Russia’s “foreign agent” bill foreshadows repression of civil society | TBEN | 22.11.2020

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The general idea of ​​several bills presented to the Russian State Duma in recent days is that the country faces threats from abroad and the state must act quickly to ward off them.

Most of the proposals aim to cut Russia even further from the rest of the world. And, like similar legislation in years past, it would mean additional restrictions for civil society and opposition politicians.

Individuals also targeted

For years, people in Russia who are involved in politics and receive money from abroad have had to register as “foreign agents” with the relevant authorities. Any person or organization so listed is required to send the authorities regular reports on its activities and expenditure.

The controversial name “foreign agent” evokes espionage associations. So far, it has been applied in particular to NGOs and international media. But now, this regulation could be broadened at the initiative of the upper house committee of the Russian parliament responsible for protecting state sovereignty against outside interference.

This entrance to the human rights organization’s Moscow memorial has a ‘foreign agent’ in graffiti next to it

All citizens and groups in Russia who participate in political activities and receive financial support from abroad must be required to qualify as “foreign agents”, according to the bill. This expands the scope of the current procedure to include a large number of individuals.

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This would mean that they could be prohibited from working as public servants or from having access to confidential documents. If they stand for election, these candidates will have to identify themselves publicly as “foreign agents”.

Another new aspect is that foreign journalists accredited in Russia could also be included in this category. In addition, Russian media may be required to mention it when reporting relevant organizations.

Natalia Prilutskaya, researcher at Amnesty International on Russia, spoke of a “new witch hunt for civil society groups and human rights defenders who defend justice and dignity”. Other human rights activists have also criticized the measure as another way to suppress civil society.

Possible blocks on YouTube and Facebook

Other proposed new regulations target social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Parliamentarians say they aim to fight “internet censorship”. If Russian media content is restricted by foreign platforms, Russia could impose fines or totally or partially block social media networks. These sanctions would be decided by the prosecutor of the Russian Republic after consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But it seems doubtful that a platform like YouTube could really be completely blocked in Russia, because the state would thus affect many of its own citizens, explained Valery Fadeyev, chairman of the Presidential Council for Human Rights.

Nonetheless, Fadeyev agrees in principle with the proposed legislation and said that a “serious debate” is needed on how to protect “Russian media and Russian users from the censorship of US IT giants”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said decisive action must be taken to tackle “discriminatory actions by foreign internet platforms against Russian customers”.

More state control in the education sector

Stricter restrictions are also being considered for the education sector. Much remains to be done to combat “anti-Russian propaganda” in schools and among students, according to a statement. International cooperation of Russian educational institutions could be affected.

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Another proposal contemplates dismissing teachers if they engage in “agitation” – a term that is not clearly defined – or if they incite “unconstitutional” activity. Human rights activist and journalist Nikolai Svanidze said in an interview with the Interfax news agency that this would create “even more possibilities for despotism” and denunciation.

Opposition protest in Moscow in July 2019

Opposition protests like this in July 2019 could become more difficult to organize

Eyes on the elections?

Finally, more restrictions must be placed on freedom of assembly in Russia. Anyone who wants to organize protests in Russia should not receive any funding from abroad, according to a bill. Individual protests, which have become an increasingly popular way of expressing criticism, must be subject to new regulations preventing multiple people from demonstrating one after another.

The proposed measures surprised observers such as political scientist and TBEN columnist Ivan Preobrazhensky. “The Kremlin is in a hurry to pass these regulations,” he said.

Moscow may feel pressured by anti-government protests in Belarus. But the Duma election scheduled for fall 2021 could also help drive the new bill.

This article was adapted from German.

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