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Why Putin Is Obsessed With ‘Foreign Agents’

The Kremlin’s latest crackdown could ultimately backfire.

By , an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is at German Chancellery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the German Chancellery in Berlin on Oct. 19, 2016. Adam Berry/Getty Images

Ahead of Russia’s State Duma elections this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reason to be concerned: The popularity of his party, United Russia, has been in steep decline in recent years, and the party’s two-thirds supermajority in the lower house of parliament is surprisingly vulnerable. Putin’s response to this predicament is less startling: He’s branding his most influential political enemies and critics “foreign agents.”

Putin has used Russia’s “foreign agents” law for nearly a decade, but now he’s enhanced it. A series of amendments, enacted on Dec. 30 last year, allows the regime to target any organization that receives foreign funds or any individual who voices criticism of Putin, even on social media.

Already, the law has been used to harass and intimidate anti-Kremlin and pro-democracy activists, forcing most of them to remain silent or flee the country. Those unable to avoid the “foreign agent” label are required to report their activities to the Ministry of Justice every six months—or face up to five years in prison.

Ahead of Russia’s State Duma elections this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reason to be concerned: The popularity of his party, United Russia, has been in steep decline in recent years, and the party’s two-thirds supermajority in the lower house of parliament is surprisingly vulnerable. Putin’s response to this predicament is less startling: He’s branding his most influential political enemies and critics “foreign agents.”

Putin has used Russia’s “foreign agents” law for nearly a decade, but now he’s enhanced it. A series of amendments, enacted on Dec. 30 last year, allows the regime to target any organization that receives foreign funds or any individual who voices criticism of Putin, even on social media.

Already, the law has been used to harass and intimidate anti-Kremlin and pro-democracy activists, forcing most of them to remain silent or flee the country. Those unable to avoid the “foreign agent” label are required to report their activities to the Ministry of Justice every six months—or face up to five years in prison.

The crackdown is just the latest in a long series of anti-democratic measures Putin has imposed to protect his regime. In the early 2000s, when Putin was first elected president, he launched systemic attacks on oligarch-controlled media outlets. That led first to self-censorship and ultimately to full government control.

Media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky was forced to flee the country and sell his stake in Media Most, which included the high quality national television channel NTV, to Gazprom-Media. Placing Media Most in the hands of Gazprom-Media—a subsidiary media holding of state-owned gas giant Gazprom—was the easiest way to silence Russia’s independent and critical TV station. Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch who owned Russia’s largest national television network, shared a similar fate.

At the time, very few people understood that the crackdown was a prelude to how Putin intended to consolidate and maintain his power. The Kremlin still cared a little about Russia’s international reputation. It characterized its political system as a “managed democracy”—and at least tried to maintain that appearance.

After 21 years of Putinism, with endless promises that Russia would reassert its dominance on the world stage, fatigue is growing.

But after 21 years of Putinism, with endless promises that Russia would reassert its dominance on the world stage, fatigue is growing. The poor handling of the coronavirus crisis, resulting in a high death rate, as well as economic hardships and unpopular reforms are further undermining Putin’s popularity. According to poll results released in March, Putin’s United Russia party had just 27 percent support nationwide—an eight-year low—and a paltry 15 percent support in Moscow.

Having created a highly personalized regime, only Putin can determine how far he’s willing to go to extend and protect it. Recent constitutional changes allow the Russian president to cling onto power until 2036, suggesting he has no plans to retire soon. Yet according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, 57 percent of Russians ages 18 to 24 do not want Putin to stay in power after his term ends in 2024.

There are no illusions that Putin’s real opposition—who are denied the opportunity to participate in elections—will be able to change the regime democratically. But for the first time in Russia’s recent history, the country has a unifying opposition figure with now-jailed Alexei Navalny, who has somehow managed both to consolidate the opposition around his leadership and motivate young activists to take to the streets. Putin could win elections but, at the same time, lose legitimacy.

In response to Navalny’s growing appeal, Kremlin fears of a new “color revolution” are returning. The Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004 to 2005) provoked early waves of worry about foreign influence. At the time, the Kremlin started to intimidate foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGO) in Russia, fearing they were looking to undermine Putin’s regime.

Then things got worse. In late 2011, when Putin formally returned to the presidency—he was always in power, even when Dmitry Medvedev served a term as president—the “Bolotnaya protests” erupted. The largest rallies in modern Russian history were seen by the Kremlin as a Western attempt to intervene in Russia’s domestic affairs. Less than three months after his inauguration, Putin signed a controversial law requiring NGOs receiving funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”

Almost a decade later, Navalny’s smart voting strategy—which involves voting for whichever politicians are most likely to defeat Putin’s United Russia candidates—spurred the Kremlin to enhance the “foreign agents” law. In June, the government labeled Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks “extremist” and banned them.

The extremist label prevents Navalny’s supporters and affiliates from running for office. According to the independent monitoring group Golos, which has also been labeled a “foreign agent,” at least 9 million Russians are legally barred from the right to be elected.

One of the Kremlin’s primary targets is investigative journalism.

One of the Kremlin’s primary targets is investigative journalism—Navalny’s team had published a number of videos revealing the excesses of Putin and his circle. A video depicting a Black Sea mansion, alleged to be a $1.37 billion bribe to Putin, reached 20 million views within a day.

Investigative outlet Proekt had to suspend its operations after the government declared it an “undesirable” organization in July. Similarly, Open Media and MBKh news sites (backed by exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky) recently ceased operations due to what they judged to be ongoing risks to their employees’ safety. Both outlets had been blocked, and some individual Open Media journalists were listed as “foreign agents.”

Ultimately, Putin’s recent demonstration of power sheds light on the regime’s long-term vulnerabilities. By targeting smaller media outlets as well as more prominent ones, the Kremlin hopes to avoid Belarus-style mass protests. But by closing off a necessary safety valve—even as social, economic, and political pressures continue to build—Putin’s strategy could backfire.

Natia Seskuria is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @nseskuria

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