Defining “political activity” may seem like an academic exercise, but in Russia, it is an existential one, notes Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. The definition is crucial to the law, which has become the centre piece of the government’s sweeping crackdown on free expression. Non-governmental groups are branded as “foreign agents”, which in Russia is the equivalent of “spy” or “traitor”, if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding, she writes for Open Democracy:
Russia’s international partners have remained hopeful that Russia would develop a new definition of political activities. Just two months ago, I was at a diplomatic dinner in Moscow and heard officials around the table refer to Putin’s repeated promises to clarify the term. “My sources are telling me it’s going to happen first thing next year,” one of them said.
And so it did. At the end of January, the Justice Ministry issued a proposed, new definition of “political activity” to include in the “foreign agent” law. This definition is very specific indeed. It says loud and clear that no matter whether you carry out legal or policy analysis, monitor the work of government institutions, do public opinion surveys, engage in research, petition government officials, etc. — as long as those efforts are aimed at somehow influencing the government or public opinion, they constitute political activity. …. And there is little doubt by now, that those purposes are first and foremost about paralysing independent civic activity in the country.
“International organisations and leading democratic governments should realise that it makes no sense to wait for good amendments to be written into this intrinsically bad law,” Lokshina adds. “They should not be asking Putin to tinker with it. They should say clearly, in one voice, that the law on ‘foreign agents’ runs contrary to the government’s international human rights obligations and that Russia should do away with it.”