Moscow uses “foreign agent” status to harass and persecute opponents

Russia’s recent appointment of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a prominent member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, as a “foreign agent” highlights the widespread scope of the ambiguous label – and its effectiveness as a tool against critics of President Vladimir Putin.

“The government can tag their donkeys if they want to!” This was the reaction of Tolokonnikova, one of the founders of the protest rock group Pussy Riot, to President Vladimir Putin’s government decision on December 30 to brand her a “foreign agent”.

In addition to Tolokonnikova, four other people – including the well-known Russian satirist Victor Shenderovich and the art collector and columnist Marat Gelman – were added to the list by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

None of the other new “foreign agents” responded with the same sense of provocation as Tolokonnikova, a 32-year-old activist who had already been sentenced to prison in 2012 for participating in an anti-Putin performance at Moscow Cathedral in Moscow. Rescuer.

On social networks, she published a photo of herself blinking her middle finger and promising not to comply with the official obligations of “foreign agents”.

Pussy Riot said they would appeal in court and not follow the rules on marking posts on social media.


two of Pussy Riot, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Nika Nikulshina, were added to the government’s list of “foreign agents” and must start each tweet with this disclaimer

– 𝖗𝖎𝖔𝖙💦 𝖗𝖎𝖔𝖙💦 #PUSSYVERSE (@pussyrrriot) December 30, 2021

“Stigmatizing etiquette”

Every person who is stamped as a “foreign agent” must register and provide information on all their activities and finances every six months. Their publications, including all messages on social media, must begin with a long official announcement confirming their status as “foreign agents”.

Tolokonnikova’s lively response may give the impression that this status can easily be dismissed, but this is far from the case. “It is a very stigmatizing label. In Russia it is likened to the status of ‘enemy of the people’ under Stalin,” said Elena Voloshin, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Russia.

Andrei Zakharov, a Russian journalist, went into exile on December 27 and said in a video that he could no longer withstand the pressure of “unsurpassed surveillance” that he had been under since he was appointed “foreign agent” in October last year.

The status can have very concrete consequences for those on the list of the Russian Ministry of Justice. In December, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Memorial, one of Russia’s most active and oldest human rights groups. Memorial was originally blacklisted in 2016 for international funding. The court based its decision on what they considered to be “repeated violations” of the obligations of “foreign agents”. In its closing argument, the prosecutor accused the group of creating a false image of the country as a “terrorist” state.

Harass and snap opponents

The term “foreign agent” carries on a Soviet spot in Russia, indicating Cold War espionage. The law was adopted in 2012 to flag foreign-funded non-profit organizations, but was expanded in 2017 to include independent media and individuals. This update of the law came in retaliation for the state-sponsored television company Russia Today being notified to register as a foreign agent in the United States.

Two years later, Moscow expanded its definition of the brand when it was decided that individual journalists – and not just organizations – could also be considered “foreign agents”. Since December 2020, activists with links to foreign funding sources have also been caught in the trawl network.

Moscow originally justified the adoption of the law as simply a Russian version of a similar regulation in the United States. “This law does not prevent anything. It is not binding and only serves to improve the transparency of public life in Russia,” Putin said at the time.

For a time, the Russian government was careful not to be too harsh in this area. But “from 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, Moscow really began to use this law much more often,” Voloshin said. Putin’s opponents quickly realized that the status of “foreign agent” would be used as a tool to harass and confront them.

The Kremlin has been careful not to define exactly what constitutes an “economic connection to a foreign country.” “The vagueness and breadth of the wording of laws and regulatory standards leads to many ambiguities that the Ministry of Justice does not clarify,” states OVD-Info, a Russian media outlet also designated as a “foreign agent”, in a Report for November 2021.

Simple actions such as joining a press trip organized by a foreign entity, receiving gifts from friends living abroad or winning a prize in an international competition expose individuals to the brand, OVD-Info noted.

Since September 2021, an economic connection to a foreign country does not even seem to be needed. The FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, published a document containing some 60 topics related to the military sector that could give a journalist the status of a foreign agent if he or she works on any of the issues listed. These include corruption in the army, the development of new weapons or issues of troop morale.

In this context, it is not surprising that the list of “foreign agents” has increased from less than 20 organizations and individuals in 2019 to more than 110 by the end of 2021. For some, the number of designated “foreign agents” is a measure of the intensity of the witch hunt against Putin. opponents. “The more oppression there is, the more names are added to the list,” Voloshin concluded.

Having your name on the list “is very restrictive from a logistical and operational point of view”, Voloshin explained. Individuals must report quarterly to detail their activities, reveal how much money they have received from abroad and how they have been spent.

“I no longer have a private life because the Ministry of Justice knows absolutely everything about me, right down to the mark on the tampons I use. I have to fill out 84 pages of forms every three months to justify all my expenses,” said journalist Lyudmila Savitskaya, who found himself on the list of “foreign agents” at the end of 2020.

Enter “a minefield”

Another obligation for these individuals is that they must state in all their publications – books, magazines, business cards, posts on social networks – that they are “foreign agents”. Failure to do so may result in a fine, imprisonment or closure, in the case of non-governmental organizations such as the Memorial or the media.

“One of the discriminatory consequences of the law is, for example, the impossibility for ‘foreign agents’ to use Twitter,” writes OVD-Info. The maximum length of a tweet is 380 characters, but the length of the official “foreign agent” label is 220 characters. This leaves only 60 characters left for the post.

“This law is a weapon that is all the more effective because it can be used retroactively,” said Mark Galeotti, a security specialist in Russia, in an interview with FRANCE 24. From the government’s point of view, the main interest of this law is “that it weakens those affected “, he noted.

“Once you get on the list, you become vulnerable to other types of attacks, especially legal ones, because there are so many new obligations that you have to follow,” he said.

In other words, when you are appointed a “foreign agent”, you go into “a minefield”, said Dmitry Treshchanin, editor of Mediazona, a news website on the list, during a roundtable discussion on the scope of this status broadcast on YouTube in November 2021.

According to Treshchanin, the key to its power is its ambiguity. “We do not understand the law and the Minister of Justice does not understand how to enforce it,” Treshchanin said. “In fact, no one, not even its creator, has any idea how it will work. And this is actually central to the law itself, it was written in such a way that it could be interpreted in any way.”

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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