Beyond Text, Few Parallels between New Russian and Existing U.S. CSO Laws

Global Integrity
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On August 14th, the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a lecture called “Understanding and Responding to Attacks on Civil Society: The Rule of Politics and Law.”  Panelist Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, qualified new Russian legislation as an “attack” on the freedom of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).  I was intrigued to hear a Russian attendee’s emotional defense that Russia’s policies are analogous to Western regulations.  Reputations aside, I asked myself: are there fair parallels between new Russian legislation and longstanding U.S. CSO laws? 

On paper, some language is analogous.  The Russian State Duma recently passed a bill requiring all CSOs to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from overseas and “intend to participate in political activity.” U.S. legislation, by contrast, does not target CSOs, but it does require comparable registration and regulation in its Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA, 1938).  Under FARA, “foreign agents” are only those who work to advance the interests of a foreign agency and must disclose information about their interests and finances if they are representatives in a “political or quasi-political capacity.”

In practice, both governments have used liberal discretion in interpreting “political” and “foreign agent” to match the interests of their administrations.  Russian Duma deputy Robert Shlegel remarked that the “foreign agent” law is a means to cleanse the country of election-monitoring groups.  Organizations like the GOLOS Association—a non-profit dedicated to protecting voter rights—would most certainly be annulled.   Likewise, The U.S. Department of Justice has carried out an unprecedented wave of FARA audits over the last two years.  Rob Kelner, a defense lawyer against government investigations, stated the Justice Department uses FARA as “a convenient tool in espionage and terrorism cases.”  Others theorize that recent liberties taken with FARA are meant to monitor the “political” “foreign agents” in countries out of favor with the current administration; recent cases have been against affiliates of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agents and Monitor Group, a firm that consulted for ex-Libyan leader, Moammar Gaddafi. 

So yes, there are parallels between U.S. and Russian CSO laws, but they are not “fair.”  Equivocal definitions of “political foreign agent” have allowed each government to selectively enforce their legislation; however, beyond the written law, there are few cases of practical and contextual similarities between Russia and the U.S. FARA was created to expose and mitigate the political influence of foreign powers seeking to affect governmental decision making, but is used more liberally to preserve national security.  Meanwhile, Russia’s laws were hastily passed in the aftermath of last December’s nationwide protests for free and fair elections, which Putin has regularly condemned.  Furthermore, FARA has produced three indictments and zero convictions since 1966, while Russia’s law is expected to starve the funding of hundreds of Russian human rights organizations.  The most obvious differences are in the political systems that hold these governments accountable and ensure that liberties taken in interpreting “political” and “foreign agent” are in the interest of the people.  The U.S. has an open democratic society and free press, while Russia prefers to deter election monitoring and free media.  Apart from some similar legal language, these countries could not be more different. 

Hannah Varnell

— Image Credit: Flickr | Valeriy Osipov at osipovva

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

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