Civic Forum pinpoints deficiencies in foreign agents law
All-Russia Civic Forum 2021: how the foreign agents law doesn’t work for organisations and movements
29 November 2021
Which weak points do CSOs and activists see in the new law and which amendments is the State Duma already considering?
The law on foreign agents was adopted in Russia in 2012. Since then it has changed: now not only CSOs can be classified as foreign agents, but media, individuals, and social groups too, while new restrictions have been placed on those who receive this status.
Since the law was implemented there have been calls to both repeal and amend it. The latest amendments were introduced following a Duma review in mid-November.
Participants in the All-Russia Civic Forum discussed issues with the law.
Unclear definition of political activity
CSOs may be classified as foreign agents if they receive foreign financing and if they carry out political activity.
“But what is political activity? — asks Olga Sidorovich, director of the Institute of Law and Public Policy (the organisation is classified as a foreign agent) — Where is the line between political and social activity? This is a question the deputies must resolve. Where are the red lines which mustn’t be crossed? There are no such red lines, just as there is no line between political and academic activity”.
The status of an individual and the requirement to create an organisation
Political scientist Yekatarina Shulman believes that from a legal perspective the weakest area of these laws is the status of an individual acting as a foreign agent.
“If you follow the logic of these laws, a person classified as a foreign agent must register a limited liability company, that’s to say that the individual is forced to, I don’t know if I can say forced to conduct business activity, but forced to establish a corporate entity, and out of their own pocket too”.
OVD-Info (placed on the list of foreign agents by the Russian Ministry of Justice), prepared a report on the discriminatory aspects of how the law is enforced. Grigory Okhotin, co-founder of OVD-Info, remarks that organisations and individuals classified as foreign agents are discriminated against, as they are forbidden from certain activities. For example, they can’t stand for election, they can’t receive public funds, and they can’t interact with civil servants.
There is no need to demonstrate the link between financing and activity
The law does not require a demonstrable link between financing and activity, but such a link isn’t always there, notes Yekatarina Shulman.
“There may be a rational element in this law, if we’re trying to restrict opportunities for foreign principals, that is those who give money for the execution of tasks, directly ordering political activity of some sort in Russia. For example, taking part in elections or supporting one candidate or another. If there’s a link between the money and the carrying out of a task, an order, this can be termed foreign financing, influencing the activity of a CSO.
In my opinion, CSOs don’t take orders, these aren’t lobby groups or consultancies. They do their work, and people who sympathise with their cause donate money to them”.
CSOs believe that standards for working with the law and its enforcement must be defined.
“We can dress the law up with eloquent wording, but it still comes down to how it’s enforced. In the organisation where I worked for example, the Justice Ministry classified money from the Russian Orthodox Church as foreign financing. This is a misreading of some perhaps well-written requirements in the legislation”, says Askhat Kayumov, chairman of the ‘Dront’ ecological centre in Nizhny Novgorod (the centre was classified as a foreign agent by the Ministry of Justice).
Ksenia Goryacheva, Duma deputy from the New People party, remarked that there are no plans to repeal the law, but proposals on how to amend the law are now being considered.
According to her, five amendments are now under consideration. The first — to adhere to a presumption of innocence, so that the decision on classification as a foreign agent is taken by a court and not the Justice Ministry. The second — to require the government to provide proof that an individual or organisation is a foreign agent. The third — to stop forcing individuals classified as foreign agents to highlight everything they post on social media and report on their financial activity.
The fourth — to forewarn organisations so that they are given the chance to correct their offences. “If they offend again in the full knowledge of what they are doing then there is cause to hand the case over to a court, where the court must demonstrate that they are a foreign agent” — added Goryacheva.
Amendments to the law on individual foreign agents are being discussed. As yet there are no plans to exclude them from the law entirely, but there are proposals to no longer require them to register as a corporate entity.
The discussion “Foreign agents: which amendments are necessary and realistic?” took place during the 9th All-Russia Civic Forum on 27 November.