The end of dissent

Foreign agent laws in Russia, El Salvador, and elsewhere threaten the entire international edifice of laws and institutions that support the right to dissent.

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

I am a foreign agent.

Because my program at the Institute for Policy Studies receives some funding from a German foundation, I qualify as a suspect person—according to the “foreign agent” law in Russia. As part of this law, any institution or person that the government deems a “foreign agent” has to make a declaration to that effect at the top of anything they publish.

It’s not just Russia. Since I last wrote about this law seven years ago, other countries have followed Vladimir Putin’s lead in their attempts to suppress civil society organizations, media outlets, and individuals critical of the government. That number now includes Hungary, Nicaragua, and Israel, with similar laws under discussion in El Salvador and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, the Russian government continues to tighten the screws. It has expanded its original legislation to encompass foreign media (2017), domestic journalists and bloggers (2019), ordinary citizens (2020), and now political candidates (2021).

The most recent victim of the Russian law is the esteemed human rights organization Memorial, which emerged in the Gorbachev era to document the horrors of the Stalin period. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed, Memorial continued to take an unflinching look at the misdeeds of Soviet leaders.

The current Russian government is flinching. A lot.

“Why should we, the descendants of the victors, have to see the vindication of traitors to their homeland and Nazi henchmen?” Russian prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov argued during the court proceedings that banned the organization. “Perhaps because someone pays for that. And this is the true reason why Memorial is so fiercely trying to disown its foreign agent status.”

In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen does a good job of explaining the spuriousness of these accusations of Memorial’s so-called pro-Nazi leanings. The smear campaign is of a piece with the ludicrous labelling of the Ukrainian government as fascist and the depiction of vaccine mandates as Nazi-inspired.

Putin perceives the historical revisionism of Memorial as a threat to his power base not so much because it exposes Soviet-era abuses but because it has traced the legacy of those abuses under the current system, for instance in the recent rise of political prisoners. Moreover, Memorial has international standing, so much so that the European Court of Human Rights has called on the Russian courts to reverse the ban. Although opposition to Putin in Russia is comparatively weak, it is sustained by such transnational efforts. Alexei Navalny’s power is likewise enhanced by his international supporters. Global human rights organizations can shine a spotlight on Russian abuses when their local allies are constrained from doing so.

In this way, foreign agent laws in Russia and elsewhere attack not just domestic critics but the entire architecture of international advocacy on behalf of human rights, the environment, and other causes.

The spread of the foreign agent law will not eliminate dissent within countries, despite the best efforts of repressive states. At risk is something potentially more fragile: the international institutions that protect dissent.

The Putinization of Latin America

Nayib Bukele has made headlines in El Salvador for proclaiming Bitcoin as the country’s national currency, alongside the U.S. dollar, and promising to build an entire city whose primary focus is Bitcoin mining powered by a nearby volcano. His pronouncements have made a splash. The actual policies have been ruinous.

But Bukele is noteworthy for something even more troubling than his faith in monetary gimmicks. Since taking office in 2019, he has carefully followed the authoritarian handbook. Last spring, he ousted the attorney general and Supreme Court justices in order to pack the judicial system with his own supporters. He has used his parliamentary supermajority to begin pushing through a new constitution that would further consolidate his power as president. He has pursued the same anti-abortion and LGBT-hostile policies that his “family-first” allies Putin and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have advanced with their own constitutional changes.

Then, in November, Bukele went even further by cutting-and-pasting Russia’s foreign agent law for use in El Salvador. In addition to registering with the government and becoming subject to intrusive surveillance, the newly labelled foreign agents in El Salvador will have to pay a 40 percent tax on any funds they receive from outside the country. This tax—as well as the fines for breaking the law—will make it increasingly difficult to mount any significant opposition to Bukele’s rule.

Of course, Bukele is not the only leader in Latin America to follow this playbook. In 2020, Daniel Ortega pushed through a similar law in Nicaragua, which has accompanied a crackdown on opposition groups, the jailing of former Sandinista leaders, and the rigging of the elections in November to give him a fourth term in office.

Guatemala, under its right-wing government, passed a comparable NGO law in 2020. Using the rationale that it is fighting “internal enemies,” the Venezuelan government has effectively criminalized international cooperation in campaigns against human rights organizations. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro implemented rules to monitor NGOs soon after he took office as part of an offensive against civil society organizations he perceived as critical of his administration.

With the recent victories of Xiomara Castro in Honduras, Gabriel Boric in Chile, and Pedro Castillo in Peru, Latin America is swinging to the left. But that makes the autocrats of the region all the more committed to staying in power, like Putin, by all means necessary.

Pushback against Democracy

Transnational civil society has a long and storied history. In Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild has written eloquently of the transnational efforts to end the slave trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The decolonization struggles of the post-war period were fueled by solidarity campaigns across borders. By the time that international human rights, environmental, and antiwar campaigns took center stage in the 1960s and 1970s, they had several successful models of international cooperation from which to draw.

All of these efforts mobilized citizen power to hold states accountable to ethical principles of justice, transparency, peace, and so on. These movements have also created an ever-expanding body of international law with accompanying enforcement mechanisms like monitoring institutions and international criminal courts.

Autocrats might come and go but these international mechanisms will remain—or so reason activists and human rights lawyers and UN officials.

But these watchdogs never reckoned on the new crop of autocrats, who have even greater ambitions than simply rigging the systems at home so that they can rule indefinitely. The new autocrats also want to disrupt the very international institutions and mechanisms that have sought to contain and dismantle despotism around the world.

Of course, dissent will continue within countries. But if cut off from transnational support networks, domestic voices against local despots will be more easily isolated and suppressed. Meanwhile, no longer connected to local sources of information, international networks will weaken and eventually die.

The Roman Empire was problematic in so many ways—as is our current system of liberal internationalism—but it did build impressive infrastructure, promulgate a coherent set of laws, and stimulate a culture of proto-humanism. When the empire collapsed, those achievements largely crumbled to dust. Europe, at least, wouldn’t recover the lost ground for many centuries.

Right-wing leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Orbán are the new barbarians at the gate. If we lose what we once assumed was an impregnable system of international law and transnational advocacy, it’s hard to imagine what will happen to the ever more marginalized voices of dissent. Such a Time of Troubles, full of lawlessness and violence, will spell trouble for us all.


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