ALMATY -- Journalists and human rights activists in Central Asia are criticising developments in Russia limiting freedom of speech, saying these trends are a throwback to Soviet times.
Russian lawmakers on Wednesday (December 23) passed in its third and final reading controversial draft legislation that includes an expansion of who can be labelled a "foreign agent" in a further clampdown on dissent, AFP reported.
Foreign agents, a term that can apply to individuals and organisations, have been subject to onerous restrictions since a law targeting them took effect in 2012.
Bills require three readings in the Duma, approval by the Federation Council (the upper chamber) and Russian President Vladimir Putin's signature to become law.
The bill "would identify individuals receiving funds from abroad as 'foreign agents', ban them from joining the civil service or holding a municipal government position, and force them to mark their letters to authorities and other material with a 'foreign agent' label", Amnesty International warned in a November statement.
In late November, a group of Duma members and senators mainly from the governing United Russia party asked lawmakers to consider the new bill, which contains "additional measures to counter threats to national security".
The Russian government lacks the necessary levers to oversee the work of those who "receive sponsorship from abroad and engage in political activity on Russian soil", say the bill's authors.
Crackdown on civil society
NGOs face yet another restriction that another bill would impose on them.
In mid-December, lawmakers approved the first reading of another bill, which tightens requirements for NGOs deemed foreign agents.
That status applies to NGOs with foreign headquarters and NGOs that receive funding from abroad.
The bill, if it becomes law, would require them to report their activities to the Ministry of Justice. In addition, the authorities would have even greater legal grounds to randomly inspect such NGOs.
Russian authorities are setting up a legislative foundation for increasing pressure on the opposition and on dissenting civil society in the run-up to Russia's parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for September 2021, say observers.
The bills mark a new stage in the Kremlin's campaign to tar the opposition and progressive forces with the term "foreign agent", which is highly pejorative in Russian.
The first law designating some independent NGOs and media outlets as foreign agents took effect in 2012.
Putin unleashed a "crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history" with that law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 2013 report.
"Since 2012, the Russian government has used the 'foreign agents' law to demonise independent groups that accept foreign funding and carry out public advocacy, HRW said in a November statement. "The law was subsequently expanded to include media outlets and even individual bloggers that receive any amount of funding from foreign sources."
'Enemies of the people'
Civil society in Central Asia is reacting with alarm to the Russian bills targeting "foreign agents".
NGOs work on political issues as long as a country lacks genuine opposition not under the government's thumb, said Galym Ageleuov of Almaty, president of the NGO Liberty.
"Financial support from abroad provides NGOs with independence and, consequently, allows them to objectively assess the government's actions, unlike groups that the government funds and monitors," Ageleuov said.
Journalists have criticised the Russian laws on "foreign agents" as the face of an effort to stifle freedom of speech.
Russian authorities are doing everything they can to vilify independent media outlets and dissenting civil society, said Jyldyz Aliyeva of the Almaty newspaper Delovaya Nedelya (Business Week).
Even though the outcome of the September 2021 parliamentary elections "is obvious beforehand", Russian officials are still stacking the deck by "using openly aggressive measures toward independent institutions", she said.
"The Kremlin is essentially labelling media outlets that objectively report on political events as 'enemies of the people', and all of this harks back to the totalitarianism ... of the Soviet years," she said.
However, modern Russian society is much better at sorting out truth from fiction, said Aliyeva.
"While those who are old enough to have lived under the Soviet Union still believe Putin, the younger generation has modern perceptions and sees him as a dictator and doesn't support his policies," she said.
Attempts to spread similar legislations in Central Asia
Similar bills targeting foreign agents almost became law in Kyrgyzstan.
In 2014, some members of the Zhogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz parliament, introduced a similar bill, but the lawmakers rejected it two years later under pressure from civil society.
Then in January 2020, Baktybek Rayymkulov, a member of the Zhogorku Kenesh, proposed a similar bill that, according to the news site Kloop.kg, had many provisions that duplicated those of the Russian law. But again, the bill did not pass.
The Kremlin might have lobbied for the bill on foreign agents in Kyrgyzstan, say some observers.
"The level of freedom in one small country can influence the situation in the whole region," said Almaz Tajybai of Bishkek, director of the Centre for Public Policy Analysis, an NGO.
"Therefore, it's clear why authoritarian Russia worries about the role of nonprofits in Kyrgyz society," Tajybai told the news site Cabar.Asia in February.