Russia tightened its so-called “foreign agent” law last month to target overseas media operating in the country. It means the government can require media outlets to state that they are “foreign agents.” They also have to submit to intensive scrutiny of staffing and financing. Voice of America is among the media organizations to receive such a designation.
Similar legislation was introduced in 2012 against civil society and non-governmental groups that receive any type of foreign financial support.
The human rights group Memorial has long been targeted for its efforts at documenting historical crimes in the Soviet era, as well as modern-day rights abuses. It was founded in the late 1980s by political dissidents, including the late Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov.
Memorial was designated a foreign agent in 2015 — accused of receiving funds from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and the European Commission, among others. The designation has seen a big increase in workload for the group’s legal director, Kirill Koroteev.
“The most significant problem is that we have to spend a great deal of time in court. We have to spend a lot of time defending ourselves, because we are under the tight control of the state. And that means that even the smallest possible fault, the way the state sees it, leads to a fine or a threat to be eliminated,” Koroteev told VOA in a recent interview.
WATCH: Henry Ridgwell’s report from Moscow
For many of those who fall foul of the designation, the law has echoes of Stalin-era denunciations of alleged anti-Soviet spies. Koroteev says even the term foreign agent appears to be copied from those times.
“This particular expression itself, let us say, is undoubtedly borrowed from the “Great Terror” period. Someone could just open any reasonable book on history, or even a dictionary of the Russian language. That is why the parallel is quite evident.”
The organization Levada conducts social research and polling, aiming to gain an insight into Russian public opinion. But it, too, has also been designated a foreign agent and banned from operating during Russia’s upcoming election campaign season.
“Nobody is going to try to find out for themselves what the foreign money was used for — it does not matter. The most important thing is that the label was attached. Then, that makes it seem there is something murky. That label means one works for foreigners, and if he works for foreigners, that means he is against Russia,” says Levada’s Denis Volkov.
Russia’s government says the foreign agent law is aimed at stopping nefarious foreign interference in Russian politics. On the streets of Moscow, few wanted to discuss the topic. Those who did voiced support for the government.
“I stand for everything in the national interest, everything that is for us. That pleases me. Maybe I am a patriot, but I think that we shall survive without all those foreign things,” Moscow resident Larisa told VOA.
In its latest report for 2018, the group Human Rights Watch says the foreign agent law has had a chilling effect: By September 2017, Russia had designated 158 groups as foreign agents, and courts had levied crippling fines for those failing to comply. They estimate that approximately 30 civil society groups have shut down.