Inside Higher Ed: Scholars as ‘Foreign Agents’

By Elizabeth Redden, for Inside Higher Ed

The Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies in the US has written a letter raising concerns about a new Russian law requiring non-governmental organisations to register as “foreign agents” if they receive money from foreign sources and are found to be engaging in “political activity”. Among the targets of the new law is the Levada Center, Russia’s preeminent independent polling agency, which has been deemed by prosecutors to be engaging in “political activity” and is threatened with closure.

“To categorise survey research as ‘political activity’ is to label all scholarly research on society as ‘political activity’, negating the possibility of independent, objective, and nonpartisan research,” the association wrote in a letter to the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislya.

The Levada Center, which receives less than 3 per cent of its budget from foreign sources, has resisted the requirement to register as a foreign agent, arguing that this would compromise its credibility and ability to conduct independent sociological research. In addition to its concern about the fate of the Levada Center, the Slavic studies association has also raised concerns about a potentially chilling effect for scholarly collaborations between Russian and foreign scholars more generally, writing that its members “accept research funding from sources in their own countries and in others, and no democratic government has so far considered them to be agents of foreign influence on these grounds. The decision to label as ‘foreign agents’ nonprofit, independent, scholarly research organizations that may receive a portion of their financing from international sources sends a chilling message to scholars everywhere, evoking memories of suspicion and repression,” the letter states.

“More broadly, this does introduce the question about whether collaborations between the Russian scholarly community and researchers abroad can really continue in that kind of atmosphere,” said Stephen E. Hanson, the president-elect of the Slavic studies association and vice-provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “Will people fear that the danger of being thought of as a ‘foreign agent’ could apply to them as well?”

The American Historical Association has endorsed the Slavic studies association’s letter, stating that the Russian government’s “actions will in all likelihood inhibit the research agendas of Russian scholars in a variety of disciplines”.

The new law, which went into effect in March, comes at a time when Russian political leaders have been accusing NGOs of promoting Western interests and interfering with internal politics. It targets NGOs specifically, but there are still many uncertainties as to how the law will be enforced, said Andrey Kortunov, the president of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. “We still don’t know what kind of result this law will have because the whole notion of political policy-related activities is quite vague and ambiguous and can be interpreted in so many various ways,” he said.

What is evident at this point, Mr Kortunov said, is the intention of the law, which is to expand state control of foreign funding coming into Russia. “I don’t think that we should talk about just one law because this law on foreign agents is just a link in a whole chain of legislation which has the intention of changing the rules of the game between Russia and the external environment,” Mr Kortunov said. “The law on foreign agents is the most graphic manifestation of the intentions of the state. The explicit intention of the state is to control every dollar, every pound, every euro, that is spent by foreign institutions on Russian territory. The assumption is that whatever is not controlled, supervised, steered, or monitored by appropriate state agencies might be used for goals which are detrimental to the Russian society or at least to the interests of the Russian state.”

Mr Kortunov said his foundation has been inspected by state authorities, but has not been adversely affected to any significant degree. “There was nothing in our programmes that was interpreted as a clear case of politics-related activities,” he said. “However, I have to say that the New Eurasia Foundation has never been engaged in sensitive areas like human rights or elections monitoring. We always positioned ourselves as a social development agency”, focused on areas including community development and education.

Dan E. Davidson, the president of the American Councils for International Education, which operates study abroad programmes for American students in Russia, as well as recruitment, testing, and advising services for Russian students and professionals participating in Russia-US exchanges, echoed Mr Kortunov in saying that education-related NGOs do not appear to the be the primary target of the new law. “American Councils’ Russian Federation presence has the status of a representative office of a foreign NGO,” with offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok, Mr Davidson said in an email. “If these offices are not engaged in activity deemed to be political in nature, they should be allowed to operate normally. Our experience so far bears this out.”

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