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Civil Society Space Shrinking Further in Russia

Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, dressed as Snegurochka, Russian Snow Maiden, left, environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova, center, and prominent rights activist Lev Ponomaryov speak. (File)
Civil Society Space Shrinking Further in Russia
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The United States has voiced concern over the Russian government’s expanding repression of civil society.

On December 28, the Russian Ministry of Justice added five individuals, including prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, to a list of so-called “foreign agents.” The four others were journalist Lyudmila Savitskaya; newspaper editor Denis Kamalyagin; website journalist Sergei Markelov; and artist and rights activist Daria Apakhonchich. Savitskaya, Markelov, and Kamalyagin have been contributors to the Russian service of RFE/RL, whose parent agency is the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The move by the Russian government marked the first time individuals, as opposed to organizations, were put on the Justice Ministry’s registry, which subjects them to enhanced bureaucratic scrutiny, reporting requirements, financial audits and harsh penalties if they fail to comply with the law’s draconian requirements.

Russia first passed a law in 2012 which allowed it to label foreign-funded NGOs and foreign-funded rights groups that it viewed as engaging in political activity as foreign agents. The law was later expanded to include media outlets and independent journalists.

On December 31, 2020, President Vladimir Putin signed off on additional legislation that broadens the parameters under which a person or entity can be officially deemed "a foreign agent” and increases penalties, including possible prison time, for individuals or organizations labeled foreign agents who fail to inform official entities about their status or refuse to report their activities. Amnesty International has called the legislation “a new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity.”

U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown said in a tweet that by its designation of the five individuals as “media foreign agents” the Russian government is “intensifying repression of its civil society…in a threat against independent media.”

Deputy Spokesperson Brown also noted that “Russia is adopting a series of new laws that significantly expand the government’s power to further restrict freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, providing additional means to suppress uncomfortable facts and silence dissenting voice.”

“Changes to the ‘foreign agents law’ are particularly troubling,”he added, “allowing authorities to selectively apply onerous registration and labeling requirements, veto an organization’s activities, and imprison those found in violation. We call on Russia to respect its citizens’ rights.”