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Russia’s Nonprofit Spies

LONDON – Nothing so riles Western opinion about Russia today as its law on foreign agents. Enacted in July 2012, the law requires all non-commercial organizations (NCOs) engaged in (undefined) “political activities” to register with the Ministry of Justice as “carrying functions of a foreign agent.” A follow-up measure in 2015, the Undesirable Organizations law, required any such NCO to identify itself publicly as a “foreign agent.”

The wording is peculiar and significant. What, after all, are the “functions of a foreign agent,” in common parlance, except to serve the interests of a foreign power? Indeed, Russia’s law effectively prevents NCOs not under state control from carrying out any activities in the country. Certainly, the designation puts them beyond the reach of the Russian funding which might get them removed from the registry. They are not only foreign: they are infiltrators and traitors!

Some groups have gone into voluntary liquidation; others have been suppressed for not complying with regulations; and still others are in exile. Prominent victims have been the Sakharov Center, the Memorial Center for Human Rights, and the Moscow School of Civic Education. Having fended off an earlier attempt to stigmatize it as a “foreign agent,” the European University at St. Petersburg now faces closure for trivial technical violations – a favorite bureaucratic tactic.

The vendetta against independent groups with foreign ties brings Russia no benefits and damages its international reputation. One can try to understand it at three levels.

First, the 2012 law was a direct response to the large public demonstrations that began the previous year in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities to protest Vladimir Putin’s decision to stand for a third term as president, his election, and his inauguration. In his only election speech, on February 23, 2012, Putin, recalling Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812, warned against foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs. This was a clear reference to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, allegedly organized and bankrolled by the CIA, which overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s preferred presidential candidate. The 2015 law followed the previous year’s Maidan uprising in Kyiv, which succeeded in deposing Yanukovych a second time.

Fear of the Russian state’s disintegration, a legacy of empire, is never far from its rulers’ thoughts. It is the principal barrier to the development of democratic politics.

It is a legacy still mired in the murky world of “front organizations”: real “foreign agents,” apparently independent and devoted to worthy causes, but secretly controlled from abroad. The Russians know all about them, because the Soviets routinely established them as a clandestine foreign-policy tool. The “front” would be a collection of respectable, often unsuspecting academics and cultural and sports figures; the “rear” would be controlled by the KGB. The organization’s output would be sympathetic to, or at least not critical of, the Soviet viewpoint.

The CIA responded in kind. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in 1950, was one of its many “fronts,” which funded well-known literary and political journals such as Encounter in the United Kingdom, as well as helping dissident intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain.

How much influence these “fronts” actually had on events is hard to know. To those addicted to conspiracy theories, they are an essential part of the secret history of the Cold War. And today’s print and electronic media provide new scope to “frontism.” With a sufficiently vivid imagination, one can see the long arm of Putin in the appointment of George Osborne as editor of London’s Evening Standard, owned by the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.

But suspicion of the foreign has much deeper roots in Russia. Anyone struggling to learn the Russian language soon runs up against its extraordinary opaqueness. Russians’ cultural genome (DNA) evolved in a peasant milieu, in which property was held, and life lived, in common. (Soviet communism, for all its imported Western inputs, was rooted in the traditional idea of collective property.) Relationships were governed not by legal norms, but by informal understandings and a clear distinction between those inside and outside the common mentality. Traditionally a closed society, Russians love or hate, explained filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky in 2015; they do not respect.

The Westernization started by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century was a forced growth –a graft, not a transplant. Without Peter, writes Konchalovsky, there would have been no Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, or Tolstoy, but only Pimen, Feofan Grek, and Andrei Rublev. But it did not shift the center of gravity of Russian civilization, which remained collective and slavophile, not individualistic and Western. The West gave Russia its dissidents and its missiles, but not its meaning. Putin understands this very well. Occasionally, his speech lapses into the slang of the prison, or tyurma, the epitome of the closed society.

It is too much to expect a repeal of the foreign agent law. But Russia could make a cost-free concession, by limiting the registration of “foreign agents” to NCOs that receive more than 50% of their funding from non-Russian sources. This would unlock domestic funding, enabling such groups to operate in Russia. And the West could offer a cost-free concession of its own – such as the removal of some Russians from the list of those barred from traveling to Europe or the United States. With global peace and prosperity partly hinging on a stable Western-Russian relationship, is it too much to ask for such small, paranoia-reducing steps?