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Russian-US diaspora group shuts down, blaming ‘FBI measures’

FBI agent. (FBI/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Russian cultural group in the United States says it has shut down after some of its members were questioned by FBI agents, allegedly about potential violations of the U.S. law on foreign agents.

The closure of the Russian Community Council of the USA, announced on November 18, comes amid mounting concern over Russia’s own foreign agent law, which authorities have used to target scores of nongovernmental organizations, rights activists, media outlets, and individual journalists.

Russian officials often justify the law by drawing false comparisons to the 83-year-old U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA.

In a statement, the Russian Community Council said it had decided to close “after a year of active and nationwide FBI measures directed at over 300 Russian community members.”

“We interpret the FBI’s measures towards Russian community members, especially individuals who organize Russian cultural events and openly advocate for more dialogue and people-to-people ties with Russia, as a form of pressure reminiscent of the Cold War era,” the organization said in its November 18 statement, denying it had engaged in any political activities.

The statement did not provide further details. E-mails sent to the organization’s New York-based president, and other members, were not immediately returned.

The reported closure drew sharp statements from the Foreign Ministry and the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which alleged “deliberate repressions” against Russians in the United States.

At a briefing in Moscow on November 19., Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that the FBI had targeted “the Russian-speaking community in the United States, threatening criminal action over the alleged non-compliance with the FARA act.”

Zakharova provided no specific evidence to back up her claim.

Known in Russian as the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots of the U.S., or KSORS, the group says it is a non-commercial, non-government organization aimed at “supporting organizations of Russian compatriots [and] to preserve and popularize the Russian language and cultural and historical heritage in the United States.”

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to an e-mail inquiry from RFE/RL seeking comment.

Earlier this year, The Daily Beast reported that the organization was under FBI investigation and that “the investigation has included the questioning of dozens of people associated with the group, as well as home and office searches.” One former head of the organization told the Daily Beast that he had been removed from his position after he refused to cosign a statement supporting Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014, and that newer members were expected to embrace a more stridently pro-Russian position.

Тhe woman identified on the organization’s website as its president, Elena Branson, gave an interview to the TV channel formerly known as Russia Today in late September, where she described an early morning FBI raid on her house a year earlier, on September 29, 2020.

She told the interviewer, Maria Butina, that the armed agents had a search warrant, and that they took iPhones, iPads, computers, documents, and tax declarations.

“The agents asked me to go out and searched the apartment for several hours. They didn’t tell me what they were looking for,” she was quoted as saying.

Branson said she had been given legal documents indicating allegations of possible violations of FARA, or another criminal charge known as Section 951.

Known as “espionage-lite,” Section 951 is also aimed at foreign nationals who allegedly work for a foreign government without declaring it to the U.S. government.

Most recently, the charge was used against Butina, a Russian woman who U.S. prosecutors said tried to infiltrate U.S. conservative political organizations. Butina pleaded guilty to a related conspiracy charge in late 2018, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and was deported in October 2019 after being released early.

Upon her return to Russia, Butina was hired by Russia Today, now known as RT; she recently joined Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

In her interview with Butina, Branson also that she had fled the United States sometime in late October 2020, just after the FBI search.

The reported closure of the organization comes as “foreign agents” laws, particularly in Russia, have been in the news of late.

Russia has stepped up enforcement of its own nine-year-old foreign agent law to target a widening net of NGOs, rights groups, civil society organizations, and journalists and media organizations.

More than 160 organizations and individuals have been designated “foreign agents” under the Russian law, a label that has onerous financial reporting requirements. For media organizations and even individual journalists, the law also requires attaching an intrusive label to text articles or broadcast stories to identify them as foreign agents.

The designation has forced some lawyers to flee Russia, as well as some journalists.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and several of its affiliated publications and programs have also been designated as foreign agents.

Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have sought to draw parallels between the Russian law and FARA, a law in force since the 1930s, although the U.S. law does not mandate the same onerous requirements that the Russian law does. The U.S. law, for example, has no requirement that designated media outlets publish or broadcast a disclaimer.