“Foreign agents” law and its impact on independent citizen election observation in the Russian Federation ahead of the September 2021 State Duma election.
On the eve of the federal parliamentary election campaign, the Russian State Duma hastily passes a whole package of repressive laws aimed at restricting Russian citizens' participation in political and social activities. This "package" includes amendments to legislation on elections, public associations, education as well as changes to the criminal code and the code of administrative offences. Once passed, the laws will further restrict freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
Fundamental to this package of bills are provisions related to the status of "foreign agents". Now not only NGOs, but also unincorporated public associations and individuals can be labelled as "foreign agents". In addition, special status of foreign agent candidates and candidates affiliated with foreign agents have been included. There will now be seven types of "foreign agents" in Russia.
The grounds for classifying citizens or their associations as "foreign agents" have been defined very broadly. The notion of political activity has been expanded and is open for subjective interpretation: it includes public speeches, discussions, rallies, public appeals or requests to official bodies, "dissemination of opinions" on decisions of authorities, conducting and publishing opinion polls, providing financial support to conduct opinion polls and simply "formation of social and political views and convictions". This definition includes, as in the old days, any opinions expressed both in the public and in private.
The breadth and vagueness of the wording used in the new “foreign agent” law creates opportunities for selective implementation which means, in fact, blatant legal arbitrariness. The notion of foreign funding is extremely unclear. It includes not only funds or property but also abstract "organizational and methodological assistance" received from foreign sources. At the same time, it is not necessary to prove the link between funding and a specific activity. This means that any transfer from a relative or acquaintance living abroad, including receiving a book or medicine as a gift, receiving money for returning goods from a foreign online shop, or participating in a training webinar conducted by someone from abroad on a foreign platform (e.g., the popular Coursera), or delivered simply by a foreign expert, can be considered as foreign funding.
Moreover, it is no longer necessary to receive financial, material or methodological support directly. There is a new definition of an "intermediary". If an expert receives a fee from a foreign company and then provides a service to other person by, e.g. creating a website, the beneficiary becomes a recipient of foreign support.
How the “foreign agent” law can be implemented against citizen monitoring groups can be demonstrated by the case of the foundation “League of Voters” (“Liga izbiratelej”). In October 2020, the League which, among other things, had for many years collected Russian donations for the activities of Golos, Russia's largest independent election observation organisation, was classified as a "foreign agent". The League, among several million roubles of donations from Russian citizens, received 230 roubles (less than three Euro) from an alleged Moldovan citizen who lives in Russia and had made the transfer within the country. Although the money was returned to this “donor”, the organisation has been placed on the list of "foreign agents" and has been forced to liquidate. It is worth noting that there is no possibility to avoid any incoming donations in advance.
The initiators of these amendments make no secret of the fact that one of their main objectives is to ban Golos from conducting independent election observation by the Russian civil society. Since mid-November 2020, the main state-controlled TV channels started a massive propaganda campaign in support of this package of bills. Many of the stories aired on those TV channels explicitly mentioned Golos as the association against which the new repressive laws are directed. For example, on November 18 alone, Golos was mentioned three times on the evening prime-time newscast of Channel One (“Perviy Kanal”) in relation to this. Similar stories aired subsequently, with the last story reported on December 15, 2020.
Moreover, “foreign agents” will be prohibited from any form of participation in election campaigns which, obviously, can also be implemented against independent election observation organisations. Another important restriction against domestic election observation is the requirement to agree with the authorities the programs of any educational events such as trainings for election observers.
Severe administrative and criminal penalties are foreseen for failing to comply with the requirements imposed on "foreign agents". A repeated violation of the new law, e.g., by failing to mark materials in social media with the “foreign agent” notice, can be punished with a prison sentence of up to 5 years.
The mentioned amendments are aiming at abolishing the constitutional rights of any opponents of the government. After their arbitrary inclusion in the register of "foreign agents", they will not be able, inter alia, to hold state and municipal offices or financially support any election campaigns or public events.
In addition, electoral commissions now have the right to apply to Roskomnadzor to block any materials on the Internet in pre-trial proceedings which they consider to be illegal campaigning. It will now be up to the authors and distributors to prove in the Russian courts that a publication is not illegal. This can seriously hamper the conduct of effective election campaigns by any opposition forces.
The massive, politically motivated measures of the current government aimed at restricting the rights and freedoms of people deemed dangerous to the state authorities or the political system is nothing else but political repression as defined by Federal Law No. 1761-1 "On the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression" signed on 18.10.1991 by then President Boris Yeltsin. It is also a violation of several articles of the Constitution which guarantee ideological and political diversity, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression of convictions which are inalienable under the Constitution.