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Russia’s Foreign Agents Bill Warns of Striking Civil Society | Europe Current news and issues from across the continent DW




The general essence of some draft laws submitted to the Russian State Duma in recent days is that the country is facing threats from outside and the state must act quickly to avoid them.

Most of the proposals are aimed at further separating Russia from the rest of the world. And, like similar legislation in previous years, they will imply additional restrictions on 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 listed in this way is obliged to submit to the authorities regular reports on their activities and expenditures.

The controversial name “foreign agent” brings espionage associations. So far, it has been applied especially to NGOs and the international media. But now this regulation can be expanded at the initiative of the committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament that is responsible for protecting the sovereignty of the state from outside interference.

Office of the Memorial NGO with 'foreign agent' written on the wall next to the entrance

This entrance to the Moscow headquarters of the human rights organization Memorial has ‘foreign agent’ in graffiti next to it

All citizens and groups in Russia who are involved in political activities and receive financial support from abroad should be obliged to call themselves “foreign agents”, according to the bill. This expands the scope of the current procedure to involve a large number of individual people.

It will mean that they may be barred from working as public servants or having access to confidential documents. If they run in the election, such candidates will need to publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

Another new aspect is that foreign journalists accredited in Russia may also be included in this category. Furthermore, the Russian media may be required to mention it when reporting on affected organizations.

Natalia Prilutskaya, an Amnesty International researcher in Russia, spoke of a “new hunt for witches by civil society groups and human rights defenders who stand up for justice and dignity.” Other human rights activists have also criticized the planned move as another way of suppressing civil society.

Possible blocks on YouTube and Facebook

Other proposed new regulations target social platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Parliamentarians say they intend to fight “internet censorship”. If content from Russian media is restricted by foreign platforms, Russia will be able to impose fines or completely or partially block social media networks. Such sanctions would be imposed by the Russian public prosecutor after consultation with the Foreign Ministry.

Smartphone showing the mobile version of YouTube, with the computer screen displaying the YouTube logo

Can sites like YouTube really be blocked in Russia?

But it seems doubtful that a platform like YouTube could be completely blocked in Russia because the state would influence many of its citizens by doing so, explained Valery Fadeyev, chairman of the presidential human rights council.

However, Fadeyev agrees in principle with the proposed legislation and said a “serious debate” was needed on how to protect “Russian media and Russian users from censorship by US IT giants”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said decisive action had to be taken to combat “discriminatory actions by foreign internet platforms against Russian clients”.

More state control in the education sector

Stronger restrictions are also envisaged for the education sector. According to a statement, more needs to be done to combat “anti-Russian propaganda” in schools and among students. International cooperation from Russian educational institutions may be affected.

Another proposal provides for the dismissal of teachers if they engage in “agitation” a term that is not clearly defined or promotes “unconstitutional” activities. Human rights activist and journalist Nikolai Svanidze said in an interview with the Interfax news agency that this would create “even more room for despotism” and denunciation.

Opposition protest in Moscow in July 2019

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

Eyes on elections?

Finally, more restrictions need to be placed on freedom of assembly in Russia. Anyone who wants to organize demonstrations in Russia should not receive funding from abroad, according to the draft legislation. Individual protests, which have become an increasingly widespread method of expressing criticism, will be subject to new regulations that prevent several people from protesting one after another.

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

Perhaps Moscow is feeling pressured by anti-government protests in Belarus. But the Duma elections scheduled for fall 2021 could also help push for proposed new legislation.

This article is adapted from German.

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