What does it mean to be a “foreign agent” in Russia?

On October 27 the “Bill on the Registration of Foreign Agents” was submitted to the Bulgarian National Assembly. The bill was signed by a group of MPs from “Vazrazhdane” (The Revival Party).

Factcheck.bg has already published a text about the American law on foreign agents – FARA. The existence of such a law in the USA is often used by “Vazrazhdane” as an argument for the creation of a similar law in Bulgaria, which would apply to their (US) “agents” in Bulgaria.

Then we promised you a text about the existing Russian law on foreign agents, which is also motivated by the American law FARA. However, the comparison shows that both the goals and the means of the two laws differ greatly.

The history of the Russian law until 2022

In July 2012, the concept “foreign agent” was introduced into Russian legislation by an amendment to the Law on Non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs that engage in “political activity” and are funded from abroad are required to register in a special register for foreign agents. Organizations must report their activities in detail to the authorities and allow financial audits at any time. Failure to comply with the law is punishable by heavy fines or two years in prison.

“Political activity” is defined as “participation, including through funding, in organizing and carrying out political activity with the aim of influencing government decisions aimed at changing state policies, as well as influencing public opinion with similar aims”. There is a similar definition of political activity in the American law FARA.

In 2012, even before the Russian Duma voted on the amendments to the law, the NGO Human Rights Watch asked Russian lawmakers to not accept the proposed changes because their aim was to “marginalize and discredit foreign-funded groups that are ambassadors of change in Russia”.

In 2016, a new amendment was made to the law, with which the definition of “political activity” was broadened. And despite the fact that activities in the fields of science, culture, art, health care, environment, etc. were made an exception, organizations with such activities are still being included in the register of foreign agents. According to a 2016 report by Amnesty International covering the first four years since the amended Law on NGOs came into force, at least 21 environmental organizations were added to the register.

The report of Amnesty International also confirms the concerns of Human Rights Watch from 2012. The main affected NGOs work in the field of human rights and their protection. From 2012 to 2016, a total of 148 organizations were entered in the register, and 27 of them subsequently ceased their activities on the territory of Russia.

In 2017, the same law was amended again and its scope was extended in order to include foreign-funded media. In December 2019, a new change in the law made individuals such as bloggers and journalist also subject of the law. A person can be declared a “foreign agent” even just for sharing publications from media outlets that are already on the register.

New changes from 2020 include prison up to 5 years for “foreign agents” who fail to properly report their activities to the authorities. Any journalist who collects information related to “national security” can also be declared a “foreign agent”.

In 2021, in its report, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe recommended that the Russian Federation completely revise the legal texts regarding foreign agents since their introduction in 2012. According to the Commission the latest amendments have the potential to harm the civil and political rights, which are necessary for the existence of democracy.

In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of NGOs suing Russia under the NGO Law. The court’s decision states that this legal act violates the freedom of assembly and association from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Russia is using its withdrawal from the Council of Europe in March 2022 as a justification for not intending to take into account the ruling of ECHR on the case,

The new foreign agents law

In July 2022, the Russian Duma adopted an entirely new law, the purpose of which is to regulate the activities of foreign agents on the territory of the Russian Federation. This new law consolidates and upgrades the main provisions contained in other federal laws regarding the status of the foreign agents. The law entered into force on December 1, 2022.

The new law defines “foreign agent” as any natural or legal entity that receives financial support from abroad or is under “foreign influence”. In Article 2, Paragraph 1, “foreign influence” is defined as “the provision of support from foreign source to a person or influence on that person, including through coercion, persuasion or other means”.

Foreign sources can be the governments of foreign countries, international and foreign organizations, foreign citizens, as well as Russian citizens or legal entities that receive foreign funding and serve as an intermediary for providing funds to third parties.

The scope of the law includes “political activity, purposeful collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of the Russian federation, dissemination of messages and materials intended for an unlimited circle of people and (or) the participation in the creation of such messages and materials”. The definition of political activity covers practically all spheres of public life and places most of the NGOs and media outlets in the focus of the law.

An exception is made for activities in the fields of science, culture, art, health care, social services, family, traditional family values, etc., but only if those activities do not contradict the national interests of Russia and the constitutionally established order, law and values.

The Law on Foreign Agents provides for the creation of a separate register in which those associated with foreign agents will be included. Any natural entity who is a member of the bodies of a legal entity – a foreign agents or is its founder, member, participant, manager or employee is considered related; or a person who carries out political activity and receives funds or property from foreign agents, including through intermediaries, to carry out political activity.

People registered as foreign agents are subject to a number of prohibitions: they do not have the right to state funding for creative activities, they do not have the right to teach in state and municipal educational organizations, they do not have the right to create informational products for minors, they do not have the right to organize public events.

In July 2022, in connection with the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Law on NGOs, the Council of the European Union published a declaration condemning Russia’s continuing attempts to put pressure on civil society, including through the Law on Foreign Agents. In a report dated September 14, 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, said that “the new extensions in the law further marginalize the subject of human rights compliance in the country, which is unacceptable”.

Do Russian and American law look alike?

Already in 2012, Russia argued for the introduction of the status of a “foreign agent” with the existence of a similar one in the USA. But the American law in this area is very different, both in terms of its goals and its specific application.

FARA in the USA passed in 1938 and aims to be transparent about whether people and organizations acting on behalf of foreign countries and organizations are involved in public debate. The law does not prohibit the expression of different ideologies and positions, nor does it prohibit organizations from carrying out certain activities. Foreign agents under US law are entities acting under the direction and control of a “foreign principal” (owner/manager). In the Russian law, “foreign influence” is defined as a condition, which is significantly more fluid and subject to broad interpretations.

The 2021 report of the Venice Commission said that while the American law explicitly explains what was meant by activity in the interests of a foreign state or organization, the Russian law does not require specific evidence that someone is acting for the interests of a foreign country, organization, etc.

In the Russian law the scope of entities and activities is much broader than in the American law. The addition of the concept of “foreign influence” expands the range of people and organizations that can be included in the register of foreign agents. Creating a register of associated entities also increases the number of people and organizations, whose activities will be closely monitored.

There is an exception written into American law for the media under certain conditions. The US foreign agent register includes state-controlled media, but their activities are not restricted. The law does not focus on the media and NGOs, especially those working in the field of human rights, while in Russia they are the subject of the most severe restrictions.

According to the Russian law foreign and local media organizations, as well as individual journalist, including bloggers, vloggers, etc. can make it on the register. For entry into the register it is enough to prove the presence of “foreign influence” in any form, material or not. Such practice is entirely absent from the American law.

Russia often refers to the American practice when arguing for the need for such a law, but fails to note that in the US itself the law’s application to the media has been subject to a number of critics (even when it comes to Russia’s RT). American lawyers and media experts are calling for the word “agent” to be removed and the law’s application to the media to be rethought because of the potential for the government to use it to silence critical voices. Just like the Russian government has been doing since 2012.

Among the media outlets registered as foreign agents in Russia are: the Dutch investigative outlet “Bellingcat”, the German “Deutsche Welle”, the Russian independent TV channel “Dozhd”, the Russian independent news website “Meduza”, “Novaya Gazeta” of the Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, the American media “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty” (RFERL), the American radio “Voice of America” (VoA) and many others.

In just a month (from September 24 to October 24, 2022), 30 new “agents” were added to the Russian register of foreign agents.

During the same period Russian state institutions blocked a total of more than 20,000 sources of information online. Access to various podcasts, which the Russian side claims are disseminating information prohibited on the territory of Russia, has been blocked. In October alone, three journalists were arrested for reporting on the mobilization in the country.

Currently, a total of 549 entities are present in the Russian register of foreign agents: 79 NGOs, 189 media (of which 135 are natural entities), 67 “undesirable organizations”, 49 natural entities and 10 public associations without acquired legal entity rights. Only since the beginning of 2022, 160 entities have been added to the register.

Ralitsa Kovacheva also worked on the text.

Translated by Vanessa Nikolova


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Руският Закон за НПО-тата от 2012 г.: https://rg.ru/documents/2012/07/23/nko-dok.html

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Противоречивият Закон за НПО-тата, “Би Би Си”: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18938165

Изменения в Закона за НПО-тата от 2016 г.: http://www.consultant.ru/cons/cgi/online.cgi?req=doc&base=LAW&n=198862&fld=134&dst=100012&rnd=214990.653339439526806&#SK8tpLTOcCo0SJGE1

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За руския Закон за чуждестранните агенти, OSCE PA: https://www.oscepa.org/en/news-a-media/press-releases/press-2021/russia-s-foreign-agent-legislation-detrimental-to-civil-society-osce-pa-s-kauma-says

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До 5 години затвор. Руският парламент разшири обхвата на закона срещу чуждестранните агенти, “Свободна Европа”: https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/31017431.html

Руският Закон за чуждестранните агенти от 2022 г.: https://rg.ru/documents/2022/07/19/document-inoagent.html

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Русия вече смята за шпионин всеки, който е “под чуждестранно влияние”. Путин подписа над сто закона, “Свободна Европа”: https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/31944523.html

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ООН трябва да предприеме действия по увеличаващото се посегателство срещу свободата на словото в Русия, “Хюмън Райтс Уоч”: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/02/un-must-act-now-stop-russias-growing-crackdown-activism-and-free-speech

Профил на Русия в “Хюмън Райст Уоч”: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2022/country-chapters/russia#eaa21f

Русия добавя журналисти и ЛГБТ активисти в регистъра на чуждестранните агенти: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-foreign-agents-journalists-lgbt/31805529.html

Русия вписва “Белингкат” в регистъра на чуждестранните агенти, “Гардиън”: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/08/russia-labels-investigative-news-outlet-bellingcat-a-foreign-agent

Русия вписва “Дойче Веле” в регистъра на чуждестранните агенти, “Дойче Веле”: https://www.dw.com/en/russia-labels-deutsche-welle-a-foreign-agent/a-61280277

Русия вписва “Дождь” в регистъра на чуждестранните агенти, “Ройтерс”: https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/russia-declares-media-outlet-tv-rain-foreign-agent-2021-08-20/

Русия вписва “Медуза” в регистъра на чуждестранните агенти, “Свободна Европа”: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-meduza-labeled-foreign-agent-press-freedom/31219272.html

Русия вписва “Радио Свободна Европа” и “Гласът на Америка” в регистъра на чуждестранните агенти, “Ройтерс”: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-usa-media-restrictions-idUSKBN1DZ0MP

Антивоенните репресии в Русия през първите осем месеца на войната, “ОВД-Инфо”: https://data.ovdinfo.org/svodka-antivoennyy-repressiy-vosem-mesyacev-voyny#1

Списък с регистрираните като чуждестранни агенти в Русия: https://data.ovdinfo.org/agents/

Everything to know about FARA, and why it shouldn’t be used against the press https://www.cjr.org/analysis/fara-press.php

Публикацията е създадена с подкрепата на Европейския съюз. Отговорността за съдържанието е изцяло на Factcheck.bg.

Vanessa Nikolova
Vanessa Nikolova
Vanessa Nikolova graduated in journalism from the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski". She has worked as an editor and translator in print and online media. She is interested in topics related to the Western Balkans and the Far East, including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. She is passionate about astronomy and astrophysics, and one of her goals as a journalist is to make science more accessible and interesting for the average reader. Works with English, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, Serbian and Korean languages.

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