What’s Good for the Goose is Gaffed by the Gander

I will be going on a “working vacation” this Sunday, so I’m publishing my weekly contribution to VoR/US-Russia experts panel early:

Okay, let’s get one thing clear from the get go: The Russian law requiring NGOs to declare themselves “foreign agents” if they engage in political activities and receive financing from abroad, is not illegitimate. At least, not unless you also consider the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – which does practically the same thing – to be also illegitimate.

Which is just fine, mind you! But only as a universal value judgment, and not as a tool to selectively beat Russia over the head with.

Or you can shrug it off as paranoia. But bear in mind that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to topple you. The color revolutions were in significant part funded from abroad, and there has recently appeared witness testimony (backed up by video footage) of Udaltsov, one of the most prominent leaders of the street opposition, receiving money from a Georgian politician. So there is a case to be made that a certain amount of paranoia is necessary to preserve Russia’s sovereign democracy.

As such, a foreign agents law is not a bad idea per se, at least assuming it is applied rigorously but fairly. That may be too much to expect of Russians, though.

Problem is that said paranoia, while healthy in modest doses, may end up impinging on the “democracy” part of sovereign democracy. While labeling a crane reserve as a foreign agent might be more farce than substance (if so then what would that make the “alpha crane,” that is, Putin? – as the Runet jibes go), the same cannot be said of the pressure applied to the Levada Center.

Foreign financing only accounts for 1.5-3% of its total, according to its director, Lev Gudkov. Furthermore, he argues, the political and sociological research that Levada does is not politics, period. Certainly that would appear to be the case in the US, where it is virtually impossible to imagine the Department of Justice going after PEW, Gallup, or Rasmussen if they happened to take a few contacts for foreigners.

So while the laws might be similar on paper, the Investigative Committee is taking a much, much wider interpretation of what falls under the rubric of politics. And I would say that this is not only unjust but ultimately, stupid.

Levada does not fudge its results. They typically fall in line exactly with those of FOM and VCIOM, the two state-owned pollsters – including on the most politically significant indicator, Putin’s approval rating, which was an entirely respectable 64% as of this May. And while Levada does have an undeniably anti-Putin editorial slant, this is arguably all the better – from the Kremlin’s perspective – since it makes it seem to be “independent” and hence reliable in the West. FOM and VCIOM, as state-owned entities, would never be able to muster the same degree of credibility no matter the integrity with which they conduct their surveys.

From the meaningless police confiscations of Nemtsov’s “white papers” (which are only ever read on the Internet) to the harassment that frightened the economist Sergey Guriev into exile in Paris, petty authoritarianism on the part of lower level police and investigators is one of the most reliable manufactories of the ammunition that the “anti-Russian lobby” in the West uses to take potshots at Putin.


  1. Dear Anatoly,

    In respect of the two specific cases discussed here, Levada and Guriev, I have commented in the threads to the two articles in which you discuss both. Basically I agree with you about Levada but I am less sure about Guriev. It is certainly possible that Guriev is simply being harassed by overzealous police officials but I also think it is possible that a serious and legitimate investigation is underway. There simply isn’t enough information at the moment to be able to say.

    I would just make a number of points:

    1. It is important to remember that every application of the foreign agents’ law to a particular NGO is susceptible to challenge before a court. It is quite common when new laws are introduced that there is a flurry of cases and a testing of boundaries until the courts start making decisions and the jurisprudence is established. Gudkov has excellent points to make on Levada’s behalf. Instead of retreating into hysteria and hyperbole he ought to be working hard to prepare the court case. Levada certainly has the funds for it. Until if the case goes against him he has the right to challenge the outcome to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that of an illegitimate restriction on freedom of expression contrary to Article 10(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights. As it is I understand that Levada has for the time being stopped accepting foreign contracts.

    2. Doubtless there is a measure of overzealousness in the enforcement of the law. However the single most important reason why we are seeing this flurry of cases is because of the foolishly obstructive attitude of the NGOs.

    In a recent article in the Guardian Alexeeva has said that if the law merely required NGOs to register when they receive foreign funding then they would all willingly do so but that they cannot accept the label of “foreign agent”. Personally I can see nothing harmful or offensive about the label “foreign agent” and I think the complaints about this label are hysterical and wrong. However if the objection is purely to the label then what prevented Alexeeva and the others from making that clear when the law was first proposed to the Duma and from suggesting some other label or form of registration that would achieve the intended purpose of the law but in a way that they found less offensive? Instead as I recall what actually happened is that we got instead a farrago of complaints and hysteria about the supposed “crackdown” represented by the new law followed by complete non cooperation with it after it came into effect accompanied by some foolish boasting about the supposed failure of the authorities to enforce it.

    As I recall only one NGO actually complied with the law. Not one came forward and approached the authorities to ask what step it needed to take to comply with the new law either by registering as a foreign agent or by foregoing foreign funding or by negotiating with the authorities about what part of its activities could be considered “political activity” and how that activity could be modified to bring it into line with the new law. Needless to say had any NGO taen this common sense step it would have been instantly branded a traitor by all the others.

    3. Which of course brings us back to why this law is necessary and why it was introduced in the first place. Briefly, Russia has a problem in that it has a very small but very vocal radical opposition that denies the legitimacy of its government and which barely conceals its wish to overthrow it. In that Russia is far from unusual. People of this sort can be found in every country. One only has to go onto internet sites like Counterpunch and Znet to find that there are plenty of such people in the US. What is unusual is that in Russia’s case this radical opposition is massively funded and supported from abroad by foreign governments and agencies that support its agenda. The result is that the voice of these people gets massively over amplified in a way that heavily distorts the country’s internal political conversation in ways that can only be considered bad.

    No western government has to cope with such a problem. On past experience if any did they would show little hesitancy in dealing with it To say for example that the US authorities would not investigate PEW, or Gallup or Rasmussen if they accepted foreign contracts is true, but the US does not face a climate where those foreign contracts originate in countries that want to overthrow it. That some lower level officials may be overzealous in dealing with this problem is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that it has taken the authorities this long to deal with it.

    PS: The flood of foreign funding for Russian NGOs is in my opinion far from being apolitical or an unqualified blessing even when NGOs that get funding do not engage in overt political activity. Let me illustrate this with a hypothetical example, which I am sure closely matches actual examples from real life.

    There are two people in Voronezh who want to set up an NGO to provide advice and assistance to local people on housing questions. One is a working class trade unionist who has worked his way up from the shop floor and who has Communist sympathies as many such people do. The other is an apolitical young lawyer fresh from university.

    It is not difficult to guess which of the two would get foreign funding. Obviously it would be the lawyer even though he is actually less likely to know about the local housing situation than the trade unionist and though he may be less able to interconnect with the local people than the trade unionist. However the foreign funding would not only put him in a position of distinct advantage as against the trade unionist but it would also potentially set the two against each when left to themselves they might have cooperated with each other to everyone’s benefit.

    The foreign funder would doubtless argue that this is a good thing since part of the purpose of providing the funding is “to wean Russia away from Communism”. At that point, though the stated purpose was the apolitical one of providing housing advice a political dimension that might not otherwise have existed and which is not appropriate to the issue is introduced. The social geography of Voronezh is altered by a foreign funder who is far away and who knows little and cares less about local conditions because he is pursuing a distinct political agenda of his own.

  2. “From the meaningless police confiscations of Nemtsov’s “white papers” (which are only ever read on the Internet) to the harassment that frightened the economist Sergey Guriev into exile in Paris, petty authoritarianism on the part of lower level police and investigators is one of the most reliable manufactories of the ammunition that the “anti-Russian lobby” in the West uses to take potshots at Putin.”

    Well said. We seem to be rapidly approaching a point where the worst scum chinovniks will rationalize their abuses in Russia (or for that matter, in China) by saying, well the Americans do it too. Can’t we just admit that all governments are dragging each other down into the same pre-global economic collapse cesspit at the moment. And Russia, after years of real progress despite active foreign subversions and proxy attacks like the Georgian assault on South Ossetia, has started to take a step back. And this is all happening at the very moment that Putin’s own mojo and Russia’s economic growth are both waning.

    The fact that ‘both sides may do it’ does not make it right in the slightest. RT cannot make anyone love Russia but it can convince them that the West is almost if not just as corrupt.

    Meanwhile the brigade that cries Whataboutist is firing off tweets tonight trying to warn libertarians and conservatives about the horrible threat that Glenn Greenwald and the house-arrested Julian Assange represent to their civil liberties. No I’m not kidding, they don’t have an ounce of outrage it seems left for the NSA. I won’t even say their names these people make me want to puke so bad. If I end up in a FEMA camp next to them they’ll still be ranting, no doubt, about Greenwald and Putin.

  3. A Nobody says:


    Well now it’s pretty well confirmed that NSA Govoogle chief Sergey Brin didn’t want to join the AMBAR crowd that met with Medvedev when he came over to Silicon Valley in 2010. Sergey at his level of clearance doesn’t like filing contact reports to his real bosses.