18 November 2020
By Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Information and Analytical Centre, member of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize
The substantial bill on foreign agents that has been submitted to the Russian parliament is quite sensational.
It is important to note that this bill does not refer simply to the NGOs that have traditionally been labelled as “foreign agents,” and whose rights it is proposed further to restrict by means of another, parallel bill – even though everyone ranging up to the President has insisted that that there will be no infringement of these rights.
Because of the vague definition of “political activity” that the bill provides, the bill obliges virtually any informal social group painstakingly to register itself with the authorities if it intends to do anything at all socially and publicly significant—if, for example, the group receives as much as five kopecks from an aunt in Bobruisk [a city in eastern Belarus]. The requirements are stricter even than those shamefully imposed on religious groups. They include the demand that every member of an organisation who makes any public remark on any socially significant matter must also include a statement that they are a “foreign agent.”
This last, slightly crazy, obligation imposed on each and every staff member of an NGO is of course the same as that imposed on members of ordinary NGOs that have been designated as foreign agents.
Finally, anybody who publicly engages in any socially significant activity can be designated a foreign agent if this activity can be shown to connect them with anything or anyone foreign or international. Such a person is therefore required to describe themself as a foreign agent in all circumstances and to report regularly to the authorities; they are also forbidden to hold any government post, even at municipal level.
One can imagine law-enforcement getting involved here… Traditionally, it has not acted systematically, but it may come to play a large and influential role.
SOVA Centre: A bill toughening the legislation on “foreign agents” has been submitted to the State Duma. The bill states that the status of “foreign agent” will be assigned both to physical persons  and to unregistered public associations. Non-profit organizations, associations, their leaders and members and also physical persons without any such association will be required to use the designation “foreign agent” not only in publications, but also in appeals to state bodies and when reporting information about their activities in the mass media. Another bill will amend the electoral legislation and require candidates running for office to describe themselves as a “foreign agent” or to state that they are affiliated with a “foreign agent.” Criminal liability will also be introduced for repeated violations of the law on “foreign agents.”
On 18 November 2020, a group of eleven State Duma deputies led by Vasily Piskarev and four senators led by Andrei Klimov submitted to the lower house of parliament a draft law “On amending certain legislative acts of the Russian Federation and establishing additional measures to counter threats to national security.” This bill would toughen the existing legislation on “foreign agents.”
Several of the amendments proposed in the bill relate to the existing law “On non-profit organizations.” It is proposed to broaden the definition of “foreign sources” from which “foreign agents” receive “financial resources and [or] other property” (at present this reads “financial resources and other property”) to include not only foreign and Russian legal entities and foreign citizens, but also Russian citizens. It is also made clear that Russian legal entities and physical persons need not receive these funding themselves, but may simply act as intermediaries transferring funds from a foreign source or from a member of a Russian NGO that is authorised by the said foreign source and that engages in political activity.
The list of situations in which “foreign agent” NGOs will have to use this description of their status is being significantly expanded. The current version of the law states that an indication of an organisation’s status as a “foreign agent” must be included in materials published and distributed by it, including through the media and on the internet. The bill provides that materials distributed by a “foreign agent” NGO to state agencies, local government bodies, educational and “other” organisations, as well as “information about the organisation’s activities” distributed in the media, will also be subject to labelling.
Moreover, founders, members, participants, managers, employees and members of bodies belonging to “foreign agent” NGOs will also have to use the same labelling in all of the above situations, if the materials are produced or distributed by them “in the course of political activities”.
Grounds for unscheduled inspections of any NGO are also being expanded: it is proposed to add cases of information “about actions that do not correspond to the statutory goals and objectives of [an NGO’s] activities” being revealed in the course of “control measures without interaction” with the NGO itself to reports on signs of extremism in an NGO’s activities. Such checks are to start immediately following notification of the prosecutor’s office. At the same time, heads of Ministry of Justice bodies will be able to extend the terms of inspections of NGOs to 45 days if they require interdepartmental co-operation, complex and lengthy research, expertise and investigations. In addition, it is proposed to oblige all NGOs to report on the personnel not only of governing bodies, but on all employees to the Ministry of Justice. It is also specified that the Ministry of Justice is obliged to publish the register of “foreign agent” NGOs on its website. In addition, according to the proposed amendment to the law “On the basis of public monitoring in the Russian Federation”, “foreign agent” NGOs will not be able to nominate candidates for public councils of federal ministries.
According to the proposed amendments to the law “On public associations”, public associations may be recognised as “foreign agents” if they operate without acquiring the rights of a legal entity, or if they participate or intend to participate in political activities while receiving foreign funding. Like NGOs, they will have to notify the Ministry of Justice of this. The Ministry, in turn, is to maintain a separate register of such public associations that “perform the functions of a foreign agent”. As in the case of NGOs, such public associations will be required to accordingly label materials and information about their activities that are produced, publicly distributed and sent to authorities and the media. The same applies to materials distributed by a founder, member, participant or head of the association when carrying out political activities.
The law “On sanctions against persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms and the rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation” proposes to introduce provisions according to which individuals can be recognised as persons “performing the functions of a foreign agent”, regardless of their citizenship. This status may be assigned to an individual on the basis of their exercising of a political activity on Russian territory in the interests of a foreign body (namely a foreign state, an international or foreign organisation, or foreign citizens), as defined by the law “On non-profit organisations”. The bill also proposes establishing a targeted collection of information in the field of the Russian Federation’s military or military-technical activities, which a foreign source could use “against the security of the Russian Federation”, as another basis for receiving “foreign agent” status, in the absence of evidence of crimes under Article 275 (state treason) and Article 276 of the criminal code (espionage). According to the authors of the bill, such gathering of information should be linked to material or organisational and methodological assistance from a foreign source or Russian citizens acting in its interests. The list of information which could be used against the security of the Russian Federation is to be determined by the FSB.
An individual whose activities fall under these criteria will have to submit to the Ministry of Justice an application for inclusion in the list of ‘foreign agent’ natural persons, which will be published on the department’s website. Foreign citizens arriving in Russia are required to submit a letter of intent to engage in activities ‘related to performing the functions of a foreign agent’ before entering the country. According to the bill, the following are exempt from the obligation to submit such a statement: diplomatic workers, representatives of foreign states and international organizations who are in Russia by official invitation; accredited foreign journalists, including those recognized by the media as ‘foreign agents’; other persons by decision of the Ministry of Justice, adopted in agreement with the FSB, FSO, SVR and Ministry of Defence. However, in the event that a foreign journalist is engaged in activities ‘related to performing the functions of a foreign agent, incompatible with their professional activities as a journalist,’ the Ministry of Justice will add them to the list of ‘foreign agent’ natural persons.
The bill stipulates that everyone who receives ‘foreign agent’ natural person status will have to submit a biannual report to the Ministry of Justice on their activities ‘related to performing the functions of a foreign agent, including information related to the purpose of spending funds and using other material assistance received from foreign sources, and related to their actual expenditure and use’. At the same time, as with NGOs and unregistered organizations, they will have to indicate their status in the materials produced and distributed, as well as in appeals to state and local autonomous government bodies, public associations, and educational organizations, if they are associated with performing the ‘function of a foreign agent’. Furthermore, according to the bill, ‘foreign agent’ natural persons will be ineligible for appointment to positions in government agencies and local autonomous government bodies. The law ‘On state secrets’ also proposes adding a directive that ‘foreign agent’ natural persons may be denied access to state secrets. In the event that these individuals discontinue activities ‘related to performing the functions of a foreign agent,’ they may be excluded from the list by submitting a petition to the Ministry of Justice. The latter is given a period of 60 days to consider this.
The law On mass media’ also proposes the prohibition of any dissemination of information about ‘foreign agent’ non-profit organizations, public associations and natural persons – and their materials – in media and on the Internet, that does not also specify that these are performing the ‘functions of a foreign agent’.
A separate bill, also introduced in the State Duma, makes changes to the law ‘On basic guarantees of electoral rights and the right of citizens of the Russian Federation to participate in a referendum’. It calls for the introduction of two new concepts: ‘a candidate affiliated with a person performing functions of a foreign agent’ and ‘a candidate who is a natural person performing functions of a foreign agent’. The first refers to any candidate who, for two years before the scheduling of elections, worked at a ‘foreign agent’ NGO, unregistered public association or media outlet, or received funds or material assistance from them while engaged in political activities as defined by the law ‘On non-profit organizations’. Information on whether a candidate has such a status must be communicated to voters both by the election commission and by the candidate themselves in signature sheets and in all forms of information sharing, including debates. Campaign materials, according to the bill, must indicate this status, which must take up at least 15 percent of the campaign material’s area (volume). In addition, there are plans to expand the ban on participation in election campaigns – already in force for NGO ‘foreign agents’ – to ‘foreign agent’ unregistered public associations and media.
In addition, as the head of the Federation Council commission on foreign interference, Andrei Klimov, stated the day before, there is a proposal to introduce administrative liability for violating the labelling rules for all of the above types of ‘foreign agents,’ ‘as well as criminal liability for non-compliance by foreign agents with the requirements established by law after they have been held accountable in accordance with the Administrative Code.’ (The corresponding article of the Criminal Code should receive number 330.1). These bills have not yet been introduced in the State Duma.
We believe that the proposed legislative changes are evidence of a growing attack on free speech in Russia.
Footnote 1: A “physical person” (also known as a “natural person”) is an individual human being, as opposed to a “legal person” (the latter denoting a public or private business entity or non-governmental organisation). Source: Wikipedia
Bill No. 1057914-7 ‘On the introduction of amendments to certain legislative acts of the Russian Federation regarding the establishment of additional measures to counter threats to national security’ // SOZD GAS ‘Lawmaking’. 18 November 2020.
Bill No. 1057892-7 ‘On the introduction of amendments to the Federal Law “On basic guarantees of electoral rights and the right to participate in a referendum of citizens of the Russian Federation”’// SOZD GAS ‘Lawmaking’. 18 November 2020.
The Federation Council Commission proposes to enshrine the concept of ‘foreign agent candidate’ in election legislation // TASS. 17 November 2020.