The Duma's vice speaker compared Russia’s new foreign agent law to the law that supported Maria Butina's conviction in the U.S. He was wrong.
Russia’s State Duma has passed a law enabling ordinary people to be labeled “foreign agents” in the proposal’s third and final reading. After Communist Party deputy Alexey Kurinny said the law could be used against the government’s ideological opponents and that letting readers filter their own information would be far better than limiting access to independent sources, Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy of United Russia responded as follows:
“Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under an analogous law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market, including influence that directly affects individuals who distribute information from foreign sources. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these with some frequency in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.”
Maria Butina was not convicted of failing to register as a foreign agent
Last spring, Maria Butina was indeed sentenced to a year and a half behind bars for conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government. However, the charges of failing to register that Pyotr Tolstoy referenced were dropped during a plea deal.
Butina herself confessed in court that she had conspired with Republican activist Paul Erickson to advance Russia’s interests under the guidance of former Central Bank Vice Chair Alexander Torshin. The documents Butina signed describe how she planned a “diplomatic project” and organized meetings between Russian and U.S. officials.
In short, Butina herself pleaded guilty to lobbying actively for Russian state interests by forming ties with individual U.S. politicians.
What the Duma’s law says
To label any individual as a “foreign agent” under the new Russian law, one must prove that the individual:
- distributes information, and
- receives funds from sources outside Russia.
The legislation defines the term “distributes information” extremely broadly. For example, it includes any online posts or publications both on and off social media. The bill’s sponsors have already admitted that the policy can be used against any “bloger” (a term that includes social media users in Russian) who receives any sum of money from abroad. The task of deciding who exactly receives a “foreign agent” label will fall to the Justice and Foreign Affairs Ministries: Leonid Levin, who chairs the Duma committee responsible for the law, has argued that requiring a consensus between the two ministries rather than leaving decisions to the Justice Ministry alone will be sufficient to prevent any careless overreach.
The law does not address taking action in the interest of a foreign government, lobbying Russian politicians, or anything else that resembles Maria Butina’s case. Merely posting something on the Internet is sufficient for an individual to be labeled a foreign agent.
What awaits Russia’s new individual foreign agents
If an individual is labeled as a foreign agent, that individual will be obligated to create their own legally registered organization within a month for the purpose of corresponding as a foreign agent with the Russian government. (The Justice Ministry has yet to establish a specific procedure for individuals to create those bodies and notify the Ministry.) Those foreign agent organizations will be added to a special registry, and each one will have to submit a quarterly report describing its work.
Foreign agents will also be forbidden from posting information on the Internet unless they have special permission of a nature the Justice Ministry has yet to determine. Those who do not receive permission or who refuse to submit the required Justice Ministry reports will have their blogs, social media accounts, or other public communication forums blocked by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulation and censorship agency.
Translation by Hilah Kohen