We know so thanks to President Putin’s efforts in hiring influential citizens from the United States to bring Russia’s interest as close as possible to the White House — or directly into the Oval Office. Others have done the same, such as President Aliyev from Azerbaijan, who is also a champion in restricting access to foreign funding for NGOs in his country.
Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates have been indicted by a federal grand jury, as part of special counsel Mueller’s ongoing investigation. They are facing 12 counts, including tax fraud and money laundering, as well as charges of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), for having acted as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal and providing false and misleading statements under FARA about the nature of their activities in Ukraine.
Ironically, the probe into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections has brought to the forefront a US law which has been used as an analogy by the Russian authorities to justify its “foreign agents” legislation. Even President Putin in televised interviews referred to FARA as a “similar law” and that such laws were “common” in many countries.
The “similarity” starts and ends with the mention of “foreign agent” in the name. The “foreign agent law” in the United States regulates the activities of the kind of agents like Paul Manafort. It aims at ensuring transparency in the lobbying by foreign governments, including through a set of registration and reporting requirements for those individuals and companies hired as legal agents of a foreign principal, or entities representing state interests: for example “foreign agents” include national tourist boards and media agencies. But it does not include civil society organizations. FARA does not prevent US NGOs from receiving financial support from abroad and does not force them to register as foreign agents.
The Russian law, by contrast, requires all non-governmental organisations (non-commercial organisations) to register as “foreign agents” before receiving funding from any international source, if they intend to conduct broadly defined “political activities” within the Russian Federation. The legislation does not ban or restrict access to international grants, but it requires that NGOs receiving such grants declare they work for a foreign power. Unlike in English, the label “foreign agent” in Russian carries a disturbing historical meaning from Soviet times when it was used to stigmatize people as traitors and spies, in particular during Stalin’s rule. In addition to the registration, such foreign funded NGOs also need to inform the Ministry of Justice about any foreign transaction greater than 200,000 Roubles (less than 3,000 €). And lastly, an amendment to the law allows the Ministry of Justice to register organizations as “foreign agents” without their consent — and the burden is on the organizations to prove that they are not.
The Russian Duma is far from being as open to influencers, lobbyists and of course activists as the US Congress — and far from being a true power with regard to the executive branch. If it were, and if a foreign government or company would fund an individual to influence policies, that person would not be concerned by the Russian “foreign agent” legislation.
The legislation in fact targets those working for organisations engaging in political activities. As we wrote back in 2012 to the United Nations in a submission about the legislation, the law defines “political activities” as “any public action aimed at change of state policy and policy of state bodies.” The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Maina Kiai considered that “these amendments constitute a direct affront to those wishing to freely exercise their right to freedom of association.”
Aiming at changing government policies is very exactly what we aim at, within the human rights movement. But we do not aim at changing policies in favour of our donors. Nor do we aim at giving our donors greater access to the Kremlin, or the White House. We want to convince, we hold States accountable to their obligations and commitments, we express encouragement and disappointment and too often rage when rights are violated; to do so, we hence want that access to power for ourselves. We do not want to hold power. We want to influence power to change.
The legislation does therefore aim at stigmatising human rights defenders, ostracising them in society. It is a de facto ban on foreign funding for those groups not wishing be classified in this manner. It hits the hardest those which are excluded from receiving national subsidies — often because of their critical positions — and rely on foreign funding for their activities. Thereby, cutting off from foreign funding also effectively contributes to silencing dissent. The legislation further criminalises human rights work, given the heavy criminal penalty foreseen (up to four years imprisonment and/or fines of up to 300,000 Roubles, approximately 4,400 €).
The Russian legislation on foreign grants aims at shutting the doors of power to those who hold ideals, who want to work for the interest of the 99%. It wishes to silence those who represent the exact contrary to what Paul Manafort stands for.
The Russian “foreign agents” law is spreading. We saw it develop in Hungary and a copy emerged in Israël. Now, in Australia’s civil society unites against a draft law limiting access to foreign funding, the litmus test of the country’s legislation should be whether it will be able to target specifically the agents representing interests of foreign principals — it should in no way hinder the work and weaken civil society.
Our success is not the amount of money we are able to assemble in a bank account, hidden abroad or not. Our successes are measured by the laws and practices we were able to change, the discriminatory policies we were able to abolish, the progress for anybody to enjoy all human rights we are able to achieve.
These successes are inadmissible to President Putin and his allies. They needed to attempt to stop us getting support from donors who believe in the universality of human rights and their indivisibility, and allow us to be successful — this is why blocking foreign funding is indeed the new Berlin Wall. We are encouraged by the way such donors now adapt their work methods to continue supporting human rights defenders in a climate of increasing restrictions to access foreign grant.