The Kremlin today dismissed as “complete rubbish” reports that the regime plans to designate media outlets in receipt of overseas funds as foreign agents, in line with recent changes in the country’s NGO laws.
“If we go mad, you’ll be the first to know about that,” a “high-ranking” Kremlin official told Vedomosti daily.
A Duma member for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party claims he has submitted a bill to force media outlets that receive overseas funding to declare themselves “foreign agents.”
“This is the continuation of the work that we began with the NGO law,” Yevgeny Fyodorov was quoted as saying, insisting that foreign money finances political manipulation “not just through NGOs but maybe even more through national media.”
Russian civil society groups have rejected this week’s claims by a supporter of the new NGO regulations that provisions labeling foreign-funded nongovernmental groups as “foreign agents” would only affect groups that push for regime change:
Lilia Shibanova, the head of the Golos elections watchdog, pointed out that the law describes activity aimed at forming public opinion as political. “This gives them the possibility to interpret anything we do as they like,” she said.
Golos, which is partly funded by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, has born the brunt of a Kremlin-led campaign to tarnish civil society groups as undermining the state. Shibanova said she would categorically refuse to adopt the foreign agent label.
Her words were echoed by Yelena Panfilova, the head of the Russian branch of anti-corruption monitor Transparency International, who said the law should be taken to the Constitutional Court this fall. She argued that the use of foreign funds for political purposes was not sufficient to justify the “foreign agent” label.
“The main point is that we work in the interests of the Russian people — and not of foreign states,” she said.
Some civil society activists, including the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Lyudmila Alekseyeva, are refusing to register under the new laws.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, fellow activist and former dissident Sergei Kovalyov praised Alekseyeva for her bravery and fight for what he called Russians’ “right to self-esteem.”
Putin also reportedly praised her for aiding the “development of dialogue between the government and the public” and for her loyalty to the “high ideals of service to society.”
With the Duma controlled by the reliably pro-Putin United Russia, “it remains a dependable instrument for Vladimir Putin, the president, in his struggle with the country’s opposition movement,” The Economist notes:
Putin has proved adept at manipulating the official political system—the world of parties and elections—but he and his advisers have yet to prove their skill in the less-manageable realm of civil society. Recent polls from the Levada Centre, a research organisation, suggest that although support for Mr Putin remains high, much of that support (40-45%) is passive or conditional……
At the moment, the Kremlin is not considering using force: calling in the troops would be ugly and risky as well as counterproductive. And with Mr Putin loth to see Russia become a Belarus-style pariah overnight, the Kremlin decided that, “If you can’t suppress them, squeeze them,” says Boris Makarenko of Centre for Political Technologies, a think-tank.
The NGO laws are a reflection of the Kremlin’s spy mania, says analyst Michael Boehm:
Opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov [an executive member of the World Movement for Democracy] came up with a great idea during his July 14 radio program on Ekho Moskvy: If United Russia is determined to label foreign-financed NGOs and media outlets as “foreign agents,” it would only be fair to label the journalists who are Kremlin mouthpieces as “Kremlin agents.”
Since Putin recently promised to increase funding for his favorite Russian NGOs, it would only be fair to brand them as “Kremlin agents” as well.
Whatever the limitations of the new NGO laws, a new proposal to regulate the internet “may have the farthest-reaching implications,” The Economist suggests:
What most worries Russian internet analysts is that although the text of the law focuses on websites related to child pornography, illegal drugs and suicide, it also contains a provision for any type of illegal online material to be blocked by court order. The opacity of the language leaves the law open to manipulation on political grounds. Moreover, the blocking of both individual websites and internet protocol addresses may require service providers to acquire “deep-packet inspection” technology, which filters internet traffic into separate streams, making it easier to block particular services, such as Skype, or pages, such as a certain Facebook group.
Golos, the Levada Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.