Former deputies of the Georgian Dream, an openly anti-Western movement, whose members called themselves “People’s Power” and openly try to pursue the interests of the ruling power, submitted a bill to the parliament, according to which non-governmental organizations and media outlets that are financed by a “foreign investors” will have to be registered as “agents of foreign influence”.
According to them, the only reason why the bill was developed is “transparency”. According to the bill, all non-governmental organizations and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their income from abroad are considered “agents of foreign influence”. This list will not only consist of a short number of units.
Georgian Dream, which openly supports the bill, and the so-called People’s Power talk about the connection of the document with the American and Hungarian versions and disagree with the idea that the initiative has something in common with the Russian version. The members of the majority also note that the law won’t limit the activities of organizations, however, the public’s attitude towards human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations should be taken into account, which will be worsened by their association with foreign interests and agencies. Moreover, the restrictive legal framework of civil society rarely suppresses the free voice with one stroke — it is a long process of changes, additions, and corrections, which regresses more and more over time and for a developing country like Georgia, hinders the process of social, economic, democratic development. It worsens the human rights situation and eventually becomes a powerful controlling mechanism in the hands of the authorities.
The law on “foreign agents” was also adopted in Russia under the pretext of financial transparency, and looking back on the 10 years that have passed since then, it becomes clear how the legal framework became stricter and worse, and finally how the situation reached the silence of the civil society.
How everything started in Russia
The dangerous trend of limiting the non-governmental sector in Russia began as early as 2006 when additions appeared in legal acts that set a broad, vaguely defined framework for the registration and activities of organizations. Among them, the grounds for a refusal to register an organization were expanded and formulated as follows: registration would be refused to an organization whose goals and objectives threatened the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, unique characteristics, cultural heritage, and national interests of the Russian Federation. Also, the organizations were obliged to record and submit annual audit results, a detailed report on funds and activities, sources of funding and goals, as well as, in accordance with the request, information on the daily activities of the organization. In addition, the government representatives were allowed to attend the events as they wished.
In 2009, after Barack Obama visited Russia to assess the human rights situation, the law was slightly softened. Among them, part of the grounds for refusal determined by the law were removed and the obligation to submit an audit to organizations was defined once in 3 years.
In 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after a four-year hiatus, which was followed by a wave of mass protests, restrictions on the non-governmental sector were radically strengthened. In November of the same year, amendments came into force requiring foreign-funded organizations participating in “political activities” to register as foreign agents. The vague content of “political activities”, which did not mean clearly defined actions, made it possible for even those organizations that did not engage in political activities to be labeled as “foreign agents”
After legal changes, “foreign agents” were mandated by law to:
- Creating a quarterly financial report on political activities carried out and presentation of annual audit;
- Creating the documents that would describe the composition of the organization’s governing body and half-yearly activities;
- Despite the annual obligation to submit planned audits, unplanned audits of “foreign agents” could be carried out unplanned, in an unlimited number;
- Political activities had to be agreed upon with the government officials before the organization was allowed to participate in them;
- In case of refusal to register as a “foreign agent”, organizations would be restricted from participating in public demonstrations, and access to bank accounts and would be fined up to 300,000 rubles (about 10,500 GEL at today’s exchange rate) or employees would be threatened with imprisonment for up to 2 years;
- Donations of more than 200,000 rubles (7,000 GEL) would be subject to mandatory monitoring;
- In addition, “foreign agents” were obliged to publish any material in the media, on the Internet, with the relevant disclaimer;
- The jurisdiction of the Federal Agency for Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism has been extended to cases of violation of the law.
The legal definition of “political activism” included influencing the government’s agenda and attempting to change public opinion about that agenda. The mentioned legal understanding covers all non-governmental organizations, because human rights, environmental or any other political or social organization tries, on the one hand, to direct the public’s attention to the challenges and, on the other hand, to call the decision-makers to review the agenda.
The Law on “Agents of Foreign Influence” provided exceptions, including measures that covered issues of science, culture, art, health, social assistance, protection of mothers and children, support of disabled people, environmental protection, philanthropy, and volunteerism. However, even organizations working in this direction did not have absolute immunity — for example, if an organization criticized the government on a certain issue, planned a protest demonstration, or used another way of criticizing the political process, its status was defined as “involved in political activities”.
Amnesty International’s report from 2016, “Agents of the People: Four years of “foreign agents” law in Russia: Consequences for the society,” outlined the difficult situation of 15 NGOs after being listed as “foreign agents.” It should be noted that a number of organizations mentioned in the research were from the list of exceptional directions, among them, those engaged in environmental or scientific activities.
According to the research, in the first 4 years, at least 21 environmental organizations, 10 organizations promoting science, education, and research-involved activities, and 6 educational initiatives aimed at preserving the memory of the victims of Stalinist repressions were included in the list of “foreign agents”. There was even a photography club on the list. This is only a small part of the organizations that should not be considered “foreign agents” as an exception. Of course, the human rights organizations that protected the rights of prisoners and made efforts to protect them from torture were also not left behind. In addition, at least 6 women’s rights protection, 12 journalism quality assurance, 8 indigenous population and ethnic minority organizations, 2 LGBTQI, and 2 organizations supporting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were included in the list. It should be noted that a large part of the organizations, despite the legal reservation, appeared in the list only because they were financed from abroad, and not because of their political activity.
As a result, in the past 3 years (2012-2015) from the strengthening of the law to the preparation of the study, 27 out of 148 organizations registered as foreign agents were closed. It became a challenge for organizations to raise funds and their scope of action was significantly restricted as several prohibitions emerged. In addition, the public mood has worsened significantly.
According to Sergei Nikitin, the director of Amnesty International’s Russian office at the time, Russia’s far-reaching interests did not include a critical, active civil society and strong non-governmental organizations. They preferred to have organizations connected to government bodies.
The “Foreign Agents” law was created to bind, stigmatize and ultimately silence critical non-governmental organizations,” says Sergey Nikitin.
Since 2017, during the mass anti-corruption protests organized by Alexei Navalny, Putin has launched a direct attack on the free media as well.
The direct attack on the media
Amendments were made to the law on media, according to which all foreign media could be included in the list of “foreign agents” and the same restrictions imposed on them as the non-governmental organizations had until then. Foreign funding became the main criterion for granting the status of “foreign agent”. “Foreign Agent” media are obliged to attach the appropriate label to the published materials:
“The following message (material) was created and/or distributed by a foreign media organization acting as a foreign agent, and/or by a Russian legal entity acting as a foreign agent.”
In addition to the burden of submitting detailed quarterly financial reports, the change created additional challenges for media organizations — it became more difficult to communicate with political figures, representatives of civil society, or ordinary respondents who didn’t want to be associated with “foreign agents” in any way.
The law became more and more strict, and soon all independent media outlets, in general, were threatened. Even the reservation of foreign funding has expanded to such an extent that any kind of activity, be it attending international meetings with foreign funding or receiving financial benefits from a person living abroad, has become a reason to be labeled an “agent”.
Since 2019, the “Foreign Agents” law has been extended to individuals, and critical journalists have appeared on the list. In 2021, after Navalny’s arrest was followed by a wave of protests, the law was further expanded to fine any publication that shared material from “foreign agents” without adding their status.
According to the International Press Institute, “By the end of 2021, approximately 1,500 activists and journalists were forced to flee the country. More than 100 legal entities and individuals were declared media organizations that were “foreign agents”. And those who remained in the country were often forced to resort to self-censorship to have the opportunity to continue working”.
In 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine and declared war, it became even more important for Putin to control the spread of information, so the law was expanded once again.
The basis for being declared as a foreign agent was not only foreign funding but also simply being under “foreign influence”. In addition, a separate list was started for people who are “connected with foreign agents”. The mentioned list includes the founder, leader, participant, member, and employee of the “agent” organization, as well as people who received funding from “foreign agents”.
With the new changes, the definition of political activity has also expanded. For example, any organization working in the sphere of the protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms is automatically considered to be involved in political activity. Even in the areas of exception, which were defined by the 2012 amendments, a special reference was added, which provides for the exclusion of contradictions with national interests, civil law, the Russian Federation, and other values defined by the Constitution.
What is happening in Russia now and what can happen in Georgia?
Currently, there are 637 entities on the list of Russian “foreign agents”, including 81 non-profit organizations, 190 foreign media and individuals, 11 unregistered associations, 62 individuals, and 77 undesirable organizations.
Even after 2021, 12 media outlets, 56 journalists, and 12 non-profit organizations were declared “foreign agents”.
In Putin’s Russia, financial transparency and the fight against corruption were initially noted as the reasons for the adoption of the law, although it is clear that Putin, who returned to the post of president for several terms, wanted to suppress anti-protests, control civil society, establish control over the dissemination of information and, most importantly, change public opinion. The more than 10 years since 2012 show that Russia’s authoritarian rule has made it impossible and/or risky for the non-governmental sector to operate.
A poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center of 2022 shows that public opinion about “foreign agents” is exactly what Putin wants.
To the question, what associations do you have with the phrase “foreign agent?”, the answers were distributed as follows:
- Negative, unpleasant associations — 15%
- spy — 14%
- Traitor to the Motherland — 7%
- Enemy/enemy of the people and the state — 6%
- Acting under the interests of another country — 4%
- Receiving money from abroad — 3%
- Against/Enemy of Russia — 3%
- Foreign Intelligence/Secret Service — 3%
- Harassment/persecution by the state — 2%
- Against the government/opposition/dissident — 2%
- Media/Journalists — 2%
- Attempt to overthrow the government — 2%
- Foreigner/citizen of another country — 2%
- Positive association/positive attitude — 2%
- No association — 11%
- Other — 5%
- Found it difficult to answer – 24%
After more than 10 years since the adoption of the law on “foreign agents” in Russia – the facts of the closure of the country’s leading organizations, the departure of civil society leaders from the country, public opinion surveys that show that labeling NGOs and media with the “foreign agent” marker causes negative, treacherous associations or threatening perceptions The resulting reality, which is based only on government propaganda and falsified information, gives only a small idea of the dangerous path that Georgia is taking now. Putin’s Russia has gone through a ten-year (more if we start counting from 2006) way of silencing the non-governmental sector and the media, which naturally raises the question, what will be the situation in Georgia 10 years from now?