Is Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ law justified?

How one reacts to Russia’s NGO law depends on what one thought those NGOs were doing in the first place. If they were disinterestedly and objectively advocating for and monitoring universal human rights, then the Russian law is objectionable. But if they were functioning as an arm of a foreign country’s policy then the Russian law must be seen as an act of self defence.

Which leads us to the Russian law’s model: the American Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. This act is still in force and has a section of the US Department of Justice charged with its enforcement. Note that the official description has many of the words that opponents of the Russian act claim to find so offensive: “agents of foreign principals”, “political or quasi-political capacity” “foreign agents” “Counterespionage” “National Security”. In 1938 the coming war was visible and there were many foreign interests that wanted to shape American public opinion. FARA was, therefore an act of self defence.

Is the Russian act also an act of self defence? Consider the reaction to Russia’s Duma election; despite results consistent with the findings of numerous opinion polls that Putin’s pedestal party was losing support but still commanded half the vote, US Secretary of State Clinton condemned the result instantly and the foreign-funded NGOs produced supporting “evidence” which did not stand up to later investigation (Vedomost’s examination of Moscow results, the only serious examination of which I am aware, found nothing much). Consider Suzanne Nossel, smoothly moving between government and NGOs, committed to using “human rights” as part of the arsenal of US power. Consider a US official admitting that countries that don’t cooperate get “reamed” on human rights. It’s not “human rights”, it’s realpolitik.

Sceptics should ask themselves two questions: after all, it wouldn’t be the first time that reporting on Russia was stage managed. The first is why, in the endless think pieces about the Russian law, is the American law never mentioned? Second, why won’t the NGOs register under the law? In theory, once registered, they can still operate even if labelled, to quote FARA, as “agents of foreign principals”; shouldn’t they want to test whether this is true? Think how much stronger their case would be if they complied with the law and were shut down anyway. If they are, as they claim, objective seekers after truth, shouldn’t they be confident that the truth will out? Why are they folding without a struggle? Makes one wonder whether they are flaming out as a last obedience to their foreign masters because the truth is that they have no existence on their own. You should be suspicious: truthful reporting would mention that Russia is not alone with such a law and brave human rights supporters would forge on anyway. All this makes me more confident that the Russians are correct: it’s not human rights, it’s Nosselism.

Oh, and just as a matter of interest, Nossel has been associated with three NGOs: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and, today, PEN. (and not, by the way, to universal acclaim “Humanitarian imperialism” “cooption of the Human Rights movement by the U.S. government” and plenty more). In the last month the three have run pieces on Russia’s NGO law, AI still wants to free Pussy Riot and PEN has something on writers in Russia. But none of them, curiously enough, has anything to say about tax authorities harassing political opponents and legal authorities listening in on reporters’ conversations.

Which, a simple person would think, are quite serious human rights violations.