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Foreign agents, Russian phobias

Read more on:  NGOs, Foreign agents, Magnitsky Act

06:22 07/01/2013
Head of the Memorial human rights center Oleg Orlov outside the building housing the organization in Moscow where someone painted the inscription "Foreign agent. Love USA" on the facade.

I am sick and tired of generalizations about the “authoritarian trend” in Russia, which the Western press sees in just about every cough of the Russian government. How many foreign correspondents actually read the law on foreign-financed NGOs, which obliges organizations with foreign funding to make their political activism transparent?

How many journalists in Russia and abroad read the American Foreign Agents’ Registration Act, which the Russian law actually copied almost word for word? I bet the number of such journalists and politicians is in single digits. But there were literally hundreds of “concerns” expressed and hysterical ruminations set on paper or electronic devices on the terrible meaning of the words “foreign agent” for a Russian ear.

Well, words can mean different things to different generations. The word “transparent,” so popular among Western NGOs and pro-Western political leaders (Transparency International, etc.), actually means a lot of terrible things to a reader of great Russian fiction writers Yevgeny Zamyatin and Vladimir Nabokov.

In Zamyatin’s novel “We,” one of first 20th-century dystopias, people live in transparent buildings, making it extremely easy for the police to track their thoughts and movements. In Nabokov’s novel “Invitation to a Beheading” a dissident thinker named Cincinnati is executed for being “non-transparent.”

By the way, Transparency International is rather non-transparent about its methods of determining high corruption levels in countries which do not participate in its financing – for example, France and Russia.

It turns out the term “foreign agent” was coined by Americans. The ethnic Japanese who happened to live on American territory in 1941-1942 can testify to the fact that being called a “foreign agent” at that time was deeply unpleasant. So, why is Russia the only country called out over its short memory for tragic pages in its history?

There are many cases when recently adopted Russian legislation did not fulfill the apocalyptic expectations of the perennially pessimistic press – the Western one and the domestic liberal one. The creation in 2009 of a “Commission on Prevention of Falsifications of Russian History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests” stirred a real storm in the press and led to numerous pronouncements of the “return to Stalinist practices” in a number of media outlets.

The outcry was almost as great as now, with the foreign NGOs’ bill and the public gatherings’ bill combined. And what came out of it all? In 2012, the commission was quietly shut down. During the three years of its work, the commission did not ban a single book or movie, never got involved with any school or, heaven forbid, university.

Instead, the commission declassified thousands of documents, helped publish several important books and performed a good service to historians, some of whom played a prominent role in its work (for example, commission member Alexander Chubaryan is the director of Lebedeva’s Institute of General History and initiated the publishing of several books on the tragic years of 1939-1941, which were published in both Russia and Poland).

So much for all the doomsday predictions of the foreign media about the now-defunct commission.

I won’t be surprised if a similar story repeats itself now, unless the authors of the Magnitsky Act and the subsequent “counter-legislation” in the State Duma go too far in their unchecked fantasies, which do nothing but harm to Russia’s relations with the U.S. and possibly with the E.U. (if the latter opts for copy-cat tactics, blindly copying American legislation).

It should be noted that all the passed and proposed “anti-foreign” bills in Russian legislation on NGOs are not directed against foreign charities or any form of scientific or cultural cooperation. The law stipulates that only NGOs connected to politics (elections, media policy) will be effected. But there is no doubt already that the damage in bilateral relations will go beyond strictly political matters. Charity, culture and science will suffer too. And that is extremely unfortunate.

Who has read the American Foreign Agents’ Registration Act, a near replica of the NGO law?

Dmitry Babich is a political analyst with Voice of Russia and has appeared as a commentator for the BBC and other international media.

This article was originally published in Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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