Since late 2020, Russia has added dozens of Kremlin critics to its register of “foreign agents.” Reuters contacted them to find out how the designation has changed their lives.
By LENA MASRI
(Reuters) – Long before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the mass detentions of Russian peace protesters, the Kremlin was already stifling dissent – with choking bureaucracy.
Throughout 2021, the Kremlin tightened the screws on its opponents – including supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny – using a combination of arrests, internet censorship and blacklists. The crackdown accelerated after Russia invaded Ukraine. Now a Reuters data analysis and interviews with dozens of people chart these tactics’ success in eroding civil freedoms.
A widely used weapon in the Kremlin’s armoury is the state’s register of “foreign agents.” People whose names appear on this official list are closely monitored by the authorities. Among them is Galina Arapova, a lawyer who heads the non-profit Mass Media Defence Centre, which advocates for freedom of expression and is based in Voronezh, western Russia.
The Ministry of Justice declared Arapova, 49, a “foreign agent” on Oct. 8. She wasn’t told why. The ministry didn’t comment for this article.
The designation brings close government scrutiny of Arapova’s daily life and a mountain of red tape. She must file a quarterly report to the Ministry of Justice detailing her income and expenses, including trips to the supermarket. The report runs to 44 pages. Reuters reviewed one such report.
Every six months, “foreign agents” must file an account to the ministry of how they spend their time. Some retired people list their household chores. Arapova states in her account simply that she works as a lawyer, unsure whether she’s providing enough detail.
She offers legal advice to other “foreign agents,” but says she’s often in the dark about what the rules require. “We don’t fully understand what exactly they want us to do because the law is very vague,” she told Reuters. “They don’t explain anything. Do we have to list all utility costs and receipts from supermarkets or just overall expenses for three months?”
She prints out then mails the report to the ministry, the pages carefully stapled together. If a page is missing or the report arrives late, she could be fined. Repeated violations can lead to prosecution and up to two years in jail.