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Under the influence Russian lawmakers set to pass integrated ‘foreign agents’ bill, broadening restrictions

Source: Meduza
Zoi for Meduza

On Tuesday, June 28, the Russian State Duma approved the second reading of a generalized draft law on “foreign agents.” The bill, titled “On monitoring the activities of individuals under foreign influence,” was submitted to the State Duma back in April and passed the first reading on June 22. Ahead of the second reading, Russian lawmakers and senators made amendments to the bill that not only broaden the grounds for designating individuals and organizations as “foreign agents,” but also impose additional restrictions on those who have already been blacklisted. Ahead of the bill’s third reading on Wednesday, Meduza breaks down what’s new (and what’s not).

Update. The Russian State Duma passed the integrated “foreign agents” bill in the third reading on Wednesday, June 29.

Any charitable, scientific, or cultural organization can be labeled a ‘foreign agent’ 

Many Russian organizations have been blacklisted as “foreign agents” because the authorities deemed them involved in “political activity.” This concept is interpreted extremely broadly in Russian law — even publishing opinions on official decisions can be considered “political activity.” 

At the same time, the current law regulating “NGO foreign agents” clearly defines the types of activities that cannot be considered “political.” This includes, for example, charity work, scientific activities, providing social support to people with disabilities, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Nevertheless, several organizations involved in these kinds of work have been declared “foreign agents.”

In October 2021, Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov urged President Vladimir Putin to clarify this law’s vague criteria. In response, Putin promised that the grounds for putting people on Russia’s “foreign agents” list would be reassessed. 

The integrated “foreign agent” bill has retained the same list of activities that cannot be considered “political.” It was even expanded a little ahead of the second reading. At the same time, lawmakers inserted a clarification that changes everything. Under this amendment, any activity on the list could be considered “political” if it contradicts: 

  • Russia's national interests;
  • The fundamentals of law and order in the Russian Federation;
  • Other values protected by the Russian Constitution. 

Russia’s “national interests” are delineated by presidential decree. If the bill passes the third reading in its current form, the leaders of any organization — no matter the focus of its work — will have to take this into account. 

In other words, the new legislation does away with the formal exceptions, giving the Justice Ministry free reign to designate any organization a “foreign agent” in full accordance with the law. After all, the ministry is also responsible for determining what runs contrary to Russia’s “national interests.” 

What constitutes ‘foreign influence’ remains unclear

In order to declare a person or an organization a “foreign agent,” the Russian Justice Ministry must, in theory, find evidence of the receipt of foreign funding or support. Under the new legislation, it would be enough for the authorities to declare that the person or organization in question is under “foreign influence.” 

Lawmakers have failed to explain what this term means, despite the fact that two Presidential Human Rights Council commissions asked them for clarification. The wording remains so vague that it would, by and large, allow the authorities to designate pretty much anyone a “foreign agent.” 

New restrictions on ‘foreign agents’

The amended legislation introduces a number of new restrictions on “foreign agents,” including a ban on receipt of government financial support.

“Foreign agents” shall also be prohibited from:

  • Selling goods and services to the state;
  • Using or providing security to key facilities of critical information infrastructure;
  • Providing expertise during a state environmental review;
  • Taking part in organizing or conducting a public environmental review.

While the original draft bill proposed completely banning “foreign agents” from teaching and other educational work with minors, the legislation was eased somewhat ahead of the second reading. 

Under a new amendment, “foreign agents” are prohibited from conducting any educational work with minors or teaching at state and municipal educational institutions. However, they could still work for private establishments. Organizations designated as “foreign agents” will, however, be prohibited from pursuing educational work with minors. 

Russian lawmakers are expected to approve the bill’s third reading on Wednesday, June 29. The new legislation on “foreign agents” will enter into force on December 1, 2022. 

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Explainer by Denis Dmitriev

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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