The strangling of Russian civil society and independent media

Geir Flikke,
University of Oslo,

Since 2012, the conditions for non-governmental organizations and associations, including media organizations, have become increasingly dire in Russia. With the introduction of the “foreign agent” registry, and the many revisions of the 2006 Law on Public Organizations, the space for transparent, mutually beneficial educational organizational work has been considerably narrowed. When the term “foreign agent” was introduced in the Law on Media in late 2018, conditions for independent and internet-based media suffered drastically. Both NGOs and the media face financial and other consequences, including termination, for violations concerning funding or issuing publications produced by “agents”.

Ideally, the civic sector in any country—regardless of traditions or political practices—should be a resource for governments: in bridging the gap between a faceless bureaucracy and society; in providing the government with real-time information about the state of affairs in law enforcement agencies; in defending society against the arbitrary use of illiberal legislative acts; in providing readily accessible reports for the general public on how to tackle and counter extrajudicial persecution, and slow-coaching bureaucratic rule —or the volokita — as the Russians say; and finally, but not exhaustively, in creating a web of functional organizations with the resources to serve individuals and groups in society, while providing open-access information free of charge. In essence, such organizations are producers of trust and transparency—qualities needed by any society to enter effectively into our era of digitalized modernization and economic innovation.

Although such organizations and independent media channels do exist in Russia, they are gradually being fenced in by the increasing stigmatization of numerous legislative acts. In the past eight years, several of Russia’s most productive and transparent public organizations—such as GOLOS, the Sakharov Foundation, the lawyers’ network AGORA, and the human rights organization Public Verdict, to name a few—have all been enlisted as “agents,” even though they serve Russian citizens, provide legal aid to Russian citizens, and distribute Russian-language public information.

From 2018 and onwards, restrictions have proliferated. The Russian political system seems to have entered a wheel of reaction against societal grievances, spinning out legislative changes at high speed—frequently with poor legal foundations. As of 2021, several amendments have been working in concert, to strangle not only Russian civil society, but also the independent media. The regime can utilize the “foreign agent law”, known as the “Law on Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent,” the Law Undesirable Organizations and the Law on Extremism to stifle and paralyze the freedom of speech and open media channels.

Recently, the internet-based television channel, “Rain – the optimistic channel”, as it calls itself (surely ironically), was registered as a “foreign agent” under the 2018 amendments to the Law on Media, which has been known as one of the most liberal and important laws from the Yeltsin period. In the spring of 2021, the well-informed Meduza news-outlet—based in Riga, and founded by the former editor of, Galina Timchenko—was forcibly registered as an “agent,” thereby depriving it of the possibility of attracting funding from advertisements.

There is probably no light at the end of this tunnel. As legal amendments and legal practices proliferate, also educational institutions may come under greater suspicion, becoming less attractive in the process. Also, the law can effectively bar media from seeking international expert assistance in legal cases or court disputes. The result may become a reinforcement of what the Russian political scientist, Vladimir Gel’man, has termed “bad governance” (nedostoinoe upravlenie)—governance that does not induce respect in the population. Indeed, as the Russian authorities spread concepts of “foreign intervention” into Russian society, this may very well create conditions for the very polarization that they seek to avoid.

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