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Russian foreign agent law

2012 Russian law

Foreign agent law
  • On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent
Enacted20 July 2012
Commenced21 November 2012
Legislative history

The Russian "foreign agent" law, officially "On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent", is a law in Russia that requires non-profit organisations, media organisations and individuals that receive foreign donations, engage in "political activity", study and report on crime, corruption and other problems within the military, space and security industries to register and declare themselves as "foreign agents".[1][2]

The bill was introduced in July 2012 by legislators from the governing United Russia party and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on 20 July 2012.[3] The new legislation is a series of amendments to existing laws with changes being applied to the criminal code and the laws “On Public Associations,” “On Noncommercial Organizations,” and “On Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism.[4]” The law went into effect in November 2012, but was not actively enforced until Vladimir Putin instructed law-enforcement officials to do so during a speech to members of the Federal Security Service on Valentine's Day 2013, stating that "Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable."[5][6][7]

Once registered, organisations and individuals are subject to additional audits and are obliged to mark all their publications with a 24-word disclaimer saying that they are being distributed by a "foreign agent".[8] The phrase "foreign agent" (Russian: иностранный агент) in Russian has strong associations with cold war-era espionage, and the law has been criticized both in Russia and internationally as a violation of human rights and as being designed to target opposition groups; supporters of the law have likened it to United States legislation on lobbyists employed by foreign governments.[9][10][11][12]

Implications for NGOs

The foreign agent label increases registration barriers for an NGO in Russia. This includes restrictions on foreigners and stateless peoples from establishing or even participating in the organization. A NGO must then submit to extensive audits. Supervisory powers are allowed to intervene and interrupt the internal affairs of the NGO with suspensions for up to six months.[13]

Once labeled as foreign agents, organizations are obliged to mark all their publications and to begin each oral statement with a disclosure that it is being given by a "foreign agent".[14] It also limits the way a foreign organization can make tax-exempt donations to specific people or the NGO by requiring them to register and be placed on a very limited list of approved organizations.[13]

Some NGOs report curtailed access to government officials and public institutions and continued harassment.[14][15] NGO raids have been reported as being accompanied by television crews from TV channel NTV.[16][17]

A Ministry of Justice report obtained by the Russian business daily Vedomosti in May 2016 said criticism of the "foreign agents" law qualifies as political activity under the "foreign agents" law.[18]

Varieties of "foreign agents"

Russian non-profit organizations which receive funding from foreign sources and participate in political activity in Russia

On 21 November 2012, the Federal Law of 20 July 2012 №121-FZ "On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent",[19] which is the amendments to the Federal Law of 19 May 1995 №82-FZ "On public associations", the Federal Law of 12 January 1996 №7-FZ "On Non-profit Organizations", the Federal Law of 7 August 2001 №115-FZ "On countering the legalization (laundering) of the proceeds of crime and the financing of terrorism", the Criminal Code of Russia and the Criminal Procedure Code of Russia, entered into force.[20] In accordance to this law, Russian non-profit organization, except for state and municipal companies, can be declared foreign agent if it participates in political activity in Russia and receives funding from foreign sources. Political activity is defined as any influence to public opinion and public policy including a sending a requests and petitions.

Foreign media

On 25 November 2017, the amendments, contained in the Federal Law of 25 November 2017 №327-FZ "On Amendments to the articles 10.4 and 15.3 of the Federal Law "On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection" and to the article 6 of the Russian Federation Law "On the media"",[21] entered into force.[22] In accordance to these amendments, any foreign juridical person distributing printed, audio or audio-visual materials can be declared a foreign media performing the functions of a "foreign agent" even if such juridical person doesn’t have branches or representative offices in Russia. Foreign juridical persons designated as a foreign media performing the functions of a "foreign agent" are obliged the Russian foreign agent law.

On 2 December 2019, the amendments, contained in the Federal Law of 2 December 2019 №426-FZ "On Amendments to the Russian Federation Law "On the media" and the Federal Law "On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection"",[23] entered into force.[24] In accordance to these amendments, foreign juridical persons declared a foreign media performing the functions of a "foreign agent" must form a Russian juridical person and inform Russian authorities about this.

Ministry of Justice stated that foreign juridical person can be designated as a foreign media performing the functions of a "foreign agent" if it publishes materials in Russian language; participation in any political activity does not matter.[25]

Russian citizens, foreign citizens, stateless natural persons who distribute materials of foreign media performing functions of "foreign agent" and receive funding from foreign sources

The amendments, contained in the Federal Law of 2 December 2019 №426-FZ "On Amendments to the Russian Federation Law "On the media" and the Federal Law "On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection"",[26] also provide the possibility to designate natural person as "foreign agent". This requires that natural person distributes a materials of a foreign media performing functions of a "foreign agent" (for example, in social media) and receives funding from foreign sources (for example, salary from international company).[27][28]

Russian citizens, foreign citizens, stateless natural persons who participate in political activity in Russia

On 30 December 2020, the amendments, contained in the Federal Law of 30 December 2020 №481-FZ "On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Establishment Additional Measures to Counter the Threats to National Security",[29] entered into force.[30] In accordance to these amendments, special marking are envisaged not only for a publications of non-profit organizations declared a "foreign agent" but also for a publications of its founders, heads, members, employees. Individuals (Russian citizens, foreign citizens and stateless persons) also can be declared "foreign agent" for their political activity. Political activity is defined as any influence to public opinion including publications in social media and public policy including a sending a requests and petitions. Receiving funding from foreign sources is optional - it's quite enough to "carry out activity in favour" of foreign and international authorities, organizations, citizens and stateless persons. Individuals declared "foreign agent" are obliged to make special reporting and are deprived of the right to hold public office.


On 4 June 2014, an amendment to the "foreign agents law" came into force, authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register independent groups as "foreign agents" without their consent, if the ministry regards the organizations as engaged in "political activity" and if the organization is receiving foreign funding.[31]

By 29 June 2015, according to a report by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the list of "foreign agents" included at least 70 NGOs. Of those, only five organizations voluntarily agreed to designate themselves "foreign agents". At least 20 NGOs have ceased their activity either in full or in part, including through "self-liquidation". The majority of organizations were included in the first half of 2015.[32]

By 24 October 2016, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the list of active "foreign agents" included 105 NGOs. Of those, four registered voluntarily and at least 58 were prosecuted for not doing so.[31]

Law enforcement officers in Russia have raided the offices of several targeted organizations to seize documents and records related to their operation. Several prominent international organizations have been targeted, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Transparency International.[33] Overall, more than 55 organizations in 16 Russian regions have been audited.[5] These raids are often joined by journalists from NTV, which has aired programs which accuse human rights and opposition activists of pushing the interests of the United States.[6][34][35]

In June 2017, head of the human rights NGO "Union of Women of Don" Valentina Cherevatenko was formally charged with "malicious evasion" of legal requirements set out in the law, making it the first criminal proceedings initiated for non-compliance. Cherevatenko faces two years in prison.[36]

Usually the legal basis for "foreign agent" designation is not available. Petr Manyakhin who was designated a "foreign agent" himself and countered this in a court, received a legal justification from Ministry of Justice who argued that Manyakhin received funding in foreign currencies based on three USD bank transfers, which were between Manyakhin's own accounts. Further reasons given were a single retweet in support of "Meduza" and Manyakhin's 2020 article about torture in Novosibirsk police.[37]

A 2021 report by OVD-Info goes into great detail about the existing legislation and practice of its application. While the government claims that the designation does not prevent freedom of speech, and merely ensures transparency about who is speaking, the report clearly indicates that the regulation had a strong chilling effect on media, which avoid quoting organizations and individuals designated as foreign agents, and the designated themselves withdraw from public debate as result of high financial fines imposed by Roscomnadzor for example for missing a long legal disclaimer even on a social media share of someone else's post. Furthermore, any entities designated as foreign agents are prohibited from acting as election observers, legislative experts, candidates to public supervisory commissions and other public functions. At the same time the criteria for the designation are extremely broad and vague, from actually receiving foreign grants to "participation in an international conference with accommodation at the expense of the organizer", "gift from friends or relatives living abroad" or even transfer of own funds from an own account in foreign currency.[38]

Notable cases

An organization that has been designated as a foreign agent can be looked up here: [1]
Aktsent Yekaterinburg organization affiliated with LGBT Center.[39][40] Open
Alliance of Doctors Added in March 2021. The Moscow Alliance Of Doctors (Альянс врачей) is headed by ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva, who has treated opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in the past. It was founded in 2018. It fights for fair wages and working conditions for medical professionals.[41] Open
Anna Domestic-Violence Crisis Center[42] www.anna-center.ru[43] Open
Anti-Corruption Foundation On 9 October 2019, the Ministry of Justice of Russia designated the Anti-Corruption Foundation as foreign agent due to a payments came from USA and Spain.[44] One of these payments was the payment of US$50 made by Yuriy Maslikhov, Russian citizen residing in USA. In an interview with journalists, Yuriy Maslikhov stated that he had transferred the money from his PayPal account as an individual and he had been carrying out such donations earlier.[45] Two other payments totalling 138505 and 41 kopecks (~US$2170) were carried out by Spanish citizen Roberto Fabio Monda Cardenas through CaixaBank on 6 and 17 September 2019. Answering a question of journalists how he, unable to speak Russian, found out the wire payment instructions of the Anti-Corruption Foundation after its removing from official website of the organization, Roberto Fabio Monda Cardenas couldn’t say a word.[46] These payments were carried out at a time when the bank account of the Anti-Corruption Foundation was frozen at the request of the Investigative Committee of Russia.[47] Despite the fact that the Anti-Corruption Foundation gave the money back, Ministry of Justice of Russia refused to remove the Anti-Corruption Foundation from the register of “foreign agents”.[48] Liquidated by the decision of 9 June 2021 of the Moscow City Court as "extremist organization" (case №3а-1573/2021).
Committee Against Torture Russia’s Committee Against Torture disputed their inclusion into the registry in court, but the appeal was rejected. Refusing to operate under the law's conditions, it announced its dissolution.[49][50] Closed
Dozhd (TV Rain) Russian independent television channel Dozhd (TV Rain) was included in the list of "foreign agents" on 20 August 2021.[51] As stated by a representative of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation at the meeting with the members of Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Dozhd was designated as "foreign agent" by the request of Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media due to distributing materials prepared by media and individuals which were declared as "foreign agents" earlier, such as Meduza, Current Time TV, Lev Ponomaryov, Lyudmila Savitskaya.[52] Open
Dynasty Foundation Russia's only private funder of scientific research, shut down after being included in the registry.[53][54] Closed
Glasnost Defense Foundation After Defence Foundation was designated a "foreign agent", the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe[55] and the Russian President's Human Rights Council criticised the decision.[56] Open
GlobalGiving[57] Open
GOLOS Association Russia's only independent election monitoring organization,[58] was instructed by the Russian Justice Ministry to declare themselves a "foreign agent" for accepting an award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.[59] After GOLOS refused to register, stating that it had not accepted the prize money, it was fined and suspended for six months.[59][60][61] Russian police subsequently raided the offices and the homes of employees and confiscated equipment.[62] Open
Humanitarian Action Russia’s Justice Ministry added “Humanitarian Action,” a charity based in St. Petersburg, to its list of “foreign agents” in late 2020. The organization works mainly with drug users and people living with HIV.[57][63] Open
Levada Center Russia's only independent polling agency, received between 3 and 1.5% of its total budget from abroad.[64] It was issued with a public warning that it would be eligible under the law.[64] Levada said it suspended foreign funding in 2013.[65] In 2016, the polling agency was named a foreign agent, barring it from work on the upcoming election.[65][66] Levada's director stated that the designation may mean that Levada would be unable to continue its work as a pollster.[67] Open
Lev Ponomaryov Famous Russian human rights activist was labeled as "foreign agent" on 28 December 2020.[68]
MacArthur Foundation The American MacArthur Foundation, citing the foreign agent law along with its designation as an "undesirable organization", closed its Russian division, operating since 1992.[69] Closed
Meduza Meduza is Latvian media which doesn’t have branches or representative offices in Russia. Meduza publishes materials on its website in Russian and English. On April 23, 2021, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated Meduza as a foreign media performing the functions of a "foreign agent".[70][71] In response, the European Union rejected the decision, saying this restriction "goes against Russia's international obligations and human rights commitments".[72][73][74][75] Open
Memorial One of Russia's oldest organizations dedicated to preventing a return to authoritarianism, also refused to register under the law. They were officially audited, and provided 8,776 pages of information documenting their activities.[10] It was placed on the registry in 2015.[76]

On 28 December 2021, the Supreme Court of Russia ordered the closure of Memorial.[77] The group intends to appeal the ruling.

Nasiliu.net Domestic Violence Center Added to the “foreign agent” list in December 2020. Nasiliu.net is one of Russia’s leading organizations addressing domestic violence.

The ministry is asking a court to fine Nasiliu.net from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles ($4,000 to $6,800). The ministry is seeking a fine of up to 300,000 rubles against the NGO's director, Anna Rivina. It was founded in 2015 and was registered as an NGO in 2018. In December 2020, it was listed as a "foreign agent" organization, a designation that it is appealing in court.[42]

Phoenix PLUS Oryol Region in Russia.[57][78] Open
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty In 2017, the Russian government placed Radio Free Europe Russian Service, six other Radio Free Europe Russian-language news services, and Current Time TV on the list. The fines against Radio Free Europe amount to about 70 million rubles ($950,000).[79] Open
Transparency International (TI-R) Transparency International was declared eligible for the label in 2013. The reason given was TI-R receiving money from foreign sources, and being a part of the Expert Commission for Open Governance in Russia, which deals with political activities.[80] TI-R believes that their position on the Expert Commission for Open Governance in Russia should preclude them from being forced to register as a foreign agent, seeing as it is a status appointed by the Russian Government. They also claim that the phrase "political activity" is too broadly defined in the law, and that it needs to have narrow, specific definitions.[81] Despite TI-R objections, in April 2015, the Russian Ministry of Justice placed Transparency International on its list of 'foreign agents'.[82] Open



Russia's human rights commissioner, Vladimir Lukin, and several non-governmental groups filed an appeal with Russia's constitutional court, arguing that the law violated constitutional provisions on freedom of association (Article 30) and that the definitions of "political activities" and "foreign agents" in its text were too vague.[83][84] On 8 April 2014, the court decided that the law did not infringe on the Constitutional right to association, and that the foreign agent designation was in the public interest.[85]

Russia's Presidential Council for Human Rights, citing the targeting of Dynasty Foundation and the Committee Against Torture, called upon the Plenum of the Supreme Court to examine the practice of the courts in the application of the law.[86]

In February 2016, the Russian PEN Center issued an open letter protesting amendments to the law which defined "political activity" as activity aimed at influencing the government or public opinion.[87]


Secretary-general of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland expressed concerns about the law during a joint news conference with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, stating that "[The law] can have a chilling effect on the NGO community, particularly if this law is not being put into practice in the right manner."[88]

Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Union, expressed concern about the law and resulting raids, stating that "The inspections and searches launched against the Russian NGO community and conducted on vague legal grounds are worrisome since they seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society in the country."[6]

German chancellor Angela Merkel publicly rebuked President Putin while he visited Hanover, shortly after Russian officials searched and confiscated documents and equipment from two German NGOs operating in Russia.[89]

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle declared the moves against the nonprofits unacceptable and warned through a spokesperson that they could "have a sustained effect on bilateral relations."[90]

United States Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner criticized the draft legislation while speaking to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, saying "We are deeply concerned about the worsening climate for media freedom in Russia. Earlier this month the Duma passed laws enabling Internet censorship and re-criminalizing defamation. The Duma has also discussed labeling news outlets that are funded internationally as 'foreign agents' – a stigmatizing term now also applied to NGOs."[91]

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in its "Helsinki Declaration" from July 2015 called upon Russia to "end its attempts to stigmatize and discredit civil society groups by labeling them foreign agents".[92]

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued an opinion raising "several serious issues" with the formulation and implementation of the law according to Council of Europe standards. It called upon Russia to reformulate the vague criteria of "political activities", and to abandon the term "foreign agent", stating that "by bringing back the rhetoric used during the communist period, this term stigmatises the NCOs to which it is applied, tarnishing their reputation and seriously hampering their activities."[93]

On 6 July 2021, the new opinion of the Venice Commission on Russian foreign agent law was published.[94] According to the Venice Commission's conclusion, the recent amendments to Russia's "foreign agent" legislation take a clear direction towards expanding the scope of entities and individuals that qualify as "foreign agents" as well as expanding the obligations and restrictions on these entities and individuals. The recent amendments also significantly raise sanctions (administrative and criminal) for non-compliance with these regulations. At the same time, they tend to use vague and overly broad terminology and fail to have a reasonable relation to the aims allegedly pursued. As a result, they constitute serious violations of basic human rights, including the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs, as well as the prohibition of discrimination. The Venice Commission is particularly concerned by the combined effect of the most recent amendments on entities, individuals, the media and civil society more broadly. The Venice Commission warns against the significant chilling effect that the recent reforms are likely to have on the free exercise of the civil and political rights which are vital for an effective democracy. The combined effect of the recent reforms enables authorities to exercise significant control over the activities and existence of associations as well as over the participation of individuals in civic life. The Venice Commission recommends that the Russian authorities abandon the special regime of registration, reporting, and public disclosure requirements for associations, media outlets and individuals receiving "foreign support", including the related administrative and criminal sanctions. Alternatively, the Venice Commission calls on the Russian authorities to thoroughly revise not only the most recent amendments but the entire body of its “foreign agent” legislation by significantly narrowing the legal definition of a "foreign agent" in order to serve the stated aim of transparency. Specifically, the notions of "political activities" and "foreign support" should be abandoned in favour of indicators that would reliably track objectionable forms of foreign interference. At a minimum, the stigmatising and misleading "foreign agent" label should be abandoned in favour of a more neutral and accurate designation. This new designation should not be used as a criterion for banning individuals from entering public service. Likewise, NCOs and media outlets so designated should not be prohibited from participating in campaign activities. Criminal sanctions, including especially compulsory labour and the deprivation of liberty, should not be applied to breaches of registration, reporting and public disclosure requirements for "foreign agents", even under the narrow definition of that designation. Further, the penalty of liquidation of NCOs should be reserved for extreme cases of violations threatening democracy.


In 2015, the science and education supporting fund Dynasty Foundation run by Dmitry Zimin, founder of Vympelcom, closed after being forced to label itself as a "foreign agent". This decision of the Ministry of Justice has sparked a lot of criticism as "Dynasty" was not involved in politics and fully focused on national education in Russia. It also received no funds from foreign third parties, merely keeping part of their funds on foreign bank accounts. After mass protests of the academic community against this discrimination Zimin attempted appeals and when they remained unsuccessful, he decided to close the fund and left Russia.[95][96]

The Committee Against Torture also declared the organisation will be closed after it lost an appeal against the justice ministry qualifying it as a "foreign agent".[97][98]

According to Human Rights Watch, by August 2016 at least 13 groups chose to shut down rather than wear the "foreign agent" label.[31]

Since the law was passed in Russia, Transparency International-Russia (TI-R) has fought it. In November 2012 the Board of the Center of TI-R issued a statement declaring the law unconstitutional, claiming it impairs their rights to organize and participate in governance.[99] TI-R claims that the "foreign agent" law enacted by the Russian government is unconstitutional according to the Russian constitution based on its articles concerning freedom of speech and the right to participate in governance.[81] TI-R was itself placed on the list of foreign agents in 2015.[82]

'Undesirable organizations' law

As a follow-up to the Foreign agent law, on 23 May 2015, President Putin passed the Undesirable Organizations bill into law citing "national security". The law bans non-governmental organizations that it deems undesirable as a "threat to the constitutional order and defense capability, or the security of the Russian state". NGOs that do not disband when given notice to do so are now subject to high fines and significant jail time. Critics say the terms are unclear and lead to dangerous precedent. Supporters of the bill reference organizations that have become actively involved in supporting political dissent.

Media law

In November 2017, President Putin signed a law that would force foreign-funded news agencies in Russia to be classified as foreign agents and disclose their funding sources. This was done in response to a recent American law forcing Russian-funded news agencies in the US to register as "foreign agents".[100]

See also


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