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A Bout of Autocratic Whataboutism
YouTuber Yuri Dud, a recent addition to Russia's "foreign agents" list.

A Bout of Autocratic Whataboutism

Skewed foreign agent laws that draw a false equivalency to democratic law are all the rage among autocrats.

Abigail Skalka

Yuri Dud is not a spy. Nevertheless, in April 2022, just after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the German-born Russian YouTuber and journalist’s name was added to a register of “foreign agents” by Russia’s Ministry of Justice. The Kremlin may as well have called him a traitor. The defamatory label was the latest in a legal onslaught the state leveraged against Dud, who with over 10 million subscribers is one of Russia’s most popular YouTubers. His anti-war videos, which garner millions of views, have made him a target of the regime.

Dud’s story is emblematic of a common practice among authoritarians: repression through legal means, what political scientist Javier Corrales calls “autocratic legalism.” One repressive tool has become particularly prominent, and its enforcement widespread, over the last decade: the so-called foreign agent law. Russia’s 2012 law originally allowed prosecutors to charge those who had received financial or material assistance from abroad as foreign agents. But it’s been updated, granting officials a wide discretion to include in the foreign agents registry anyone who is deemed to be “under foreign influence.” This sweeping formulation affords the Russian authorities—and those imitating them—extraordinary scope to repress. While authoritarian regimes have long imprisoned, censored, and even killed their opponents without any legal pretense, ever-proliferating foreign agent laws provide a pretext to deflect criticism about their practices. And they conveniently open the door to a whataboutism that contends that the practices and objectives of authoritarian regimes are just like those of democracies.

Just last month, legislation seemingly inspired by the Russian model was signed into law in Kyrgyzstan. A foreign agent bill progressed through Slovakia’s legislature. And in Georgia—where mass protest blocked the passage of the original controversial foreign agent legislation in the spring of 2023—lawmakers have reintroduced the unpopular draft law. Other copycat laws have cropped up in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, in HungarySingaporeEl SalvadorZambia, and elsewhere. While these repressive laws typically are dressed up in language that suggests benign intentions, when crafted in authoritarian settings, they are designed chiefly to hobble the operations of NGOs that receive funding from abroad. They close civic space and limit opportunities for dissent, stifling the work of civil society groups that can offer valuable input on the complex societal problems that governments on their own often struggle to address.

Foreign influence laws silence regime-critical voices through a variety of means. They typically compel civil society actors receiving money from abroad to register with the government, while simultaneously empowering the authorities to investigate, raid, fine, and de-register organizations arbitrarily. Furthermore, they create a chilling effect across civil society as a whole: Any group receiving foreign funding backs away from civic engagement for fear of targeting by the state. These vaguely-drafted laws, that are part and parcel of authoritarian governance, create opportunities for the state to stigmatize, weaken, and ultimately to dismantle groups that they find threatening. 

Though these types of laws are often associated with unfree or semi-authoritarian countries, it is true that liberal democratic governments also have their own versions of foreign agent laws. The first law designed to keep track of foreign agents was passed in the United States in 1938. Only in recent years have Australia and the European Union, among other democratic locales, begun developing their own versions. These laws are qualitatively different than the ones originating in autocratic or semi-autocratic contexts, however; in rule of law settings, they are principally concerned with democratic integrity. They contain safeguards to limit misuse. The reasoning for these democracies’ renewed interest in this type of legislation is clear: sharp power manipulation efforts by regimes in Beijing, Moscow, Riyadh, and elsewhere are increasingly threatening the world’s democracies. In a context where authoritarian regimes are ever more emboldened to exploit democracies’ openness, laws limiting malign forms of foreign influence have become important tools to safeguard open and often vulnerable institutions.

Autocracies rely on moral equivalency. Using go-to whataboutism-style arguments, their leaders seek to obscure their malign intentions by claiming that what they seek to do is the same as what democracies are doing. Autocrats who put forward restrictive foreign agent laws like to draw explicit connections between their laws and those found in democracies, especially the United States’ Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). In September 2023, Vladimir Putin defended Russia’s foreign agent law by asserting that it was “almost a copy [of FARA], only it’s much more liberal.” Echoing Putin, the chairman of Georgia’s ruling party insisted that his party’s 2023 draft law was “far more lenient than its American version.” When El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele drew criticism for proposing a restrictive foreign agent law in 2021, he posted a link to the United States Department of Justice’s FARA webpage on his Twitter profile, and claimed that his proposal was “basically the same law that they have in the United States.” Politicians in Nicaragua, Hungary, and Kyrgyzstan have likewise attempted to conflate their own laws with FARA. 

Nevertheless, their intention is to repress and control. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of autocrats to equate their own laws to the laws originating in liberal democracies, there are crucial differences between them. Among the most important is the role of the principal-agent relationship under the law. FARA applies only in the presence of a principal-agent relationship, which “is created when an agent ‘acts as a representative of or otherwise on behalf of another person’ and where ‘[t]he person represented has a right to control the actions of the agent.’” To qualify as a foreign agent under FARA, a civil society actor must work in the name of, or at the behest of, its foreign benefactor. In contrast, foreign agent laws that are designed to be repressive often apply “if a [civil society organization] receives international funding (in any amount) and engages in broadly defined ‘political activities,’ even if there is no connection between the international funding and the political activities.” Nicaragua, for instance, forced the closure of hundreds of organizations—including a local equestrian center and its national branch of Operation Smile (an international initiative that provides free cleft palate correction surgery for children in need)—despite no indication that the organizations were operating at the behest of a foreign funder. 

The sweeping laws put forward by authoritarians often make no distinction between resources used to affect policy with those used for other purposes. The EU’s proposed law, for example, “does not cover foreign funding that is unrelated to lobbying activities.” In the United States, FARA contains exemptions for “entities engaged in purely religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits, or the fine arts” as well as those “engaged in the solicitation or collection of funds for medical aid, ‘or food and clothing to relieve human suffering.’” As a contrasting example, China’s 2017 foreign NGO law imposed such intense restriction on adoption agencies that they had to discontinue their Journey of Hope program, which encouraged international adoption of special needs children. Many of the laws devised by authoritarian regimes are principally aimed at civil society organizations—to the exclusion of businesses or other actors that engage in politicking—indicating that the true objective of the legislation is to muzzle civil society, and not to promote transparency.

The linguistic and cultural contexts of these laws also have something to offer. In Russia, the term “foreign agent” is synonymous with “spy” or “traitor.” The label alone makes it difficult for organizations to do their work, destroying their credibility by suggesting that they are puppets of the West. Marina Agaltsova, senior lawyer at the Russian NGO Memorial, told the Washington Post that “[i]n Soviet times…we had ‘spies’ everywhere. And the term ‘foreign agent’ in Russian is perceived to mean a spy. The government is trying to put the label ‘spy’ on people who are criticizing the government and disagreeing with its policy and politics.” Under the foreign agent law, Memorial—a co-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize—was shuttered in December 2021, and its staff continue to face raids by police

Armed with guiding principles, democratic stakeholders must remain alert to bouts of whataboutism that suggest false equivalency between autocracies and liberal democracies. After all, such autocracies traditionally look to leverage these laws to further tighten their grip, because their stock and trade is political control and suppression of free expression. Democratic systems must be vigilant about safeguarding their own societies from malign intrusions, while staying true to their own principles and standards. This is all the more crucial, given that authoritarian powers are embracing the veneer of transparency and accountability as a justification for clampdowns on the very civil society groups so sorely needed in these repressive countries.

Abigail Skalka is a program assistant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Image: A screen capture of Yuri Dud in conversation with North Korea expert Andrey Lankov. (YouTube)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyTechnology