PONARS Eurasia members discuss the Russian Duma's “foreign agent” NGO law and references to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA; 1938).
- The FARA database can be searched here: http://www.fara.gov/quick-search.html
- U.S. embassy overview about FARA and U.S. laws on NGO foreign funding: http://egypt.usembassy.gov/ngos.html
Comments by PONARS Eurasia members:
— The FARA database covers all listings for the entire 75 years FARA has been in force. Out of 379 active listings, there are almost no entities that would really be described as an NGO, at least in the way we use it. The exceptions are the World Zionist Organization (registered since 1971), the All-Pakistan Muslim League (registered since 2011), the Arab Information Center (registered on behalf of the Arab League since 1955), the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (registered since 1993), the Friends of Sinn Fein (registered since 1995), the Native American Rights Fund (registered since 1993), the Syrian Future Movement (registered since Nov. 2012), the Thy Hashemite Sovereign Royal Family of Iraq Office in the USA (registered since 2011), the U.S. Office of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (registered since April 2013), and the United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom, and Reconstruction (registered since Sept. 2012).
Law firms, lobbying/public-relations firms, and government-sponsored tourism/business development bureaus account for the vast majority of listings, and many of the entities listed seem superfluous (e.g., does anyone doubt that the Italian Government Tourism Bureau works for the Italian government?). A few listings are amusing/strange — e.g., the American Palm Oil Council is an entity of the Malaysian government and has been registered since 1991.
I looked at all the listings for the USSR (303 of them, though this is markedly overstated because of all the duplication). These, too, were almost entirely public-relations firms (e.g., the PR firm Burson Marsteller first registered as working for the USSR in 1973) and law firms, plus some entities whose listings seemed superfluous (e.g., did anyone doubt that the New York bureau of TASS or the U.S. bureau of Radio Moscow was working for the Soviet government?).
In short, there is no doubt that FARA is very narrowly construed and is being grossly misrepresented (deliberately in many cases). All this said, the question of whether FARA is worth preserving is a different matter. I have long regarded it as a quaint relic of World War II and the Cold War.
— The "foreign agent law" must not be considered in isolation. It is just one instance in an established pattern of manipulation/misperception that works very well at the domestic level.
Other recent examples include references to legal protection of "religious feelings" in European countries (in particular, Germany) in the context of the Pussy Riot case, the constant invocation of the Hyde Park in London (in the context of the law on public manifestations), and manipulation with statistics (Putin's famous reference to "nearly one billion dollars" allegedly received by the NGOs from abroad, the number of children adopted from Russia who died in the U.S., etc., etc.).
My take on it is that it is a combination of both deliberate manipulation and misunderstanding. Those who come up with these justifications probably understand very well what they are doing, but many of those who implement repressive measures just do not give themselves the labor of figuring it out. It fits very well in their general (and not totally unjustified) attitude to the West as inherently hostile or at least unfair toward Russia. In a freer country, many of these myths would be easily destroyed by the government's opponents.
We live in a world of myths, and many of them come in very handy when someone wants to justify a controversial political move.
— The Russian government cannot use FARA as justification for its “foreign agents law.” It is an obvious point, but the U.S. distinguishes between organizations that receive foreign funding and the narrower notion of an “agent of a foreign principal” that “works for” the foreign principal. Foreign funding does not make one automatically an “agent of a foreign principal.
— It is also notable that the NGOs in the database are certainly or likely transnational running a branch in the US. Even if not, and they are incorporated only in the US, their names contain explicit references to a foreign government or a partisan group.
In the Russian case, the foreign agent tag is designed exclusively for Russian-incorporated NGOs that only operate domestically. Branches of foreign NGOs are not targeted by the foreign agent law (only to an extent by the anti-Magnitsky law).
— The key point here is that FARA covers entities that seek to directly engage in policymaking (i.e., lobbying) rather than contributing to public discourse. In Russia, the law covers everyone who has any political interests. The other difference is the concept of a grant. While contracts and grants in Russia differ in legal status, where it comes to politics they are regarded as basically the same: payment for specific activities in the interests of the funding entity (I.e., a hire).
— A case in point: the list of funders of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace includes a number of foreign governments, corporations, and individuals. Carnegie explicitly works to influence policy. And it is not registered under FARA.
Over the last year or so, there have been a number of articles and op-eds published in Russia on this subject, including links and other references to the publicly available FARA register. As far as I am concerned, any residual 'misunderstanding' at high levels is willful, not accidental.
— It is a tactical mistake to invoke FARA. It serves to discredit the Russian government abroad because people know reality.