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Russia's 'Foreign Agent' Amendments 'Seriously Violate' Human Rights: Venice Commission

A view of the newsroom of RFE/RL in Moscow.

A Council of Europe legal advisory body has sharply criticized recent Russian amendments to laws regulating so-called ‘'foreign agents," saying they constitute “serious violations” of basic human rights and will have a “chilling effect” on political life.

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires noncommercial 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, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. The Russian Service of VOA was also added to the list.

In a report analyzing the amendments, published on July 6, the Venice Commission, which is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, called on Russia to reverse aspects of its "foreign agents" laws such as registration and reporting requirements, or alternatively revise “the entire body” of the legislation by narrowing the definition of a "foreign agent."

The commission warned in its 26-page report that the amendments will have a “significant chilling effect...on the free exercise of the civil and political rights which are vital for an effective democracy.”

It further said the broadened scope of the "foreign agents" legislation allows authorities “to exercise significant control over the activities and existence of associations as well as over the participation of individuals in civic life.”

The four amendments, among other things, expanded the concept of foreign funding of noncommercial organizations to include money received from Russian entities whose beneficial owners are foreign citizens or from Russian entities who themselves receive funds from foreign sources.

The amendments also give the authorities more power to carry out unscheduled inspections of such organizations; expand the grounds for designating individuals as "foreign agents" to include those who receive foreign organizational and methodological support while engaging in political activities; and obliges candidates who are deemed "foreign agents" to state this information in their campaign material.

Russia has said the laws and new amendments are designed to increase transparency and enhance national security. However, the Venice Commission said in its report that the results are likely to be the exact opposite.

RFE/RL rejects the assertion and has refused to comply with the rules, so the state media monitor Roskomnadzor has prepared hundreds of complaints against RFE/RL's projects. The total fines levied could run to more than $3 million.

The U.S.-funded independent broadcaster has called the fines "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation."

The Venice Commission report appeared to agree with that assessment.

“The designation is more likely to undermine transparency by stigmatizing entities and individuals and misleading the public about their relationship to foreign entities,” the commission said. “With regard to the aim of national security, the designation is likely to provoke a climate of distrust, fear and hostility, instead of countering any real threat.”

The commission also warned that the expansion of the label to a larger subset of individuals "is more likely to increase the risk of entities and individuals becoming ‘foreign agents’ inadvertently or against their will.”

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Russian officials told the commission that the designation did not carry a stigma, contradicting not only the view of civil society but what the commission said was the Kremlin's own logic for passing the laws in the first place -- to alert citizens of supposed "foreign influence" in its internal affairs.

Russia began to pass the legislation at the time when the largest protests against the rule of Vladimir Putin, who has served as either president or prime minister since 1999, was roiling the country.

The protests were sparked by what the opposition called rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011 and continued into the following year.

Putin blamed the wave of demonstrations on former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming without evidence that she gave the opposition "a signal" to take to the streets.

Analysts say Putin fears a popular uprising like those that occurred in neighboring Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus, and is seeking to obliterate any internal opposition through repressive measures like the "foreign agents" law.

Putin has claimed the West was behind those uprisings, which pushed out Kremlin-leaning leaders, despite wide public support for political change.

Russia has over the past decade repeatedly expanded the scope of the foreign agents law and the burden of complying with them, forcing many organizations to simply close their doors.

As of July 2021, Russia had labeled 76 organizations and 20 media outlets or individual persons as "foreign agents," according to the commission.

More than 60 organizations have turned to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge that designation.

In its opinion report, the Venice Commission rejected the Kremlin’s defense that its “foreign agents” laws are compatible with those of Western countries, pointing out that the Russian legislation is so vague and lacking clear limits that it sweeps up a wide spectrum of entities and individuals.

A U.S. law only requires people who act in the interests of another country before the U.S. government to register as foreign agents. Israeli law requires NGOs receiving more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments or agencies to register. Meanwhile, Hungary, which also had a foreign funding threshold for registering as an agent, repealed its law in May.

Russian legislation requires any organization advocating policy to register if it receives any amount of foreign funding, including indirectly through Russian entities that in turn receive foreign funding.

The commission carried out its analysis following a request in December by Boriss Cilevics, the chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to determine whether the Russian amendments comply with international human rights standards.

The commission’s opinion was drafted and approved after four legal experts spoke with several members of the Russian government, including representatives of the upper and lower chambers of parliament, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, mass media regulator Roskomnadzor, and civil society.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.