20 years under Putin: a timeline

Less than three years ago Russia passed a law on so-called “foreign agents.” On May 23, 2015, Vladimir Putin signed another bill restricting the work of nongovernmental organizations, known as the law on “undesirable” organizations. Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov analyzes the consequences of these repressive measures and concludes that the process of deinstitutionalization of the civil sphere has already started in Russia.


Russia’s Ministry of Justice listed 67 NGOs as “foreign agents,” including Memorial Human Rights Center, regional partners of the Golos, the Dynasty Foundation and the Liberal Mission Foundation. Photo: TASS


The law on so-called “foreign agents” came into force in Russia in the fall of 2012.1 The whole process of discussion and adoption of this law was accompanied by a propaganda campaign harassing NGOs in the pro-Kremlin media, including the notorious NTV and Izvestia.

In its original version the law did not work, as the Russian NGOs unanimously refused to voluntarily register as “foreign agents” and thereby assume a label that in the Russian language has direct associations with espionage and treason. The law was hastily amended (which was not a problem, since the Russian parliament is controlled by the executive branch), and the Ministry of Justice was granted the right to put any organization on the registry that it wished.

As a result, a few months after the passage of the amendments, 58 NGOs were put on the list as “foreign agents.” Among them are some of the most influential Russian human rights and civic organizations, including the internationally recognized Memorial Human Rights Center, regional partners of the Golos electoral watchdog organization, the Andrei Sakharov Fund, the Moscow School of Civic Education, and others. On May 25, 2015, following passage of a new law on “undesirable” organizations, nine more organizations were added to the registry, including Dmitri Zimin’s charity, the Dynasty Foundation; and the Liberal Mission Foundation.

The campaign to find “foreign agents” among Russian NGOs is not confined to a single purpose. It follows the logic of the "revenge of the nomenklatura"—the gradual regaining by the state of the control over society that was lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first signs of this process were observed during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, but they entered into full force with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. This process led to a state takeover of federal television networks (in one way or another); the establishment of executive control over the parliament, the courts, and large business; the squeezing of foreign donor organizations out of the country; and the increasing complication of bureaucratic procedures for NGOs.

The campaign can also be considered part of the reactionary governmental policy of suppressing independent public initiatives that was formulated as a response to the protests of 2011–2012. The first symptom of the crackdown that would eventually follow the “thaw” of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency can be seen in Putin’s decision to run for a third term of office in the fall of 2011. This decision was likely triggered by the growing fear—amid growing social discontent—of losing control among members of the narrow circle in which key decisions about Russian state policies are made. The mass protests that followed in December 2011 confirmed these suspicions, and the authorities began to act resolutely and ruthlessly. The participation of independent activists, journalists, and public figures alongside members of the political opposition in these protests shaped the openly hostile attitude of the Russian authorities toward the independent civic sphere.

The “foreign agents” law was just one episode in a series of repressive measures.2 Introduced by this law were new restrictions on participation in protests, new regulations for foreign media, and expanded definitions of “treason” and “espionage.” Moreover, many independent journalists were expelled from major newspapers and Internet media outlets. Several independent media outlets were closed down. For example, Oleg Kashin was forced to leave Kommersant newspaper, the independent TV Rain channel was removed from the cable networks, and the independent Tomsk TV station TV2 lost its broadcasting license. But the removal of the editorial board of Lenta.ru, Russia’s most popular Internet newspaper, was one of the most scandalous developments in the media sphere. The regime moved from there on to the open suppression of alternative ideas and independent organizations, including active intimidation of the remaining independent media, NGOs, political organizations, and individual activists.

Set against today’s high approval ratings of the president and the government, these measures may seem an overreaction, but it is worth remembering that between 2009 and 2013 support for the regime dropped by one-third in response to the economic slowdown. Neither the pompous presidential campaign of 2012 nor the 2014 Sochi Olympics could stop the growth of public discontent. Thus it was important for the regime to eliminate any significant political alternative. (And it was only the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the government’s blatant propaganda campaign to boost the public perception of Russia’s greatness that helped the regime resolve the legitimacy crisis).

The elimination of viable political alternatives was achieved by discrediting not only individual activists and organizations (particularly through charges of pedophilia, embezzlement, falsification of historic facts, espionage, etc.) but also the very idea of ​​government accountability. It comes as no surprise that the “foreign agents” registry includes mostly organizations that focus on human rights and are responsible for civic oversight and monitoring of the government’s activities. (These groups are likely to also be included in the new registry of “undesirable” organizations.) At the same time, the authorities are trying to impede any independent thinking or self-organized collective action, which explains why they are trying to cut Russian NGOs off from foreign funding (currently one of the last sources of money that is beyond government control) and discredit them by labeling them “agents of the West.”

Finally, local and regional authorities have used the Kremlin’s expansion of the “foreign agents” registry as a pretext to settle accounts with various whistleblowers and watchdogs in their respective regions. According to activists, local chapters of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, and the special service agencies have resorted to the methods of intimidation rather frequently, while local administrations have done so less frequently. Many of the NGOs on the “foreign agents” registry have had a long and complicated history of interactions with the authorities. Some leaders of NGOs have participated in political campaigns (as deputies or advisors), collaborated with the opposition parties, observed the elections, and served on commissions overseeing prison facilities or draft boards; others cooperated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia in the early 2000s. As one of the NGO leaders put it, “at the first instance the authorities targeted those who annoyed them most of all.”

The significant reduction or complete disappearance of foreign funding (which is the ultimate goal of the Russian authorities) could eventually lead to a strong contraction of the independent civil sphere, as financial support of a comparable scale is not likely to come from anywhere within the country.

However, the bureaucratic logic of the government’s campaign should not be underestimated. In a sense this logic was formulated by the president himself when in 2013 he said that the law on “foreign agents” had passed and thus should work properly. In other words, everyone in the government was supposed to start searching for “agents.” The law also opened up additional opportunities for individuals to curry favor with the leadership and win bonuses and promotions. And it functioned in the opposite direction too: if the official was unable to identify a certain number of “foreign agents,” his or her career risks grew.

As a result, some of the strongest Russian NGOs came under direct pressure from the government. So far, they’ve managed to adapt to the tough conditions. Their professionalism and credibility enabled them to find financial and moral support both in Russia and abroad. Today the main threat looming over these organizations is that of heavy penalties. Many were charged fines of 100,000 to 300,000 rubles ($2,000—$6,000) for refusing to register as “foreign agents” voluntarily. Furthermore, the tax authorities decided to reconsider the status of some past projects implemented by these NGOs under both charitable agreements and commercial contracts. Thus, some organizations will have to pay back taxes amounting to up to several million rubles. If courts find these tax claims legal, these organizations may be ruined. Some NGO leaders are facing criminal prosecution for failure to pay the money owed by their organizations and risk being sent to jail.

This hunt for “foreign agents” is accompanied by the government’s propaganda campaign on Russian state TV, a campaign that poses risks to prominent human rights and civil society activists and opposition figures, who, as a result, might face threats of physical violence by extremists groups such as the state-sponsored “Anti-Maidan.” This campaign is also similar to the anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western, and anti-gay propaganda campaigns that were rolled out between 2012 and 2014. In the Russian regions, some human rights activists have already fallen victim to hooligan attacks: dead birds have been put in their homes, the doors of their apartments have been smeared with excrement, and the windows of one organization’s office were shot at. Given the recent assassination of Boris Nemtsov—one of the most well-known Russian opposition leaders, who was repeatedly labeled the “enemy of the Russian people” and the “enemy of Putin” in state propaganda campaigns—these threats seem very serious.

Finally, the significant reduction or complete disappearance of foreign funding (which is the ultimate goal of the Russian authorities) could eventually lead to a strong contraction of the independent civil sphere, as financial support of a comparable scale is not likely to come from anywhere within the country. Though the number of individual donations from Russian citizens is growing and several organizations designated as “agents” have managed to raise the money to pay the fines, financial contributions from ordinary citizens are still unlikely to replace long-term professional support from charitable institutions. In Russia there are no nonprofit organizations comparable, in terms of scale or professionalism, to their major Western counterparts. The number and resources of Russian companies willing to help are very limited. In addition, the humiliating “foreign agent” label confines NGOs, if not in complete isolation, then to a small circle of “friends.” As some individuals told the author, most of the partners and colleagues who used to work with NGOs recognized as “foreign agents” have not changed their attitudes toward those organizations and have continued offering them support. Outsiders, however, feel more wary. Limited access to new audiences means that it will be nearly impossible for an NGO to develop new networks and expand its activities.

Perhaps it is fair to say that in Russia the process of deinstitutionalization of the civil sphere has already begun: once-successful NGOs will start to close down. Many new initiatives will not develop into formal structures because of registration difficulties and high administrative costs. According to opinion polls, a considerable share of civic activity in Russia is moving away from NGOs and developing outside of their efforts. Though many activists from recently closed (or not registered) NGOs are planning to continue their work on an individual basis despite these impediments, the disappearance of formal structures poses a real threat to civil society. This threat needs to be acknowledged as soon as possible. Civic activity in Russia is entering the gray zone of ​​semi-official existence. The disappearance of the NGOs that today comprise the backbone of the country’s civil society endangers the unique knowledge and experience these organizations have accumulated over the last 25 years and threatens partnerships built within the nonprofit sector. Today, assistance to Russian NGOs is more relevant than ever before. And the fact that the majority of Russian NGOs are more inclined to expect international support rather than domestic help seems especially disappointing.



  1. To distinguish Russian law from international analogues, see Vladimir Kara-Murza, “‘Foreign Agents’ in Russia and the US: Myths and reality,” Ekho Moskvy, September 10, 2013. In Russian: http://echo.msk.ru/blog/karamurza/1070994-echo/.
  2. For details, see Miriam Lanskoy and Elspeth Suthers, “Outlawing the opposition,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3 (July 2013): 75–87.