content (for example, on the grounds of it being “fake news”). The second gives the authorities the power to regulate educational activities.

How exactly it will be regulated is not clear. But the state will have the right to do so. As in the case of “political activity,” anything can be classed as education. You convey information about yourself or an experience and share knowledge. Any blog can be declared an educational activity and therefore subject to regulation.

Lawmakers are concerned not only with “foreign influence.” They single out “false information about historical, national, religious and cultural traditions.” Any information can be considered unreliable. This has already been tested in the pursuit of those distributing misinformation about coronavirus.

In fact, the authorities may simply consider their official statements to be true, and everything to be false.

Popular political science claims that totalitarianism tries to control all aspects of human life, and an authoritarian regime claims only a political monopoly. Alas it is not so simple. The Russian regime is increasing its control over society and expanding the boundaries of what it considers to be politically significant. In recent years, some of the activity has shifted from media and politics to education. But the authorities are completing their purge of the “political field” and moving on. Now the efforts and labour of thousands of people who, in times of authoritarianism, sought to preserve and develop culture and disseminate knowledge, are under threat.

Those in power act consistently. At first, they strengthen political and ideological control over education. Teachers then create the Free University in order to get rid of “the rule of administration”. And now the state administrator needs to regulate education.

It is the last bill which clearly demonstrates that the political regime, which has taken the path of absorbing everything free and independent, can no longer stop. The process of grinding down society will continue. If you are against it, you are a “foreign agent”. Even if you have not received foreign money, this does not mean that you cannot find it.

Translated by Elizabeth Teague, Elizabeth Rushton, James Lofthouse

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