'Foreign agents' and 'undesirables': Russian civil society in danger of extinction?

Briefing 08-03-2022

After a period of relative freedom in the 1990s allowed the emergence of civic activism in Russia, repression has now come full circle. Under Vladimir Putin's power vertical, space for independent voices has narrowed. Like the political opposition and the media, civil society is now increasingly subordinate to the state. Repressive legislation has gradually circumscribed the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As part of a more general drive to exclude external influences after a wave of post-election protests in 2011, in 2012 Russia adopted a Foreign Agent Law, whose scope since then has been progressively expanded to include media and individual activists as well as NGOs. A second Undesirable Organisations Law from 2015 excludes numerous international NGOs from the country. While the Foreign Agent Law does not actually ban Russian NGOs from receiving foreign support, it makes it much harder for them to operate and has forced many to close down. The number of organisations concerned is relatively small, but it includes many of the country's most prominent activists. Vaguely worded legislation puts large swathes of civil society at risk of falling foul of the law, a significant deterrent to activism. Repressive legislation has created a divide between officially tolerated 'social' NGOs, whose activities and values are more closely aligned with the Kremlin's agenda, and 'political' NGOs. Conditions for the latter have become increasingly hostile, leaving little room for political activism.