“Foreign Agents”:

From Stigmatization to Demonization

June 7, 2023
  • Maxim Krupskiy

    Visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University,

    Non-Resident Fellow, The Russia Program at George Washington University

Maxim Krupskiy writes about how an existential threat narrative towards “foreign agents” is formed in Russia, explains how it relates to the new Concept of Russian Foreign Policy and what goals the Putin's regime is trying to achieve by expanding the “foreign agents” legislation.

At the St Petersburg International Legal Forum held in May Russian Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuychenko (in the middle) suggested that restrictions on “foreign agents“ should be expanded. Source: VK
May 13, 2023 was the last day of the St. Petersburg XI International Legal Forum, an annual event held since 2011 at the initiative of the Russian Ministry of Justice. The Forum is officially announced as the largest platform for a dialogue between representatives of the legal, business, political and law enforcement communities on the issues of law. This year, however, it can rather be described as a platform for the active promotion of the pro-Kremlin ideological mythologies and a memorial service for what is left of the law in Russia.

The culmination of the forum was a session officially titled "Besogon and Law" (besogon is a Russian equivalent for "exorcist"), at which participants discussed the protection of Russian spiritual and moral values from external influence through legal mechanisms. It was moderated by the famous filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, creator of "Besogon TV," a popular propaganda- and-conspiracy show. The session was also attended by former Russian Minister of Culture, currently Putin's aide Vladimir Medinsky, Chairman of the Russian Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin, and Russian Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuichenko. The latter devoted a significant portion of his speech to the topic of "foreign agents."

The minister suggested that restrictions on “foreign agents“ should go beyond the current norm depriving them of government funding, but should strip them of any opportunity to earn money in Russia. He also suggested expanding the grounds for recognition a person or an organization as a "foreign agent" and imposing this status on those whose activities are aimed against the Russian spiritual and moral values, since these values are an element of Russia's state policy.

Neutralizing an existential threat

The proposals of the Minister of Justice are an attempt to formalize in the national legislation the ideological narratives inherent in the new Concept of Russian Foreign Policy, approved by President Putin's decree of March 31, 2023.

The Concept presents Russia as a "distinctive state-civilization," which carries out "the historically unique mission of maintaining the global balance of power and building a multipolar international system." However, according to the Concept, Russia is prevented from realizing this mission by countries that impede the "natural course of history," based on "the logic of global domination and neocolonialism."

In order to remove these obstacles to Russia’s implementation of its “unique mission” and ensure multipolarity as the Kremlin understands it, Russia, according to the Concept, intends, inter alia, to neutralize attempts "to impose pseudo-humanist and other neoliberal ideological attitudes that lead to the loss of traditional spiritual and moral reference points and principles of humanity."

The proposed paradigm leads one to view the global stage as a space of not only geopolitical, but also existential confrontation between Russia and the so-called collective West.
Russia here assumes the messianic role of the savior of humanity, the bearer of universal traditional spiritual values and moral principles.
Nikita Mikhalkov, the famous filmmaker, is also the creator of a popular propaganda and conspiracy TV show. Source: Youtube
All who oppose it automatically become not just political opponents, but collaborators of destructive forces that threaten the very existence of humanity.

Only at first glance does this sound like a paranoid delusion. In reality, it reflects Russia's groping for a formal ideological agenda. The participants of the above-mentioned session "Besogon and Law" repeatedly suggested to amend the Russian Constitution by introducing a provision on a state ideology in order “to protect the spiritual and moral values”.

In May 2023, at an International meeting of high representatives on security director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin said that "the totalitarian liberal regimes led by the United States want to destroy everything human in a human being, to turn it from a free being into a completely controlled transhumanist chimera." He also advised "the Anglo-Saxons to go to their old friend, the Devil." In a similar manner the Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education of Russia in the above-mentioned legal forum spoke about the need to oppose “the spread of undesirable values in Russia” through international grant programs and educational programs.

Amid this background, and, given the Minister of Justice’s  intention to assign the "foreign agent" status to those who undermine Russian spiritual and moral values,
“The foreign agent turns from a stigmatizing label into a marker of existential threat.
Since its appearance in Russia in 2012, the "foreign agents" legislation has been one of the main instruments of persecuting civic activism, human rights defenders and independent media. Later versions of the law provided for a number of restrictions for “foreign agents,” ranging from a ban on participation in educational activities to a ban on organizing public events. However, until recently, Russian authorities have officially stated that this status is only intended to ensure transparency of "foreign agents" activities and sources of their funding.

Since Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the fight against "foreign agents" has evolved as an existential confrontation. Vladimir Putin set the tone by introducing the category of "national traitors" into public discourse, referring primarily to those who share the values of liberal democracy and calling for the Russian society to cleanse itself from them.

Repressions of civil society have intensified over the course of the war in Ukraine. So, well-known human rights organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sova Information and Analysis Center were liquidated as well as Journalists' and Media Workers' Union and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Memorial had been liquidated on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As recently as the spring of 2023 the human rights activists of "Memorial" in Moscow and Perm have been searched for politically motivated criminal cases.

Obviously, it is no longer enough for the Kremlin to simply stigmatize "foreign agents" – their very physical existence in Russia is unacceptable.

Hence, the Minister of Justice's public suggestion that "foreign agents" should be stripped of their constitutional right to work and to be compensated for it.

What are the Kremlin's goals?

It appears, however, that ordinary Russians are unlikely to stand up together against the threat of being turned into a "transhumanist chimera." What is it then that the Kremlin trying to achieve by promoting this discriminating agenda?

The answer to this question may probably be found in the most recent amendments to the law on "foreign agents," currently under consideration in the Russian State Duma. The bill prohibits government agencies, officials, organizations, and citizens from abetting “foreign agents” in their “unlawful acts.” The Deputy Minister of Justice of Russia explained that these amendments are planned to be applied, for example, against "channels [of information] that will show known foreign agents" and those who "will violate traditional values".

Attempts by the authorities to extend the "foreign agents" legislation to those who have not been assigned this label themselves indicate that the Kremlin is seeking to monopolize the realm of information and ideas and bar "foreign agents" from any contacts with the Russian society. Such legal constraints call for an ideological justification, which, among other things, is the declared fight against destructive influence on the Russian spiritual and moral values.

In the aftermath of the Russian aggression against Ukraine the status of “foreign agent” was imposed on dozens well-known figures who spoke out against it - popular artists, writers, journalists, scientists, and bloggers with an audience of tens of millions. So far, Russian law has not provided for any bans on interaction with "foreign agents" for third parties, which enabled, for example, businesses or educational institutions to continue interacting with them. Yet, over one year into the war and no end to it in sight, the Kremlin appears to be increasingly concerned about securing control over information.

It is also possible that the rhetoric of protecting spiritual and moral values and demonization of foreign influence is used as a way to consolidate the political elite itself. Public commitment to traditionalism and condemnation of the West have become a pledge of allegiance to Putin's regime and its war against Ukraine.
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