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Georgia and The Kremlin Matrix

Maxim Trudolyubov

The draft law “On transparency of foreign influence” repeatedly introduced by Georgia’s ruling party has stirred this South Caucasus country’s civil society. The legislation many consider repressive and based on a Russian template has already passed in at least five countries Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence.


In each case, passage of this law has been a marker of Russia’s influence and a block to a nation’s accession to the institutions of the West. The European Union legal authorities hold “foreign agent,” “foreign influence,” or Hungary’s Stop Soros laws to be contradictory to EU law. 


Famously, a law on foreign agents was part of the legislation package—described by many as the “laws on dictatorship”—passed in mid-January 2014 in Ukraine amid the Euromaidan protests. The laws were designed to stop Ukrainian society’s resistance but only spurred the protests and were later mostly repealed. 


Similar laws have been successfully enacted in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, seems to be on track to pass a law on "foreign agents," aimed at limiting the activities of foreign-funded NGOs.


Those Georgians who are protesting the law on the streets of Tbilisi see it as a “test of allegiance” to Putin’s Russia pushed by the moderately pro-Moscow Georgian Dream party. “Their task is to pass this law and remain softly authoritarian … through the indirect silencing of critics," Anna Dolidze of the opposition party For the People told the BBC. 


The law, which passed on first reading, requires NGOs and media outlets that get more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as organizations “bearing the interests of a foreign power.” The law imposes reporting requirements, inspections, and administrative and criminal liability, thereby combining features of Russia’s 2012 foreign agents law, which concerned only NGOs, and the 2017 law, which added media to the entities it covered. 


From Legalese to Arbitrary Rule


In Russia, those were the first two stages of the legislation’s tightening: NGOs were hit first, media outlets were hit second. Stage three came in 2019, when amendments were made to include individual people as potential “foreign agents.”


Step four went into effect following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The government gave itself the authority to label individuals as foreign agents by virtue of their being “under foreign influence.” The government also granted itself the power to classify individuals as “affiliated with foreign agents.”


Let us spell this out again. Starting in 2023, when the law was enacted, the authorities in Russia could designate literally anyone as a foreign agent simply by claiming—completely arbitrarily—that the individual was under foreign influence or connected to a foreign agent.


Earlier this year, in what might be considered stage five, both chambers of Russia’s parliament approved a law banning Russian citizens and companies from advertising on the media resources owned by people recognized by the authorities as foreign agents. In practice, this meant that popular independent journalists and commentators who relied on websites, blogging, and social media platforms for their source of compensation had lost large parts of their income.


The Kremlin Laws


The process is administrative, not judicial. Labels arrive as surprise government announcements. In practice, this means that people learn about their new status from journalists or friends who watch for updates on the Ministry of Justice’s website. The updates usually happen on Fridays, and the process is surrounded by a spectacle of anticipation: “Who is it going to be this time?” 


The website announcements, the only document certifying the designation, do not include any motivation. People just get issued a label. The only way to get official confirmation of foreign agent status and some reasoning explaining the decision is to sue the ministry and get a court’s rejection of your complaint. Those rejections usually contain some language defending the original administrative decision.


Some people treat the designation as a recognition of sorts. The Friday announcements often draw a round of social media “applause” for those newly designated. In real life, the status is a nuisance. It requires public labeling and lots of paperwork to be submitted to the government to meet reporting requirements. It threatens criminal liability after a few failures to comply with it. 


In Russia, the foreign agent status comes complete with a plethora of civil rights restrictions. The people designated as “agents” are not allowed—among other things—to hold public office, take part in electoral campaigns even as campaign managers or funders, teach in state-run institutions, or receive state support or tax breaks.


Interestingly, this process of gradual loss of all shreds of legality took the Russian legislators ten years to put in place. Legal experts who have followed the process of at least five waves of amendments added between 2012 and 2022 say that those have always been high priority, which likely meant that Putin personally was behind them.


Whenever he comments on the law, Putin invariably mentions the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. The U.S. law defines “foreign agents” as entities or individuals engaged in lobbying for foreign interests. It requires those organizations and people to register with the Department of Justice and disclose their affiliations and funding. The Russian law clearly encompasses a wider range of activities beyond lobbying or advocacy and basically criminalizes public dissent.

Back in 2012, the presidential administration curators of Russia’s legislative body, the State Duma, made sure that the very first foreign agents law passed almost unanimously. In the relatively benign year of 2012, only four MPs voted against the document. All the subsequent amendments were accepted nearly unanimously too. 


Observers note that versions of foreign agent laws form the cornerstone of what we can refer to as "the Kremlin laws." Moscow employs them to showcase its influence and target organizations and individuals in neighboring countries. As seen from the Russian example, laws of this sort are meant to erode judicial procedures and make the process of designating enemies as arbitrary as possible.


Typically, these laws emerge in nations that Moscow effectively influences or dominates. Often, foreign agent laws are coupled with deliberately expansive counterterrorism legislation, enabling governments to wield terrorism accusations as a means to suppress and silence vocal activists, journalists, scholars, artists, and legal professionals.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more