20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Russian authorities have continuously claimed that the 2012 law labeling NGOs as “foreign agents” is merely the equivalent of the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza explains why this “analogy” is false.



The ongoing campaign of denouncing Russian NGOs as “foreign agents” that was launched on Vladimir Putin’s personal instructions is increasingly reminiscent of the early years of Stalin’s rule. The zeal of “law enforcement” agencies knows no boundaries. The campaign ranges from the absurd—such as attempts to attach the “foreign agent” label to a cystic fibrosis charity and a natural reserve for cranes—to the intentionally offensive. Examples of the latter include the demand by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office that the Memorial Society register as a “foreign agent”—an insult to the millions of victims of Stalin’s repressions to whose memory the organization is dedicated. This also appears to be the KGB’s “revenge” for its humiliations of the late 1980s and early 1990s; it is unlikely that the architects of the anti-NGO campaign have forgotten that Memorial was founded by Andrei Sakharov, and that its first advisory board included Boris Yeltsin. Memorial leaders remember well Yeltsin’s gesture in the summer of 1990, when, after being elected speaker of the Russian parliament, he resigned from all organizations to which he had previously belonged—with the explicit exception of Memorial. “For us it is impossible [to register as a foreign agent],” explains Arseny Roginsky, the current head of the organization. “We are Memorial, we know how many people in which year confessed under torture to being spies and foreign agents. We know how these confessions were beaten out of them. In our historical memory, the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has only one meaning. Our blood type does not allow us to do this.”

The Russian authorities, still shy about drawing direct comparisons with Stalin’s regime, have proposed a more agreeable analogy: the United States, they say, has exactly the same law on foreign agents that has been in force for three-quarters of a century. This technique of misdirection is hardly new, and it fits well with Putin’s “look who’s talking” routine. Russia’s state-controlled TV channels have hammered home this analogy to their viewers since last year; in April, during his televised call-in show, Putin himself joined this chorus. Sometimes, even knowledgeable people in Russia can be heard to say, “This NGO law is, of course, awful, but even America has something similar. . . .”

Apart from the name, these two pieces of legislation have hardly anything in common.

The Kremlin’s parallel between Putin’s NGO law and the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) is false. Apart from the name, these two pieces of legislation have hardly anything in common.

FARA (also known as the McCormack Act, after the Massachusetts congressman who sponsored it) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 to control the dissemination of Nazi and Communist propaganda in the United States. During and immediately after the Second World War, the U.S. government successfully prosecuted 23 criminal cases under FARA; the most prominent was the case against the German-American Vocational League, which was declared a propaganda outlet for the Third Reich. After the war, the law underwent numerous amendments, with the most significant changes made in 1966 and 1995. One would not, however, learn about these changes from Vladimir Putin, who has asserted that “in the U.S., this law has been in effect since 1938. . . . There is no Nazism today, but [the law] is still in effect.”

The 1966 amendments shifted the focus of the law from propaganda to political lobbying and narrowed the meaning of “foreign agent,” increasing the Justice Department’s burden of proof. From that moment on, an organization (or person) could only be placed in the FARA database if the government proved that it (or he or she) was acting “at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal” and was engaged “in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal,” including by “represent[ing] the interests of such foreign principal before any agency or official of the Government of the United States.”

Without fulfilling these two criteria—proving that an organization or person is under the control of a foreign principal and represents their interests—it has become impossible to register anyone in the United States as a foreign agent.

Since 1966, the U.S. government has not won a single criminal case under FARA. Civil and administrative cases have been ruled in the government’s favor only when U.S. attorneys have presented indisputable proof—such as in the case of the Irish Northern Aid Committee, which provided financial aid to the families of IRA terrorists at the IRA’s request (a fact that the Committee’s founder had freely acknowledged). At the demand of the U.S. Justice Department, the Committee was designated as a foreign agent of the IRA. Among the organizations currently registered as foreign agents are such groups as the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, Switzerland Tourism, and other entities whose explicit purpose is to promote their countries’ interests in the United States. Meanwhile, the 1995 amendments to FARA (which took effect on January 1, 1996) removed some of the remaining vestiges of the prewar era, introducing the neutral term “informational materials” in place of the more denigrating “political propaganda.”


This graffiti with the words “foreign agent” appeared on Memorial's Moscow office on the day the new NGO law went into effect.


Most importantly, the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act does not target NGOs. The law provides explicit exemptions for organizations engaged in “religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or of the fine arts,” as well as for those “not serving predominantly a foreign interest.” “Political” NGOs that have foreign origins or funding also have no obligation to register as foreign agents, since they do not act “in the interests of a foreign principal.” No one in his or her right mind would declare Reporters Without Borders an “agent” of France, or Amnesty International an “agent” of the United Kingdom.

It is significant that the Russian “equivalent” of FARA altogether lacks the concept of a “foreign principal,” under whose control and in whose interests “agent” organizations would function (it only contains an ambiguous reference to “political activities, including in the interests of foreign sources”). This is hardly surprising, for such groups as GOLOS, which protects the rights of Russian voters; AGORA, which offers legal advice to Russian citizens; and Memorial, which preserves Russian historical memory, have no “principals” except for Russian society.

The difference between the American and Russian “foreign agent” laws is best illustrated by Russian-funded NGOs in the United States—in particular, the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, headquartered in New York and headed by Andranik Migranyan; and the Center on Global Interests, based in Washington and headed by Nikolai Zlobin. Both organizations are openly financed by Russian sources, yet the U.S. Justice Department does not—and cannot—demand that they register as foreign agents. After the establishment of his organization, Zlobin contacted the FARA unit and received a response that the Center on Global Interests cannot be considered a foreign agent since it does not aim to represent the interests of the Russian state or of Russian entities.

It is significant that the Russian “equivalent” of FARA altogether lacks the concept of a “foreign principal.”

In all, seven “agents” of the Russian Federation are currently registered in the FARA database. They include American lobbying, law, and public relations firms that represent the interests of the Russian government; Gazprom Export; the Rodina (Motherland) Party; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; and the Kremlin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska. (The FARA online database search is available here; to search for Russia, choose “Active Foreign Principals” and “Russia” as the country.) Naturally, not a single NGO is included in this list.

Just like other awkward attempts by Putin to draw parallels with the West (such as his comparison of Kremlin appointments of Russia’s regional governors with the Electoral College used in U.S. presidential elections), the “analogy” between FARA and the Russian NGO law crumbles upon any thorough examination. Indeed, the only truthful analogy that comes to mind for the Russian government’s latest actions is an earlier time when the Kremlin—in Joseph Stalin’s own words—was also engaged in a struggle against “wreckers, spies, saboteurs and murderers, who are being sent in our midst by the agents of foreign countries.”