On September 12, while addressing the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, President Vladimir Putin compared the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act with Russia’s “foreign agent” law, claiming the latter legislation is a much more liberal copy of the American one.
Using the Russian verb gresti, which literally means “to row” but is used as slang for “to grab” or “to punish,” Putin emphatically denied the law is being used to stigmatize and prosecute dissent.
“We’re not [punishing] anyone at all. Who are we [punishing]? This [foreign agent] law has been in force since 1937, I think, or 1938 in the USA, ours is almost a copy, only it’s much more liberal.”
That is false.
The Russian government has been using the “foreign agent” law as a tool for public censure and criminal prosecution of dissent, including as means of suppressing press freedom.
The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch described the Russian foreign agent law as “toxic,” noting that in Russia the term “foreign agent” is tantamount to “spy or traitor.”
“The foreign agent designation remains extra-judicial, with no possibility to contest it in court before the designation is made,” HRW said, adding that it “effectively excludes” those designated as foreign agents “from key aspects of civic life.”
In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights in The Hague ruled that the Russian government’s attaching the foreign agent label to organizations that received funds from foreign entities was “unjustified and prejudicial and liable to have a strong deterrent and stigmatizing effect on their operations. That label colored them as being under foreign control, disregarding the fact that they saw themselves as members of national civil society working to uphold respect for human rights, the rule of law, and human development for the benefit of Russian society and its democratic system.”
The Court also stated that restrictions on the activities of “foreign agent” organizations “extended far outside the realm of politics to undercut their mission as independent monitors of State actors" and “deprived ‘foreign agents’ of the opportunity to expose the potential for graft and corruption that might be present itself to State officials.”
The Russian authorities’ use of the “foreign agent” law for silencing dissent intensified significantly after the Kremlin launched the war in Ukraine in February 2022. Russians are prohibited from calling it a war and from any criticism of the Russian military and government regarding their actions in Ukraine.
Putin’s close ally and the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence, Nikolay Patrushev, bragged on September 15 about having “neutralized” hundreds of foreign influence agents and spies, including through use of the foreign agent law.
As of September 1, the Russian government’s database of “foreign agents” listed 674 organizations and individuals, including news media, rights and environmental watchdogs, and elections monitors.
Number nine in the database is the Moscow-headquartered organization Memorial — the iconic rights and historic justice watchdog, which was nominated for the Nobel Prize for its work documenting Soviet-era repression and bringing justice to its victims. In December 2021, the Russian Supreme Court approved prosecutors’ request to “liquidate” Memorial for “failing to comply with the foreign agent law.”
Also on the list is Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Prize-winning editor of the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who in April 2022 was physically attacked and doused with red paint after being designated a “foreign agent.” The Russian court also “liquidated” his newspaper, which now exists only as the Novaya Gazeta Europe web publication.
There are also schoolteachers, journalists, bloggers, green activists, rights defenders — you name it — on the list. For hundreds of these people, the foreign agent designation has had catastrophic personal consequences — from public shaming to physical attacks to imprisonment or exile.
As for Putin’s comparison with the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 — that is the Kremlin’s evergreen response to international criticism of Russia’s “foreign agent” law and is, to say the least, misleading.
The U.S. Department of Justice states that the purpose of FARA is to “identify foreign influence in the United States and address threats to national security.”
The U.S. Mission to the United Kingdom disputed the Russian narrative in an August 2021 analysis headlined “How Russia’s ‘Foreign Agents Law’ Silences Dissent.”
“While Russian authorities draw false parallels between the 'foreign agents' law they use to suppress dissent and a similar-sounding U.S. law, the two are very different,” it stated.
“The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act simply requires individuals and organizations to disclose their work on behalf of a foreign entity. In Russia, the 'foreign agents' law is one of the government’s major tools to suppress and punish dissent.”
Russia first enacted its “foreign agent” law in 2012 to register non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that received funds from abroad.
In 2019, President Putin broadened the definition of a “foreign agent,” requiring registration to include “any private individual or group who receives any amount of foreign funding, whether from foreign governments, organizations or even citizens, and publishes ‘printed, audio, audio visual or other reports and materials.’”
The definition of “foreign agent” was expanded further in December 2022 to include anyone whom authorities deem to be engaging in activities that involve expressions of public criticism of the Russian government.