Putin’s playbook: Strongmen around the world are using Russian tactics to quell dissent
Leaders from Nicaragua to Egypt are using “foreign agent” laws to target overseas-backed NGOs and media
In the war of narratives, Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” law has had a chilling effect on civil society groups and media organizations. Originally passed in 2012 and expanded in 2020, the legislation hands authorities the power to label overseas-backed NGOs and individuals engaged in political activity as “foreign agents,” leaving them vulnerable to jail terms of up to five years, should they fail to report their activities precisely in line with its requirements.
The U.S.-funded news outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is just one recent example of how the law targets foreign-funded media. BBC Russia has reported that, in April, RFE/RL offered some of its staff the opportunity to leave the country, as it faces crippling fines. Russia has, so far, imposed penalties of nearly $1 million on the organization. The legislation could also lead to website closures and prison time for RFE/RL’s employees.’
Under the expanded legislation, individuals, not just organizations, can now be forced to register as foreign agents. Darya Apakhonchich, a Russian-language teacher from St. Petersburg, was one of the first individuals affected. Watch her story:
Darya’s story is being repeated across the world as authoritarian leaders and anti-democratic regimes have adopted some of the same tactics.
Here, we look at five notable examples from around the world.
The closures came swiftly. In early February, the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, a press freedom organization founded by and named for the former Nicaraguan president, announced that it was shutting down. A day earlier, the Nicaraguan chapter of the global writers’ association PEN International released a statement that it was indefinitely suspending its activities in the country.
The two announcements came three-and-a-half months after Nicaragua’s Congress passed a controversial law requiring any organization that receives international funding to register as a foreign agent with the Interior Ministry and provide the government with detailed monthly reports about its expenditure. It also prevents any individual registered as a foreign agent from running for public office.
The law passed easily in Nicaragua’s Congress, in which President Daniel Ortega’s party, the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front, holds a majority. Ortega was previously president of Nicaragua in the 1980s, after the Sandinista revolution ousted the former dictator Anastasio Somoza. He has been in power again since 2007, during which time he has orchestrated a dramatic crackdown on dissidents, journalists and political opponents.
Nicaragua’s foreign agent legislation was part of a package of restrictive laws introduced in the fall of 2020, including a cybercrime bill criminalizing a wide range of digital expression. Since then, the nation’s government has moved to revoke the legal statuses of 24 nonprofit organizations for violating the regulations, including medical associations critical of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These laws have created this bureaucratic machinery that has made it really hard for NGOs to renew their charters or to meet all the requirements,” says Enrique Gasteazoro, general manager of the independent investigative newsroom Confidencial. “At the same time, it’s important to note that the recipe of repression that the Ortega government doles out is not lacking variety, so you do have people in jail, organizations that are being de-facto closed, but you have this other slow, bureaucratic initiative to continue closing civic space.”
Both PEN Nicaragua and the Chamorro Foundation said they were ceasing operations in direct response to the legislation. The law also came under fire from the U.S. State Department, which said it is driving the country “toward dictatorship,” and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Critics say the law is part of a broader campaign by the Ortega administration to clamp down on civil society and political opposition, which is ratcheting up as the country heads into a presidential election in November. In 2018, the state response to anti-government protests over social security reforms left more than 320 people dead and thousands injured, “making it the worst wave of political violence in Latin America in three decades,” the New York Times reported. According to the United Nations, by 2020, more than 100,000 people had fled the country and sought asylum abroad.
In 2011, the government of Belarus, led by President Alexander Lukashenko, passed a series of amendments that established liability for local NGOs receiving foreign grants or donations if they did so in what it described as “violation of the Belarusian legislation,” and prohibited them from keeping funds in foreign banks.
Any violation is potentially punishable with fines up to the amount of foreign funds received.
That same year, an amendment to the criminal code, expanded the definition of treason to define any form of “assistance to a foreign state, foreign organization or their representatives in carrying out activities to the detriment of the national security of Belarus,” further increasing the possibility of NGOs and civil society groups being targeted by the authorities.
In the years since, Lukashenko has tightened his grip on civil society groups. New decrees in 2015 and 2020 introduced stricter requirements for the reporting of foreign donations and limited the permitted purposes of aid, prohibiting its use in development of the arts, scientific research and the prevention of human rights violations. Additionally, the nation’s Department for Humanitarian Affairs was given authority to oversee the use of foreign funding and allowed to give preferential treatment of state-approved projects.
And now, Belarus plans on taking these measures even further. In February, MP and chairman of the nation’s Liberal Democratic party Oleg Gaidukevich said that the government was working on a foreign agent law based on the Russian example.
“No one can influence politics in a country, because any party, any politician, any organization that receives money for political activities works only in the interests of the country that gives the money.” he said in an interview. Gaidukevich then justified the plan by asserting that foreign funding is incompatible with democracy.
According to experts, Lukashenko’s regime already has de facto power to limit the work of NGOs and civil society groups. “Everything is so bad that this law would not change so much. All of us are already foreign agents if our government decides it”, said Vadim Mojeiko, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank based in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“For the Belarusian government, civil society is already one big foreign agent. That’s why, if, formally, they call us foreign agents, it’s not going to change the system.”
In Poland, a bill drafted in May seeks to require NGOs to disclose all of their sources of funding, raising concerns about the potential victimization of voices critical of the government.
The bill states that NGOs with a yearly income of over $250,000 should file information about their financing and activities to a public database. It is a revision of legislation proposed in 2020, which, at the time, drew direct comparisons to Russia’s 2012 law and prompted international criticism. While the earlier draft was not passed into law, it would have required NGOs to detail the origin of their income if more than 10% of their funding came from foreign sources.
Filip Pazderski, a senior policy analyst at the independent Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs, sees the May 2021 bill as a backdoor way of discrediting NGOs in the eyes of the public.
“Precisely what is being said is that they’re hostile to national values and traditions, what they do is not in line with Polish identity,” he said. “Meaning that they are working for foreign interests, not our Polish national interests that are represented by our government.”
The government of Poland has, for years, actively undermined the credibility of human rights and pro-democracy NGOs that receive foreign financial backing. It has squeezed funding to organizations that do not share its conservative values and raided the offices of independent civil society groups protesting the country’s restrictive abortion laws.
However, Pazderski believes that Poland’s ruling nationalist coalition is wary of attracting criticism from the European Union. “I believe that our government now is quite reluctant to be seen as a bad guy in the EU,’” he said. “But, on the other hand, there are these possibilities of getting all the information about the activities of NGOs in one place that can be used against them.”
Soon after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi seized power in 2014, Egyptian authorities launched a crackdown on dissent. In the ensuing years, thousands of members of opposition groups, non-governmental organizations and activists have been jailed and tortured — some have even been executed. However, it took three years before it became nearly impossible for civil society organizations to operate.
Justified by officials as protecting national security and guarding against interference from foreign-funded charities, a 2017 law enabled the nation’s government to surveil and control nearly every aspect of human rights monitoring, advocacy and reporting by NGOs in the country.
The legislation requires NGOs to seek permission to operate in Egypt from a “competent administrative entity” that determines whether the group’s work is in line with government objectives. Organizations are also required to detail their funding, activities and programs to the authorities. Non-compliance with the law can result in prosecution, including a maximum of five years’ imprisonment for NGO and civil society group workers and a fine of up to $55,000.
Activists decried the regulations as an attempt to block humanitarian work. The law’s passing also contributed to a 2017 decision by the Trump administration to freeze millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Egypt for nearly a year.
In 2019, following significant international and domestic pressure, Egypt’s parliament removed jail penalties from the law and replaced them with fines of up to $60,350.
According to Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, Egypt’s NGO legislation bears all the hallmarks of Russia’s foreign agent law. “On government-controlled press channels, you see constant admiration for Russian laws and their government system which has kept Putin in power indefinitely,” he said.
In 2017 Hungary’s parliament, headed by the right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, passed a law that imposed strict regulations on non-governmental organizations receiving foreign funding.
According to the legislation, NGOs in receipt of more than $24,200 annually from foreign sources must register as “organizations supported from abroad,” or risk closure.
The government has said that the law, titled LexNGO, is intended to increase transparency and fight money laundering and terrorism funding. However, it is widely condemned by domestic and international rights groups as a means to stifle civil society organizations and individuals critical of the government. Orban has accused foreign-funded NGOs — in particular those supported by the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros — of domestic interference.
Human rights observers say the law was passed to intimidate NGO workers. “I don’t think that the original intent of the government was to initiate any legal procedures,” said Demeter Aron, program director at Amnesty International in Hungary. “Some people resigned, some donors were turned away. There was a lot of time and money wasted on legal battles in front of the Constitutional Court,” he added.
Aron also compares Hungary’s law to Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation in both intent and context.
“I think both laws have the aim to stigmatize independent civil society organizations and basically create an environment where the people that these organizations serve would not dare to turn to them,” he said. “It’s pretty much a copycat of the Russian version.”
Last summer, the European Court of Justice ruled that LexNGO failed to comply with EU laws and was in breach of fundamental rights, including on personal data protection and freedom of association. In February, the EU commission sent a letter of formal notice to the Hungarian government, giving it two months to change the law. While Hungary repealed LexNGO in April, the government quickly brought in similar legislation, allowing the monitoring and selective auditing of NGOs whose assets exceed $66,480, on the grounds that they are “capable of influencing public life.”
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