Stopping Foreign Agents, Killing Russian Education

“Entry is prohibited”

Control, Censorship and Foreign Agents: How the Amendments to the Law “On Education” Will Affect All of Us
Ella Rossman
Mel
December 24, 2020

On December 23, the State Duma passed in its first reading a bill that would amend the law “On Education.” After the bill is passed into law, “anti-Russian forces” will no longer be able to “freely conduct a wide range of propaganda activities among schoolchildren and university students.” Tatyana Glushkova, a lawyer at the Memorial Human Rights Center, joined us to figure out what is happening.

Regulation International Cooperation
On November 18, 2020, fifteen Russian MPs proposed amendments to the law “On Education” that would regulate international cooperation on the part of educational organizations, as well as all educational activities in Russia itself.

The law would regulate interactions between educational organizations (i.e. licensed organizations) and foreigners. If the law is adopted, schools and universities would, in fact, be banned from engaging in all types of international cooperation without the approval of federal authorities. In this case, any interaction by an educational organization with foreign organizations or individuals would fall under the definition of “international cooperation.”

“International cooperation is when a Russian educational organization develops and implements joint educational programs with an organization or individual, sends pupils, students and instructors abroad (and they receive scholarships there), accepts foreign students and instructors to study and work in Russian organizations, conducts joint scholarly research, organizes international conferences and participates in them, and simply exchanges educational or scholarly literature with an entity or individual. After the law is adopted, all these activities, except for the admission of foreign students, would be possible only with permission from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education or the Ministry of Education.”
—Tatyana Glushkova, lawyer

According to Glushkova, the procedure for issuing permits would  be established by the government. “How would this affect international cooperation on the part of educational organizations? Obviously, negatively.”

“This is actually a revival of the idea that instructors should have to obtain permission to take part in international conferences, not to mention more meaningful interactions with foreign colleagues. Moreover, these permits would not even be issued by university administrations, but by a ministry.

“Given such conditions, universities and schools would engage in much less international cooperation. Obtaining any permission is a bureaucratic process that requires resources. It would be easier for some organizations to cancel international events than to get approval for them,” Glushkova says.

According to Glushkova, it is currently unclear what conditions would need to be met in order to obtain permissions. This would be established by new Russian government regulations, and so far we can only guess what they would look like.

Control of All “Educational Activities”
As the bill’s authors write in an explanatory note, the new bill must be adopted, since without it, “anti-Russian forces” can almost freely conduct a “wide range of propaganda activities” among schoolchildren and university students.

The Russian MPs argue that many such events are “aimed at discrediting Russian state policy,” as well as at revising attitudes toward history and “undermining the constitutional order.”

The amendments would affect both official educational organizations in Russia (schools and universities) and those engaged in “educational activities” outside of these institutions. At the same time, the proposed law defines the concept of “educational activities” as broadly as possible—in fact, it encompasses all activities in which new skills, knowledge, values or experiences are taught “outside the framework of educational programs.”

Anyone from tutors to bloggers could fall into this category.

The bill gives the authorities the right to regulate the entire sphere of educational activities. It not yet clear of how this would be organized: the details of what would be controlled and how it would be controlled are not spelled out in the bill.

Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Center, dubbed the amendments “revolutionary in the sad sense of the word,” as they would allow the government to declare the exchange of almost any type of information as “education” and therefore subject to regulation, that is, to what amounts to censorship.

Glushkova outlined the context in the new bill has emerged.

The bill was submitted to the State Duma at the same time as a whole package of other bills that, formally, would significantly limit the activities of different civil society organizations in Russia.

To put it simply, they would simply crush the remnants of Russian civil society that haven’t been killed off yet.

One of these bills would institute full government control over NGOs listed in the register of “foreign agents.” It would give the Ministry of Justice the right to suspend (in whole or in part) the activities of such organizations at any time. Another bill introduces the concept of “unregistered foreign-agent organizations,” and also expands the scope for designating individuals as “foreign agents.”

If an unregistered organization or individual is included in the register of foreign agents, they would be required to report to the Ministry of Justice, including their expenses. At the same time, all founders, members, managers and employees of foreign-agent organizations (whether registered or not) would be required to declare their status as “foreign agents” when making any public statement concerning the government.

For example, if a cleaning lady who works for an NGO wanted to write on her social network page that her apartment is poorly heated, she would have to indicate that she is affiliated with a “foreign agent.” Naturally, sanctions are provided for violations of all these regulations, and in some cases they include criminal liability.

In my opinion, these bills are not a reaction on the part of the authorities to any actual foreign or domestic political events. They are just another round of “tightening the screws” and attacking civil society.

The regime’s ultimate goal is the ability to do anything, however lawless, without suffering the consequences and without having to endure even critical feedback from society. This process has been going on since 2012 at least.

In order to achieve this goal, the regime seeks, first, to declare everything that has at least some connection with foreign countries (which, in its opinion, are the main source of criticism of events in our country) suspicious, unreliable and harmful. Second, it is trying to take maximum control of all public activities related to the dissemination of information and the expression of civic stances.

The amendments to the law “On Education” would affect not only all educators, but also people who probably have never considered themselves educators. For example, if I publish an article on the internet on what to do if you buy a defective product, I am engaged in “activities aimed at disseminating knowledge.”

If I do a master class on embroidery, that would be deemed “an activity aimed at disseminating skills.”

Both activities would fall under the definition of educational activities. In fact, any dissemination of information could be declared an “educational activity.” All educational activities, according to the bill, would now have to be implemented on the terms established by Russian federal government and under its control.

We still do not know what the rules will be. They could be quite mild, or they could be harsh. Don’t forget that an indulgent regime can be tightened at any time. You merely need to adopt a regulation—not a law, whose approval entails a complex procedure, but only a government decree.

Thanks to Valentina Koganzon for the heads-up. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

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