THE BLOG
09/08/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Russia's Legislators Make New Turn in Recent Isolationist Trend

Anton Belitsky via Getty Images

When Russian media reported at the end of July that legislators intended to introduce a set of amendments leading to a registry of companies allegedly connected to so-called "aggressor states," our initial reaction was, "They can't be serious." But combine a few established concepts in the Russian political consciousness with a longstanding legislative trend, and suddenly the proposal makes a lot of sense.

People who have been watching for an extra-long time will remember when even organizations openly hostile to the Kremlin could operate comfortably until they crossed a line. The best example is The eXile, the infamous expat newspaper published here from 1997 until 2008, when a government investigation on "extremism" allegations scared its investors into leaving it broke. The eXile was shuttered in the first month of the relatively soft Dmitry Medvedev interlude following Vladimir Putin's second term in office. Weeks prior to the investigation, Medvedev had made public statements emphasizing the importance of press freedom and the rule of law while stressing publishers' obligation to "preserve moral and cultural values." Why target The eXile? Well, Rolling Stone put it pretty well: The paper specialized in "misogynist rants, dumb pranks, insulting club listings and photos of blood-soaked corpses, all redeemed by political reporting that's read seriously not only in Moscow but also in Washington."

Things stayed pretty quiet here for the rest of the Medvedev period.

But in the dusk of the interlude, Russia became exciting again -- in a bad way, as usual. In September 2011, with presidential elections a few months away, the United Russia machine essentially told the Russian public, "Look, Putin will be returning to the presidency, so, like, make sure to legitimize it with your vote."

Everyone knows what happened next: A decent cross-section of Moscow society took to the streets in outrage. On Dec. 8, 2011, then-Prime Minister Putin responded to the protests with a statement that, looking back, is obviously an important moment in what today stands as a trend toward the establishment of a new isolationist culture for Russia.

What did he say? That then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sent a "signal" to Moscow's intelligentsia to protest. The subtext is that either the outrage at the prospect of Putin's return to the presidency was orchestrated by the United States government or -- worse -- that it was nonexistent, with protesters simply showing up in exchange for cash from Washington. Putin's statement was itself a signal, as Russia's legislature has been on an overkill campaign seeking to protect (read: lock down) the country from perceived or manufactured foreign political, economic, and cultural threats ever since.

Targeted prosecutions founded on some variation on the protectionism theme are ongoing. For example, on July 25 of this year, prominent leftists Sergey Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev were sentenced to four and a half years in prison on charges that they'd organized riots across Russia. The prosecution's claims rewrote the entire history of the very grassroots 2011-2012 protest movement, alleging that Udaltsov and Razvozzhaev had stoked violence at Moscow protests using American money that they'd received from a Georgian politician. (Among Russia's political class, Georgia is presented as an appendage of the United States.) This version of history has been regurgitated endlessly in state media, leaving any Russian paying attention to reach the logical conclusion on his own: Imprisoning two men who used foreign money to try to overthrow the federal government is self-evidently the right move.

But a purported protectionism is only the more recent of two important themes in the Russian legislation most recently reflected in the "aggressor states" proposal. The other is a lack of definitions of crucial language that has been a central part of Russian legislation for as long as Russian legislators have been legislating. For example, the statutes on "extremism" are a major issue of legal dispute here -- Pussy Riot were prosecuted on "extremism" charges, but nobody can say for sure what is and is not extremist, as it is defined nowhere in the legislation.

After Putin's announced return in late 2011, protests continued in Moscow for several months, with tens of thousands showing up in March and May 2012. Putin was inaugurated for his third term in May 2012 -- and that's when the protectionism steamroller really started rolling.

Russia's legislators had seemingly gotten the picture following the statement about Hillary and hit the ground running. On July 13, 2012, two months into Putin 2.0, the now-infamous "foreign agents" law was passed -- the day after it was introduced. The law requires nonprofit organizations receiving funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."

While the "foreign agents" law became effective in November 2012, law enforcement didn't really do anything with it until February 2013, when Putin, in a speech to the FSB, emphasized the need to eliminate "any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs" by foreign governments or interests. This was a defining moment in the anti-foreign philosophy that has grown into a full-blown movement today. By the end of 2013, nearly 300 civil-society NGOs across Russia had been raided.

The problems with the registration requirement were threefold. First, it called into play an extremely negative connotation based on assumptions from the Soviet period -- namely that if a foreign government is paying, then the NGO is acting on behalf of that government. Indeed, Putin later referred to these "puppet nongovernmental organizations" as an example of what he called "soft-force mechanisms" being used by foreign powers to weaken Russia. Those organizations that were and are required to register as "foreign agents" must print a badge announcing -- essentially warning of -- their threatening status on every publication and website. Second, the law played right into the second theme identified above, in that it used vague terms such as "political activity" to entrap organizations aiming to hold the Russian government accountable for acts such as elections violations or police violence, in order to shut down criticism. A final problem was that the law includes pretty serious liability for organizations that fail to voluntarily register if they are later found to be "foreign agents," and it has been amended a few times since, so that at this point the Ministry of Justice can add to the registry, of its own accord, organizations it suspects receive funding from abroad or engage in political activity. It's now conceivable, hypothetically, that an NGO could be on the federal list of "foreign agent" organizations without its administrators even being aware of this fact.

This summer, the MOJ has added to the registry five of the most vocal and effective Russian NGOs: Agora, Public Verdict, Human Rights Center Memorial, Jurix, and Ecozashita! (Ecodefense) -- a Kaliningrad organization that got its reputation as an enemy of the state by halting construction of a local oil terminal for environmental reasons. As a result of legal proceedings under the "foreign agent" law, two organizations were ordered to cease activity: Moscow Golos and a regional association of Golos -- both elections-monitoring organizations. Meanwhile, a number of organizations have suggested that they might either close or reorganize their activity, including Human Rights Center Memorial, which helps refugees and documents hate crime and repression that occurred during the Soviet period. Most shockingly, the Levada Center, a Moscow sociological research center providing some of the only objective and reliable survey data in the country, was also placed under threat.

Passage of the "foreign agent" law in July 2012 was only the first step, though, in the assault on civil organizations and the bid to wrest Russian society from purported foreign threats. In September 2012, USAID, which provided significant and sometimes crucial operational funding for health, human rights, and other important groups, was asked -- well, ordered -- to cease operations in Russia. The Kremlin's official rhetoric was that USAID was unnecessary in Russia -- a country which itself gives aid to other nations -- in the year 2012. However, Kremlin apparatchiks also admitted that they found USAID's work making the world a better place to be politically threatening. "We are talking about attempts to influence the political process through the distribution of grants, including elections at various levels and institutions in civil society," a Foreign Ministry representative stated at the time.

Civil leaders such as Pavel Chikov responded by asking Russian leadership if it would make up the 19 billion RUR (about $510 million) of health and civil society funding that would be drained from the country with the departure of foreign funding, pointing out that a dearth of transparent government funding (Russia was providing 3.5 billion RUR a year at the time to civil-society groups) and near-complete lack of funding from Russian businesses for civil-society projects made foreign funding necessary to help disabled people, orphans, and others.

The rhetoric of Russia as a "new donor" ramped up even further in January 2013, when the Russian government repudiated a longstanding agreement with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), an agreement that facilitated collaboration on combating drug trafficking, cyber crime, and other international nefariousness. Indeed, the repudiation of this contract may have contributed to gaps in communication between the two countries during the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing just a few months later.

After routing out foreign funding, the next point of order was to focus on routing out foreigners themselves. In April 2014, American Councils, an NGO that supports educational exchanges between the U.S. and Russia, was ordered by the MOJ to close. Then, in May 2014, the Duma passed a law requiring that certain professional classes of foreigners seeking work permits in Russia pass a Russian-language and culture exam.

In July, legislators proposed discussion on the set of amendments that resulted in this post, requiring lawyers, auditors, and other consultants -- as well as some entire corporations -- to register if have connections to "aggressor states." Good luck defining that one legally -- it would actually be an entirely new concept in Russian legislation, with no foundation statute to set its terms. And finally, in August Jennifer Gaspar, the American wife of Russian lawyer and activist Ivan Pavlov -- who has represented organizations in "foreign agents" trials -- was told that she was a threat to the Russian state and had her residency revoked. Pavlov is challenging the action, and her case is still proceeding as we write.

With all of this insanity having taken place over the last two years, you would think that nothing would surprise human-rights lawyers working here -- but you'd have to think again upon encountering the Duma's most recent legislative session. It was characterized by a kind of one-upsmanship of ridiculousness, with MPs trying to outdo each other with absurdly protectionist -- and downright scary -- proposals. With the anti-foreign theme having ratcheted up to a fever pitch, legislators discussed proposals as senseless and hysterical as banning yoga as a threat to the Orthodox Church, and banning foreign words that are diluting Russian culture. Kremlin court jester Vladimir Zhirinovsky even sought to ban the vowel Ы, claiming it has too great a Ukrainian influence.

We are not left with a pretty picture. Russian culture, generally skeptical of tolerance as a concept, seems to be going the way of the historic retread. Putinism 2.0 has brought us full-circle to Anti-Western Rhetoric 101, but this time with more complexity and nuance in its approach to eradicating the "other" and protecting a government-approved definition of Russianness.

What we can hope is that Russians will speak up for their own interpretations of their own culture and not let the government, by taking control of the media, business, and culture, speak for them on these important questions of personal and national identity.