May 20, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 601

New Russian Law On 'Foreign Agents' Annihilates Any Semblance Of Democracy

May 20, 2024 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 601

On May 15, 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that bans "foreign agents" from being "candidates, candidates' agents, or observers during elections of all levels." When the State Duma voted into law this regulation on May 6, many experts asked themselves why this legislation was introduced in such a hurry.

After Georgia's parliament recently passed, prompting demonstrations in the country and strong disapproval from the West, the third and final reading of a "foreign agents" bill, which is quite similar to the Russian law on "foreign agents" initially adopted in 2012 as one of the first repressive laws that appeared in Russia after Putin's return to the Kremlin in the same year, the issue of "foreign agents" has made headlines all over the world.

Liberal activist Elvira Vikhareva (Source: Twitter)

The Evolution Of The Concept Of Foreign Agent

In 2012, Moscow introduced a law on "foreign agents" to control foreign funding to Russia's political parties and organizations, as the Kremlin had become worried about "color revolutions" and "regime change attempts," as in those years the Arab spring had brought down many established dictatorships.

However, the concept of "foreign agent" under Russian law, which President Putin falsely proclaimed to be a copy of the "foreign agent" laws in the United States,[1] evolved drastically. Legislation established that to be included in the list of "foreign agents," it was sufficient to get any amount of "financial assistance" from abroad, including, for example, any kind of prize or reward (even if the person refused it).

The legislation was further developed in 2017, allowing for any media outlets to be declared "foreign agents." This led to many Western broadcasting stations like Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and many others being added to the list.[2]

In late 2020, the State Duma adopted another amendment to the law, allowing for people and organizations to be labeled as "foreign agents" for getting "non-financial support" from abroad, meaning that anyone[3] who is praised by Western media can be added to the list. At the same time, it was allowed for even those organizations and groups that had never been registered as a legal entity to be declared "foreign agents."[4] For these reasons, foreign agents in Russia should mention their status in any publication, including those made on social networks and present special financial reports to the authorities – they may face prosecution for failing to do so.

In addition, in early 2024 another law (signed by President Putin) prohibited Russian citizens and organizations from advertising their services and products in any media that have been declared "foreign agents" or are owned by "foreign agents."[5] This move was considered a huge blow for the opposition emigrant press, as several media popular projects had to discontinue their activity.[6]

However, despite being banned from various types of political activities (teaching at state-owned educational institutions, being observers in any elections, etc.), for unknown reasons, until recently foreign agents were still allowed to run for any elected office. In fact, by early March 2024, there were at least 10 deputies in many Russian local and regional assemblies possessing the status of "foreign agent,"[7] including in the city Dumas of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

"Foreign Agents" Wanted To Run In The Moscow City Duma Elections

So why did the State Duma introduce the recent additions to existing legislation so quickly? Presumably, it was done because in early March a group of people, including myself, who are designated "foreign agents," announced their intention to run for the Moscow City Duma in the upcoming elections scheduled for September.[8]

The group, set up and led by liberal activist Elvira Vikhareva, who had unsuccessfully run for the State Duma in 2021, rapidly expanded, and soon reached 45 people who were able to apply for the candidate status in each constituency in the capital city, the Moscow City Duma consists of 45 deputies. Of course, the chances for being registered remained low since most of the "provocateurs" are residing abroad with little intention to return to Russia for submitting their applications to the Moscow Electoral Commission, which can be made only in person. Yet, the initiative received a lot of attention in liberal media and on social networks, causing a predictable reaction. In fact, less than two months passed between when the idea to run for the Moscow City Duma was first announced and when Putin signed into law a bill banning "foreign agents" from being electoral candidates. It is worth noting that the law does not only ban "foreign agents" from running for elected offices, but rules that all the already elected individuals with this status have 180 days either to challenge their legal status in court or to resign from positions they hold.[9]

I would say that such a "minor" amendment changes dramatically the entire system of governance in Russia. While in the early years of Russian democracy, the status of MP granted high level of immunity, starting from the mid-2000s these norms have been eroding. Now, national or local legislators can nullify the powers of their colleagues by just a majority vote. This can be done if the deputy possesses property abroad or accounts in foreign banks, submits a false declaration of income and assets, etc.

"Foreign Agents" Legislation Reminiscent Of Soviet Times

In Russia there is neither uniform nor public procedure during which the "foreign agent" status is determined. Almost every Friday, the Justice Ministry announces additions to the list, citing the receipt of "foreign funding," "dissemination of fake news about the Russian government and its policies," and even the reposting on social media of "foreign agents'" writings and opinions.

The "foreign agent" status is next to impossible to appeal and revoke – till today, only one person, Vladivostok-based journalist Daniil Gubarev succeeded, in July 2023, in getting a court to remove this status from him,[10] but it was then reinstalled by an appellate court decision delivered in October of the same year.[11] This means that, as the new law came into force, the executive branch of power will enjoy a privilege to purge "unwanted" deputies from any regional or national legislative assembly simply by arbitrarily declaring them "foreign agents."

The evolution of the "foreign agents" legislation and practice reminds me of the Soviet times, when during the Stalin era almost everyone was labelled as an "enemy of the people." The major difference is not the approach, but rather its outcome: Unlike in the USSR, the "foreign agent" status is used in Russia not to send someone to the Gulag or to execute him, but rather to sideline a person in everyday life, and, most probably, to squeeze her or him out of the country.

Putin's regime has become ripe enough to decide on a bureaucratic level who can possess civil rights, and who cannot, who can– even hypothetically – be elected to public office, and who cannot. And this, I would argue, is just the beginning of a solid division of society into "us" and "aliens," which will become more and more decisive in the years to come with such change being much more rapid than the evolution of the "foreign agents" legislation, whichneeded more than a decade to arrive at its current form and makes any reminiscences about "democracy" and separation of powers absolutely obsolete and senseless in Putin's Russian Federation.


The topic of "foreign agents" laws in Russia is these days quite important not only because it annihilates Russian democracy (which seems to have been dead at least for a while), but because there are many other nations preparing to adopt the same repressive practices. Of course, governmental officials insist that the laws are needed only for establishing control over foreign financial aid to their countries' NGOs that have received assistance and money for years, while being "unaccountable" to regional authorities – a false accusation since they were obliged to submit financial reports to the government.

Around a month ago the president of Kyrgyzstan signed a law on "foreign representatives," which is very similar to the 2012 Russian law on "foreign agents," authorizing the Justice Ministry to prepare a proscription list of people and organizations.[12] The president of Kyrgyzstan assured his fellow citizens that the government would not use the new legislation to oppress the opposition,[13] but most political activists believe it will.

In Georgia, as I mentioned earlier, the government, controlled by the Georgian Dream party, which was founded by the Georgia-Russian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, is passing through the parliament a similar bill, which is fiercely opposed by thousands of people protesting in Tbilisi's streets and squares. Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze insists that the law "would facilitate Georgia's integration into the European Union"[14] but the European Parliament condemned the move, warning that it would be a serious blow to Georgia's EU aspirations.[15]

In Kazakhstan, where no similar law exists, the Finance Ministry already compiled a list of persons and organizations that accept money or assets from foreign entities, but in this case the register is used mainly for collecting taxes, rather than for political purposes.[16]

In many nations in the post-Soviet area, which had been considered "limited democracies" in recent decades, despite having declared their willingness to respect European values and practices, Russia-type legislations have been adopted. Hence, most probably – sooner or later – this legislation will have all the consequences it has already had in Russia, including the most important one: full and absolute domination of the executive branch over the legislative...

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor, and Founder and Director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.



[1], September 12, 2024.

[2], December 5, 2017.

[3], December 8, 2020.

[4], February 19, 2021.

[5], February 28, 2024.

[6], February 28, 2024.

[7], May 6, 2024.

[8], March 28, 2024.

[9], May 6, 2024.

[10], July 18, 2023.

[11], October 4, 2023.

[12], June 2, 2024.

[13], April 2, 2024.

[14], May 1, 2024.

[15], May 1, 2024.

[16], March 20, 2024.

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