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Putin is wrong Russia’s president says there are no felony penalties for ‘foreign agent’ noncompliance, but that’s simply untrue

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Feoktistov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

During a public conference with Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dmitry Muratov complained that Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation is enforced “extrajudicially,” prompting the president’s latest comparison to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the United States, which the Kremlin (inaccurately) calls “analogous.” Putin went on to argue that FARA is even harsher legislation than the regulations Russia recently began imposing on so-called “foreign agents.” Notably, the president claimed that “foreign agents” risk felony charges in the U.S. but not in Russia. Mr. Putin is mistaken.

What Putin said

Do you realize how harsh it is [in the U.S.]? It goes all the way to felony liability over there! It’s not like that here [in Russia].

Factcheck

The Russian state operates two “foreign agent” lists:

  • The first list is for folks whom the government has designated as “foreign agent mass media outlets.” Yes, the Russian authorities equate individuals to “mass media outlets,” and they’ve added a few new names to the list every Friday for the past several months. There are only two qualification criteria: publishing messages “intended for an unlimited number of people” (meaning, anything shared online) and receiving any funding at all from abroad (even a few bucks from a friend in another country is enough). At the time of this writing, Russia recognizes about 60 people as “individual foreign agents.”
  • The second list is for the “foreign agents” that supposedly “collect military information” or conduct “political activity” (defined in the broadest terms imaginable, ranging from things like staging public events to election monitoring) while also receiving any kind of “support” (not only financial) from abroad or from other groups already designated as “foreign agents.” An organization might not even know it’s getting this support, but the group is nevertheless expected to register with the Justice Ministry on its own.

Contrary to President Putin’s remarks, people and organizations added to either of these lists can face felony charges under certain conditions

If an individual who’s been designated as a “foreign agent mass media outlet” violates the requirements that accompany this status at least three times within 12 months, that person could go to prison for up to two years. Because there are so many reporting and disclosure rules for “foreign agents” in Russia, it’s fairly simple to commit noncompliance. The law’s requirements include plastering any content with a loud and intrusive “foreign agent” disclosure, creating a formal legal entity in Russia that undergoes an annual audit, and completing grueling quarterly paperwork to catalog not just all income but also all expenditures, right down to toilet paper and new socks.

The senior executives at any organizations added to Russia’s “foreign agents” registry also risk felony prosecution for repeat violations.

The penalties for noncompliance are even stricter for non-media “foreign agents,” rising to five years imprisonment in some cases. Those who qualify and fail to declare themselves “foreign agents” are first subjected to fines between 30,000 and 50,000 rubles (about $560). Anyone who still fails to comply with the law’s disclosure and filing rules, however, could then face felony charges. Incidentally, those who allegedly “collect military information” without self-registering as “foreign agents” risk immediate felony liability even on a first offense.

Non-media “foreign agents” are also subject to felony liability for violations in required reporting on their activities and expenses after just two, not three, infractions. 

In conclusion

Vladimir Putin is wrong when he claims that Russia imposes no criminal penalties for failing to observe its “foreign agent” laws.

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Text by Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock