Russia’s latest foreign agents law undermines EU’s Russia policy


Picture of Veera Laine
Veera Laine

Research Fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Picture of Kristiina Silvan
Kristiina Silvan

Research Fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Russia’s new tactic to disqualify swathes of political activists means that any politically active individual may be labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ if they are in any way supported from abroad.

The expansion of the Russian “foreign agent” law, signed into law by Vladimir Putin on 30 December 2020, poses a direct challenge to the European Union by putting the thousands of average Russian citizens at risk. Individuals, who maintain the relations between Russia and the EU on a practical level, will become a target of the Russian authorities as they start to apply selective repression in order to turn the law into a credible instrument of deterrence.

The notion of ‘foreign agents’ was first introduced into Russian legislation in 2012. The law obliged non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that were in one way or another involved in politics and received money from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’. The intent of the legislation was to demonstrate Western meddling in Russian domestic affairs and underline the hostility of Western actors towards Russia. According to the logic of the law, the external threat to Russia’s national security had turned domestic, with dubious NGOs destabilising Russia from within. The scope of the law was expanded to include foreign-supported media outlets in 2017 and individuals who distributed their message to an unrestricted audience – essentially covering all social media – in 2019.

The law has been interpreted as yet another way to intimidate Russia’s political opposition

Now, the new amendment allows Russian officials to label all politically active individuals as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive financial or organisational support from abroad. These individuals must declare their agent status in all their activities, whether posting on social media or running in elections. If they fail to do so, they may be fined or face up to five years in prison. Moreover, ‘foreign agents’ could be banned from working as state officials or accessing confidential information. For now, the Russian Ministry of Justice has labelled five individuals as ‘foreign agents’, but the list is expected to grow substantially once the new law is enforced.

The latest expansion of the law has been interpreted as yet another way to intimidate Russia’s political opposition ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections. However, the implications of the amendment are much greater, expanding beyond the Russian domestic policy sphere.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the EU has made supporting civil society as one of the key pillars of its policy towards Russia. In 2016, the European Council established guiding principles for the EU’s relations with Russia in the 2016 EU Global Security Strategy, in which the EU called for the expansion of people-to-people contacts between the two regions. While support for Russian NGOs through instruments like the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) has declined, EU-funded cross-border projects and research collaboration have remained prominent.

However, the new amendment to the “foreign agent” law turns individual Russian citizens’ international connections into a significant personal risk. A potential prison sentence is a more serious deterrent than a fine addressed to the organization one works for and may lead Russians to act more cautiously regarding any cooperation with EU representatives.

The EU must demand the reversal of such legislation

The EU must recognize the daunting potency of the newest “foreign agent” law and its threat to Russian citizens. How can the EU assist Russian society if those who directly support it can face criminal charges?

The task to support society instead of the regime is indeed a difficult one. Yet, it is now more important than ever as the Russian state and society drift further away from each other. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded existing social and economic problems for the Russian people. Discontent with decision-makers has become more mainstream and state authorities are protecting the eroding basis of their legitimacy by intensifying the repression of its critics.

At the same time, the battle over ‘foreign agents’ is also playing out within the EU. Following Russia’s lead, Hungary and Poland have developed laws stigmatising foreign-funded organisations and media outlets. The EU must demand the reversal of such legislation and ensure transparency of overseas funding keeps member states from equating ‘foreign’ with malign. Resisting unnecessarily harsh measures and stigmatising ‘foreign agent’ legislation at home is essential for maintaining the EU’s credibility as an advocate of human rights and democratic institutions abroad.

With all eyes on Alexei Navalny, European policymakers seem to have completely missed the danger of the new amendment to Russia’s “foreign agents” law. The challenges posed by the expanded law to the EU’s current policy towards Russia cannot be ignored. We must now find new ways of supporting Russian society – without putting Russian citizens supported at risk.

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