Foreign agents law explained
How foreign agents are registered, as told by the Minister of Justice and co-author of the law
On what grounds are CSOs included in the foreign agents register and what else does the government want to add to the law?
On 29 June, The X St Petersburg Legal Forum discussed the “concept and legislative regulation of the status of a foreign agent”. A representative of the Ministry of Justice and author of the new law on foreign agents spoke at the forum. The extension of the law was adopted on 29 June, combining regulations from previous laws.
A little bit of history behind the law
The internal policy of any state includes the formation and implementation of a strategy for the development of all spheres of a country’s life, states Roman Tsyganov, Deputy Director of the Department for Non-Profit Organisations of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation.
He calls voluntary associations and non-profit organisations the most active participants in the development sphere that should work for a better life in the country. To support them, according to Tsyganov, the state has embarked on the development of public-private partnerships and reducing administrative burdens.
“As a result, over time, it has been brought to our attention that activities carried out by several non-profit organisations are of a political nature and are being paid for by foreign states”, says Tsyganov.
After wondering what is behind foreign states’ interest in the non-profit sector, in 2012 Russia introduced the foreign agents register.
According to Tsyganov, this was caused by two factors. Firstly, from the desire to ensure transparency and openness in the activities of foreign-funded CSOs who also intend to conduct political activities in the Russian Federation. And secondly, to strengthen the sovereignty, political independence and protection of Russian national interests from foreign influence.
The introduction of the foreign agents register caused a resonance among human rights defenders. But Tsyganov emphasises that any attempts to find context in the phrase “foreign agent” are devoid of constitutional and legal grounds. The Constitutional Court ruled that this phrase is not aimed at forming a negative attitude among donors or partners.
Additionally, Tsyganov continued, inclusion in the register does not entail a ban on CSO activities, or the liquidation of the organisation.
Why would you be registered as a foreign agent?
According to the representative of the Ministry of Justice, the main area of CSO political activity included in the register of foreign agents is the use of legislative human rights regulations to influence the development of state policy and the work of state agencies. Such political activity was carried out through public appeals to government agencies, including a demand to change or cancel regulatory legal acts.
Activities also included in the register are the dissemination of opinions, public views and beliefs that are in contrast to the policy of the Russian Federation. Tsyganov notes that their official activities have a humanitarian orientation related to social, educational, cultural and scientific events.
“For example, one of the organisations included in the register, despite their statutory goal of providing a Russian-German cultural exchange project, took part in public events assessing Russian foreign policy on Crimea”, he said.
“Another CSO regularly carried out activities criticising the protection of the foundations of the constitutional system and the protection of sovereignty, foreign policy, activities of state agencies and legislative regulation on human rights and freedoms,” Tsyganov added.
The same organisation also published a report with the results of a study on “legal problems of impunity for crimes sanctioned by the government”. In it, the organisation proposed measures to avoid criminal sanctions. It also spread opinions about human rights violations related to various topics: starting with the Crimean theme, and ending with widespread violation of the rights of lawyers of the Russian Federation by state authorities.
Tsyganov also told another story: the organisation provided social protection services: providing social, psychological and legal assistance to the population, promoting the harmonious development of society as well as arranging law and volunteer initiatives. However, despite this, the head of the organisation “among other things” took part in protest actions, advocated for the repeal of legislation prohibiting LGBT propaganda among minors, and collected signatures for a petition in support of Memorial – a CSO foreign agent that was liquidated.
According to him, these are only individual episodes that would put a CSO on the register, but there are others.
What else is taken into account in the legislation?
Under the new law, foreign agents are prohibited from conducting educational activities among minors. Maria Butina, deputy of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, co-author of the law, said that this was logical.
“When drafting the law on foreign agents, as a deputy, I took into account repeated appeals from citizens about the educational activities of foreign agents in Russia. We analysed school textbooks that contain links to resources with an alternative version of history. These are textbooks which include the falsification of history and spread of ethnic hatred in Russia”, she said.
However, in her opinion, there are some points they didn’t include because they wanted to follow a middle-of-the-road approach so that this would not be the toughest law in the Russian Federation.
According to Butina, if in the presence of political activity and foreign funding a CSO does not voluntarily include itself in the register, it should not only be brought to administrative responsibility but to “serious criminal responsibility”.
“We want to remind you where the essence of the law comes from. We want people to know at whose expense the banquet is. If you work for foreign money, please register.” Butina said.
In her opinion, foreign agents can work in Russia, but with restrictions. “You should not participate in political decision-making in Russia, you should not engage in such activities at public expense. You cannot take money from one state and put forwards its interests on the territory of the Russian Federation and at the same time take money from the budget of the Russian Federation! You cannot receive grants on a par with public organisations that only work for Russian interests”, Butina concluded.