Foreign agents everywhere

Russian prosecutors step up their hunt for foreign agents

The number of Russian organizations listed as “foreign agents” is growing rapidly and might soon include also sociological polling centers, research institutes and others receiving support from abroad.


At least 40 organizations have so far ended up on the list because of their engagement in “political activities” with “foreign funding”. Most of the entities are engaged in human rights work and environmental activities. However, the sectors subjected to “foreign agent” scrutiny are about to expand. 

Among the organizations now in the spotlight of the inspectors are sociological polling centers and research institutes. The Levada Center, the independent sociological study institute, has already been told by Russian prosecutors that it should register as foreign agent. The reason is that it has received project funding from abroad and that it has “made the project data available to the public”, newspaper Vedomosti writes in an editorial.

Next in the line are the research organizations which one way or another are involved in projects with foreign financing. Originally, research institutes were not included in the foreign agents law. However, according to Vedomosti, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science has requested foreign research funds offering funding to Russian scientists and research institutions to provide information about their statutes, as well as about their grant recipients. Reportedly, among the information requested by the ministry is the bank account numbers of the Russian recipents. The ministry is subsequently taking decisions about whether or not the foreign supported research is “contradicting Russian law” or “corresponds with Russian research priorities”.

Russian prosecutors’ vivid hunt for “foreign agents” is quickly leading to an expansion also of the definition of “political activity”. According to the Russian organization Agora, the “political activities” now includes as many as 50 different kinds of operations. The consequence, Vedomosti argues, is that more or less “anyone engaged in social and humanitarian work and receiving support from abroad” risk being branded as agents.

So far, Russian media companies have been spared from the foreign agents witchhunt.

Also the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights now voice concern about the development. In a letter addressed to President Vladimir Putin, the Council members recommend a revision of the foreign agents law, newspaper Kommersant reports. The Council also underlines that only the Ministry of Justice, and not prosecutors, should be entitled to brand an organization a “foreign agent”. Similarly, the council members warn against the “rough approach” of the inspectors and their demands to NGOs about the provision of huge documentation on short notice”. In addition, the prosecutors’ controls are often accompanied by inspections by the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Federal Migration Service and other services. Consequently, if the organization subjected to control does not end up on the foreign agent list, the inspectors might still find irregularities and subsequently impose huge fines which ultimately forces the NGO to close, the letter to Putin reads.