„Foreign agent“ legislation

In the United States of America a similar law1 exists enacted 1938 as a measure against Third Reich propagandists. The description of elements of an offense, registration enforcement and threat of imprisonment sound similar. To date in the USA this regulation originally declared an anti-Nazi law is still in force. Later the law was amended several times, and used for instance for the anti-Cuba policy of the US government.2 In Russia in 20123,4,5,6,6,28 this idea was copied7,8, but is directed primarily not against Nazis, but against any kind of political active organizations and their activists.9

However, relevant differences speak against justifying the Russian persecution of NGOs as „foreign agents“ with the US „Foreign Agents Registration Act“ (FARA), as the Russian government7 does in public. While the US law aims basically on individuals1 (and in this connection explicitly on foreign citizens1,7)2 becoming active inside the United States, the Russian law exclusively has Russian non-governmental organizations4,6,7 in the focus. Thus, it is about the oppression of domestic engagement of their „own“ citizens respectively their organizations. Scientific, religious, artistic and humanitarian activities in the USA are not targeted by FARA2 – in contrast, in Russia organizations from those fields are definitely in the focus of the „foreign agent“ legislation7,8, and humanitarian NGOs actually experience this persecution systematicly29. Besides, the term of a „foreign agent“ has a quite different meaning in the two countries. While in English linguistic usage the word „agent“ doesn‘t aim that much on espionage, but means representatives of certain interests (e.g. commercial agent etc.), in the Russian discourse it means foreign spies4,8 linking to a term formed in Cold War29 propaganda8, and according to polls a majority of the population4 still understands it this way. Whereas in the USA „foreign agents“ are simply people acting in the interest of foreign bodies, in Russia the word in recognized in military sense as „foreign spy“7,28. Apparently, no organization whose work is addressing the general public and which wants to practise enlightenment, can actually exist with such label4,6,8,28.

Organizations engaging for the protection of human rights were one of the main targets of the „foreign agent“ legislation11. The law had been created in November 201229 after the protests against irregularities during the Russian presidential elections in March4, where election observation NGOs had accompanied the process critically and indicated manipulations12,18,9. The Russian president Vladimir Putin imputed the strong protest movement to be initiated by the West. Before the introduction of the „foreign agent“ law he already had initiated a drastic aggravation of the right to demonstrate.9 „This is aimed to demonstrate that groups criticizing Russian government are doing this not for protecting public interest, but because they were paid by some ‚foreign evil‘ to do this“, explains Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairperson of the environmental organization Ecodefense31.

„The Free Dictionary“ explains „foreign agent“ as „(military) a secret agent hired by a state to obtain information about its enemies or by a business to obtain industrial secrets from competitors“. „Spy“ and „undercover agent“ are offered as synonyms.17 According to the Russian definition „foreign agents“ are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving sponsorship or other support from abroad19,12 and being politically active20,14,9,28,29. Due to the political situation in Russia and the financial precarious circumstances of many people there, it is obvious that political independent work without support from groups and activists in other countries is difficult. Thus, many, maybe post of these politically independent, critical organizations in Russia are threatened by the „foreign agent“ law.15,7

Already in connection to the first reading of the draft of law in State Duma in July 2012 oppositional parties protested in the parliament as well as non-governmental organizations outside the building. There was also criticism against the law7 by Tatyana Morshchakova, one of the authors of the Russian constitution, and by the Kremlin’s advisory Human Rights Council. Russian human rights organizations consider the law illegitimate and in contradiction with the basic rights16 guaranteed by the Russian constitution4. In the Russian lower house it had been supported already by a majority of the representatives. The governmental party „United Russia“ ruling a majority in the parliament had introduced the proposal for the law. Official it is supposed to prevent foreign states to impact the Russian home affairs.9,4,7


Practically, a treatment for „foreign agent“ activity means that a NGO will be requested to register as foreign agent21,9. This can be done also on one’s own initiative4, but due to the consequences hardly any organization registers itself as „foreign agent“. If the groups don‘t want to be labelled „spy“22,23, a fine30 (up to 500,000 ruble4,10 – more than 10,000 EUR – for the organization, and up to 300,000 ruble – more than 6,000 EUR – for the executive director10) impends NGO and representatives or even jail (up to four years imprisonment4 in case of refusing to pay the fine30). The organization then can be registered by the authorities by force. Most of the NGOs close after that8,29, because a continuation of work after such classification is almost impossible: they are then subject of massive control4, in publications they have to disclose as „foreign agent“8,24,29, it becomes difficult to rent venues for events, they are stigmatized as spies in the public perception4, and any other NGO cooperating with a „foreign agent“ runs the risk of being classified as such, too28. However, to „work in the underground“ doesn‘t make sense for a legal NGO.15

To reduce the risk of more and more organizations being targeted with „foreign agent“ cases in accelerated procedures, there is a unuttered consensus between Russian NGOs to go through with the whole procedure to the ultimate instance as the chances against a once started process of being classified „foreign agent“ is virtually zero28. Otherwise the repression bodies could come to mind to simply copiously threaten unwanted groups hoping then they would just close themselves to save efforts. A procedure brought through all instances in addition holds the chance to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights.30

Since Putin’s signature under the amendment to the „foreign agent“ legislation on 4th of June 2014 the Russian Ministry of Justice is authorized to declare NGOs foreign agents in their sole discretion13,14 without the need for a trial before. This will probably lead to a rapid growth of the Russian „foreign agent“ register13 – at the time still only one organization is listed there14: the NGO „Promoting Competition in the CIS“13. All other organizations concerned had closed after that stigmatization and sometimes founded new NGOs. Indeed with this amendment the high fines should disappear, if the procedure to declare an organization „foreign agent“ would be bypassed. But it seems the amendment created new reasons, and the Ministry was empowered „to impose fines on defiant NGOs“14.

Handling of the foreign agent legislation in Russia

Civil society organizations‘ general refusal to voluntarily register under what is considered a demeaning moniker spurred in early 2013 an onslaught of prosecutorial raids across Russia.29

In Russia the strategy of most NGOs so far is to declare their activities not to be political, as they interpret it would mean party-related work or politics23,28. But then the law is phrased quite open8,25 and mentions „any political activities“26. There have been criticism in Russia on the deliberated strategy of the NGOs and voices stressing a mutual radical objection of the law as a whole to be necessary. Currently, the resistance against it is mostly defensive, and eventually the Russian courts define themselves how they understand „political activities“.15 In April 2014 the Constitutional Court of Russia finally gave its blessing to the regulation – and stated any activity on the street would be political23. In March Putin announced a tightening of the legislation27, which came into effect with his signature under a new law on 4th of June 201413,28. First this authorization by law hit five human rights organizations declared by the Ministry of Justice „foreign agents“ without court process, then with Ecodefense also the first environmental organization was affected28.

Until June 2014 a forcible addition of an NGO to the „foreign agent“ register required first a persecution’s inspection alleging the concerned organization to act as „foreign agent“, and also a court to confirm this judgement. The amendments to the „foreign agent“ law came into power after Putin’s signature on June 4, and gave leeway to the Ministry of Justice to add non-governmental organizations to the „foreign agent“ register without their consent and without a court decision. The changes in the law had been proposed by State Duma legislator and exKGB agent Andrei Lugovoi in April 2014. Lugovoi is wanted by British authorities as prime suspect in the notorious polonium-210 murder of the banned former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko in London 2006.29


  1. http://www.fara.gov/fara-faq.html as of July 1, 2014 [back]
  2. https://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Foreign_Agents_Registration_Act&oldid=128916972 as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  3. In spring 2012 the „foreign agent“ regulation was accepted by the State Duma (Lower house of the Russian parliament), president Putin signed it on June Juli, and on November 21 of the same year it came into effect.
    http://in.rbth.com/articles/2012/12/28/russian_ngo_opts_to_be_registered_as_foreign_agent_21199.html as of May 25, 2014
    http://rbth.co.uk/news/2013/04/25/golos_association_ordered_to_pay_fine_for_failing_to_register_as_foreign_25447.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  4. http://in.rbth.com/articles/2012/11/24/ngos_to_fight_law_branding_them_foreign_agents_19297.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  5. http://solidarity-russia.org/ as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  6. http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2012-07/putin-ngo-gesetz as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  7. http://rbth.asia/articles/2012/07/09/ngos_must_register_as_foreign_agents_15707.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  8. http://rbth.asia/politics/2013/09/12/foreign_agents_label_continues_to_attract_controversy_48755.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  9. http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2012-07/russland-ngo-gesetz as of June 26, 2014 [back]
  10. http://www.rferl.org/section/crackdown-on-ngos-in-russia/3272.html as of June 24, 2014 [back]
  11. http://7×7-journal.ru/post/42651 as of May 28, 2014 [back]
  12. http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2012-07/russland-gesetz-agenten as of June 26, 2014 [back]
  13. http://barentsobserver.com/en/politics/2014/06/tightening-grip-ngos-murmansk-11-06 as of June 14, 2014 [back]
  14. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/ngos-in-russia-could-be-labeled-foreign-agents-without-their-consent/501560.html as of June 14, 2014 [back]
  15. source: talks with Russian activists in spring 2014 and the year before [back]
  16. http://www.constitution.ru/de/part2.htm as of June 27, 2014 [back]
  17. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/foreign+agent as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  18. http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2012-03/russland-praesidentschaftswahl-betrug as of June 26, 2014 [back]
  19. http://www.transparency.org.ru/en/news/threats-to-civil-society-space as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  20. http://www.nuclear-heritage.net/index.php?title=Update_on_repression_against_environmental_groups_in_Russia&oldid=72070 as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  21. http://rbth.com/society/2013/04/13/russia_busts_golos_as_foreign_agent_ngo_24985.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  22. According to the magazine „Russia & India Report“ „foreign agent“ in Russian is used synonymously to „spy“
    http://in.rbth.com/articles/2012/11/24/what_does_the_term_foreign_agent_mean_to_russians_19295.html as of May 25, 2014
    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/ngos-in-russia-could-be-labeled-foreign-agents-without-their-consent/501560.html as of June 14, 2014 [back]
  23. http://www.linksnet.de/de/artikel/31300 as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  24. http://bellona.org/news/russian-human-rights-issues/russian-ngo-law/2012-11-russian-ngos-receiving-foreign-funding-greet-new-law-to-register-as-foreign-agents-with-yawns as of June 24, Juni 2014 [back]
  25. http://de.rbth.com/politik/2013/03/27/kreml_sucht_auslaendische_agenten_22679.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  26. http://in.rbth.com/articles/2012/11/24/what_does_the_term_foreign_agent_mean_to_russians_19295.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  27. http://rbth.com/news/2014/03/27/loopholes_in_law_on_ngos_to_be_eliminated_so_that_they_do_not_work_in_in_35418.html as of May 25, 2014 [back]
  28. http://bellona.org/news/russian-human-rights-issues/russian-ngo-law/2014-07-foreign-agent-wants-slap-label-ecodefense-resisting-matters as of July 7, 2014 [back]
  29. http://bellona.org/news/russian-human-rights-issues/russian-ngo-law/2014-07-breaking-russian-authorities-officially-brand-four-leading-human-rights-organizations-ecodefense-foreign-agents-ahead-court-decisions as of August 2, 2014 [back]
  30. interview with GDM chair person Zhanna Ponomarenko on June 13, 2014 [back]
  31. information from Ecodefense via e-mail as of July 24, 2014 [zurück]