The expected escalation of the Russian government’s crackdown of civil society poses a fundamental challenge. The new amendments to the so-called Foreign Agents Law (FA Law) have created new threats and vulnerabilities for civil society organisations (CSOs) as well as active citizens. Since its introduction in 2012, this law has targeted independent Russian CSOs, including human rights organisations and those providing HIV and social support services. On December 30, 2020, the President of the Russian Federation signed the amendments to the FA Law which broadened its enforcement to include human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists in their personal capacity. In the past eight years, the government has sanctioned approximately 180 CSOs under this law. The grounds for being recognised as a "foreign agent" have been extended. In addition to the previous two criteria (being involved in political activities while receiving money from abroad), they now include expressing opinions regarding state policies, if the Russian government deems these opinions to be in the interest of a foreign entity. Under the amended law, the individuals designated as “foreign agents” will face penalties of up to five years in prison for failing to register and report on their activities. The new amendments signal a renewed crackdown on independent Russian CSOs and politically active citizenry, likely causing a further shrinking of space for Russia’s civil society and increased self-censorship. The government’s attacks on civil society have already reverberated through the regions and have intensified fear of prosecution. Nowadays, four lists of «foreign agents» exist: 1) non-commercial organisations; 2) the media; 3) unregistered public organisations; and, 4) individuals.
While the social and economic situation for a vast majority of Russian citizens has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian government will likely use the new amendments to legitimise its further crackdown on civil society. The financial shortfall has already affected charities in Russia, and will have a broader effect on those small-sized CSOs who struggle to retain human resources. Access to resources for such smaller scale CSOs has also been affected by the enforcement of the Law on Undesirable Organisations, which bars select foreign-based organisations from operating in Russia and criminalises cooperation between them and Russian CSOs. To-date, thirty international and foreign-based organisations have been added to the list of undesirable organisations.