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RFE/RL's bureau in Moscow (file photo)

The United States and European Union have reiterated their condemnation of Russia's increasing repression of independent media, including RFE/RL.

Courtney Austrian, the U.S. charge d' affaires to the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said on March 18 that Russia's new requirements for outlets branded "foreign media agents" were in some cases technically impossible and were being "used against entities and individuals associated, sometimes only tangentially, with U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, funded programming in Russia."

The assault on USAGM outlets, including RFE/RL, "reflects a broader crackdown on independent voices and civil society," Austrian said during a meeting of the Permanent Council on behalf of the United States and Canada. "The new regulations are aimed at impeding RFE/RL's media operations in Russia and reducing its growing audience share."

Austrian added that, while USAGM outlets were the first foreign media to be targeted by Russia, media from any OSCE state could be next.

The new regulations include requirements that entities and individuals designated by Moscow as "media foreign agents" must note the designation in material published in Russia with a prominent, state-mandated disclaimer.

In some cases, such as tweets, the requirement was technically impossible because the disclaimer had more characters than allowed by Twitter, Austrian noted.

Austrian noted that Russia's media regulatory body, Roskomnadzor, has opened 260 cases against RFE/RL for violations of the regulations, with potential fines of $980,000, since January 14.

"We reiterate our call on the Russian government to end its repression of independent journalists and outlets, including RFE/RL and its affiliates," Austrian wrote. "The people of Russia deserve access to a wide range of information and opinion and a government that respects freedom of expression in keeping with Russia's international obligations and OSCE commitments."

False Equivalence

In a later "right of reply" statement delivered to the Permanent Council in Vienna, Austrian said that the Russian delegation to the intergovernmental organization "has repeatedly tried to create a false equivalence between the draconian measures taken against RFE/RL in Russia and the legal framework within which RT and Sputnik operate in the United States."

Those Russian outlets are required to register with the U.S. Justice Ministry as "foreign agents" under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

However, Austrian said, "we will repeat what we have stated before: there is no equivalence between U.S. FARA legislation and Russia’s 'foreign agent' law."

Austrian noted that while the U.S. law does not impose restrictions on how foreign outlets print and broadcast their stories and opinions, "Russia uses its 'foreign agent' law to restrict, intimidate, prosecute, and shut down civil society organizations and independent media."

The European Union on March 18 also issued a statement to the OSCE Permanent Council expressing "our serious concern about the worsening situation of media freedom in Russia."

In its two-page statement, the 27-member bloc said that Russia's adoption in December of stricter measures under its "foreign agents" and other legislation had "enabled the authorities to exercise online censorship."

"The EU reiterates its longstanding position that the so-called 'foreign agent' law contributes to a systematic infringement of basic freedoms, and restricts civil society, independent media, and the rights of political opposition in Russia," the statement read. "It goes against Russia's international obligations and human rights commitments."

The EU statement also described the opening of cases against RFE/RL regarding alleged violations of the labeling requirement as "systematic targeting" and "a blatant attempt to silence independent media and to eventually cease RFE/RL's activities in Russia."

'Orders To Intimidate'

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits.

Later modifications targeted foreign-funded media.

In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service on the list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time, a network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to add individuals, including foreign journalists, to its "foreign agent" list and to impose restrictions on them.

In December 2020, authorities added five individuals to its "foreign agent" list, including three contributors to RFE/RL's Russian Service. All five are appealing their inclusion on the list.

Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called the regulations "orders to deface our content platforms and intimidate our audiences" and says RFE/RL will continue "to object, protest, and appeal these requirements."

Delyan Peevski, a powerful Bulgarian oligarch-lawmaker has been removed from the electoral list of the country’s third-largest political party ahead of next month's parliamentary elections. (file photo)

SOFIA -- A controversial oligarch and media mogul in Bulgaria's parliament has disappeared from the forefront of the country's political scene ahead of general elections on April 4.

Delyan Peevski -- known in Bulgaria by the nickname "Shishi" or "Potbelly" -- has been removed from the list of party candidates from his Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is mostly made up of ethnic Turks.

Peevski has also been selling off his vast media holdings, which the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders estimates had once accounted for about 80 percent of Bulgaria's privately owned media.

Despite these developments, Bulgarian political analysts predict that the powerful influence that Peevski wields in Bulgaria is not going to disappear soon.

They note that the DPS has been installing people close to Peevski in key party positions ahead of the April vote.

In fact, since the collapse of totalitarianism in Bulgaria in 1989, the DPS has held considerable political sway as a swing-vote bloc in parliament -- both within governing coalitions and outside of governments as a purported opposition party.

With 25 lawmakers in the 240-seat National Assembly, the DPS continues to hold that clout as the third-strongest political force behind the governing GERB party and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) -- even though the DPS is not a member of GERB's current coalition.

Sofia-based political scientist Daniel Smilov says the removal of Peevski from the DPS's candidate list shows the party wants a strong presence in the next government.

He says the DPS appears to be positioning itself now for postelection coalition negotiations.

But in order reach a coalition deal with other parties, Smilov says the DPS must truly distance itself from Peevski.

"The current format of governance is beneficial for the DPS," Smilov tells RFE/RL. "The only way for it to stay that way is for the DPS to form a clear coalition with GERB and some patriotic formation" after the elections.

"In general, nothing in the DPS has changed," Smilov concludes. "The business side of this party remains as it is. The only thing new is that Peevski is not a candidate for parliament."

Toxic Issue

Sofia-based analyst Andrei Raichev says that, if the DPS manages to get more than 400,000 votes in the elections, it will have a claim to be officially included in power.

"The Movement for Rights and Freedoms no longer wants to be in a supporting role" as a parliamentary swing-vote bloc outside of the governing coalition, Raichev told RFE/RL. "It wants to be a partner. They obviously want a leading position."

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (file photo)
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (file photo)

But the behind-the-scenes influence of Peevski has become such a toxic issue in Bulgaria that analysts say no other political party wants to be linked to him -- including the GERB party of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

Indeed, even though the DPS is not in GERB's current coalition, Peevski's power and influence has been a focus of anti-government protests across the country.

Hristo Ivanov, co-leader of the opposition coalition Democratic Bulgaria, claims Peevski has used his media empire, economic clout, and alleged ties to the criminal underworld to control GERB's appointments to top ministry posts and the judiciary -- including Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev and other prosecutors.

Anti-corruption protesters link Peevski to what they say is a history of abuse by GERB officials and politicized prosecutors who use the judiciary to target their political rivals.

Demonstrators hold aloft pictures of Delyan Peevski at a rally in Sofia. (file photo)
Demonstrators hold aloft pictures of Delyan Peevski at a rally in Sofia. (file photo)

"Corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria," Reporters Without Borders concluded in a 2019 report. "The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Delyan Peevski."

During anti-corruption demonstrations across Bulgaria in the summer of 2020, Borisov fired three ministers "to refute allegations" they'd been appointed to the posts because of their ties to Peevski and the DPS.

But the DPS has a different explanation for the removal of Peevski from its list of candidates in the upcoming elections.

DPS Deputy Chairman Yordan Tsonev told RFE/RL recently that "Delyan Peevski himself gave up his nominations for the next parliament and, for personal reasons, did not want to be on the list" as a party candidate.

Asked by RFE/RL if the absence of Peevski from the elections is part of an effort by the DPS to rebrand itself, Tsonev said: "Absolutely not."

"Delyan Peevski is our friend and colleague. We like him," Tsonev said, adding that both the party base and its leadership wanted to nominate him for reelection.

"Both officially and in any other form, we want participation in government," Tsonev told RFE/RL. "Even if Peevski was in our ranks, we would still want that."

Scrutiny In Washington

Peevski also faces scrutiny in Washington where he's been accused of being the "oligarch in chief" and one of the "key architects of Bulgaria's democratic decline and devolution into a criminal state."

In December, just weeks before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Peevski hired a prominent Washington-based lobbyist to counter such allegations that were circulated among lawmakers in the U.S. Congress.

Those allegations have drawn attention from the Biden administration, which vowed during the election campaign that its foreign affairs policies would "revitalize" America's "national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world."

Veronica Anghel, a political scientist at the European University Institute in Italy, says "hybrid regimes" in Central and Eastern Europe "are likely to feel the pressure" from the Biden administration to respect the rule of law.

Anghel notes Biden's previous visits to Central and Eastern Europe as U.S. vice president when he spoke out "against corruption and in favor of the consolidation of democratic institutions, with an emphasis on the independence of the judiciary."

"Biden's declared interest to recommit the United States to its role as a global supporter of democracy is likely to refocus State Department officials' attention on falling standards of democracy in Poland and Hungary, and the stagnating anti-corruption fight in Romania and Bulgaria," Anghel concludes.

Ultimately, that suggests the Biden administration will be keeping a close eye on Peevski's influence in Bulgaria regardless of whether he serves as a deputy in Sofia's next parliament.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by Polina Paunova in Sofia and Todd Prince in Washington.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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