A Qualitative Study of the Interaction between Human Rights Defenders and Society in Russia: Assessing the Impact of the 'Foreign Agents' Law

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Polina Malkova


In various world regions, human rights defenders (HRDs) often become targets for smear campaigns that seek to discredit and marginalise them. Russia’s “foreign agents” law which brands NGOs as “foreign agents” – a phrase that carries Soviet-era connotations of a spy or traitor – is just one example of states’ attempts to cultivate an unfavorable image of rights defenders in society. Yet, despite the global context of such stigmatising campaigns and their potential to put defenders at further risk, there is very little systematic knowledge about the way citizens react to such rhetoric and whether they express more hostility towards HRDs. This paper seeks to address this gap and explores the interaction of rights defenders with the domestic society in Russia. Drawing upon in-depth interviews with representatives of the domestic human rights community, it demonstrates that while the wider public lacks familiarity with actors in the human rights field, certain social segments do interact with them, both in antagonistic and supportive ways. The paper argues that in the adverse conditions created by the “foreign agents” law, there is a need for rights groups to expand and strengthen the links with their constituencies.

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