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Law change aimed at Russian activists

by ROBYN DIXON THE WASHINGTON POST | April 4, 2021 at 3:52 a.m.

MOSCOW -- Changes to Russia's draconian law on "foreign agents" are threatening to close some of the country's oldest rights organizations, even reversing the victories of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov in the final years of the Soviet Union.

As the Kremlin tightens its grip, the new rules mean that anyone who posts opinions critical of authorities on social media and allegedly receives overseas donations or payments can be named a foreign agent, a term that conveys the meaning of spy or traitor in Russia.

The foreign agent law has been a highly effective tool of authorities to harass and fragment Russia's pro-democracy activists and others -- just one part of a sweeping crackdown on Kremlin critics under President Vladimir Putin.

The penalties, which took effect in March, can bring up to five years of jail for those who do not obey a government order to register as foreign agents or do not submit regular detailed reports of all plans, activities and finances.

The first five people named as foreign agents include a feminist performance artist who teaches Russian to migrants, a 79-year-old veteran human rights activist named Lev Ponomaryov, and three independent journalists who contribute to U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The changes also claimed one of the giants of Russia's human rights world, Ponomaryov's For Human Rights nongovernmental organization, with more than 1,000 activists across Russia.

"It's a kind of cold civil war," said Ponomaryov, who dissolved For Human Rights last month.

Several other organizations are under intense state pressure, including smaller groups such as an independent doctors union and an organization supporting victims of domestic violence.

The list also includes venerable names: the Russia operations of Radio Free Europe; and Memorial, the NGO founded by Sakharov, Ponomaryov and others that began work exposing Soviet political executions and the gulag, the vast network of Soviet prison camps where thousands of political prisoners served sentences of hard labor, many of whom died.

"In Soviet times, especially in the era of great terror, we had 'spies' everywhere," said Marina Agaltsova, senior lawyer at Memorial. "And the term 'foreign agent' in Russian is perceived to mean a spy. The government is trying to put the label 'spy' on people who are criticizing the government and disagreeing with its policy and politics."

An initial 2012 law targeted registered NGOs that receive foreign funding, but it has steadily been broadened. In 2017, Russia named Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a foreign agent in retaliation for American demands that Kremlin-funded Russian media in the United States register as foreign agents.

Russia's Justice Ministry has mounted 260 cases against the broadcaster for not marking its reports with a "foreign agent" label, with fines of $980,000 in 142 of those cases since Jan. 14.

In September, agents of Russia's Anti-Extremist Center, posing as book lovers, raided Moscow's international book fair and pounced on Memorial's stand. They seized nine books and catalogues, and they laid charges that the materials had no label that Memorial was a "foreign agent."

In December, police raided Memorial's office, demanding thousands of documents going back three years.

It has been fined a total of 6.1 million rubles, nearly $85,000. "An incredible amount for an NGO," said Agaltsova.

Such meetings would be difficult under Putin today. About 200 municipal deputies and activists met in a Moscow hotel March 13, and all were arrested.

Memorial's struggle for official recognition took years, though activists recall the euphoria and hope of the time. It was "a feeling that suddenly a window had opened and fresh air had blown in," said one founder, Irina Vysochina.

With parliamentary elections due in September, the Kremlin is cracking down on independent journalists, activists and critics.

Media outlets critical of the Kremlin have been declared extremist and forced to close. Journalists and elderly scientists have been charged with treason or justifying terrorism. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, poisoned with a Soviet-era chemical nerve agent last August, was jailed upon his return to Russia in January, and many members of his team were arrested and put under house arrest, or fled the country.

Darya Apakhonchich, a feminist performance artist who teaches Russian to migrants in her spare time, was shocked to be one of the first five people named as "foreign agents." She knew she would never again get a teaching job in a state or private school.

"I thought it was so crazy, so absurd. I lost my normal life. It took me a few weeks to realize this is not a dream, it's not a nightmare. This is your new life. I understood that it's not possible to be an activist and to live a normal life."

Apakhonchich, evicted by her landlord after being named a foreign agent, sees the law as a form of state violence.

"Unfortunately, we have abusers in our country, and they are very strong."

Information for this article was contributed by Natasha Abbakumova of The Washington Post.


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