Justice minister proposes foreign agents registration act, faces criticism ({{commentsTotal}})

Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (IRL).
Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (IRL). Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

The Ministry of Justice is working on draft legislation that would require individuals representing the interests of foreign powers to declare how exactly they are connected to a foreign government, what their activies are, and how they are financed. The proposal has already been criticized across parties.

Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (IRL) said in December last year that he has told ministry officials to look into the matter. By now their work has reached a point where he expects a bill to be submitted to the Riigikogu within the next few months.

While authoritarian states such as Russia issued legislation to limit or outright ban the activities of foreign agents, the course of a democratic state needs to be transparent regulation, Reinsalu said.

Transparency vs. bans

"Transparency is the weapon of the democratic state. Because of that, in the environment of the intense information war we're currently in, it would be sensible to introduce certain requirements towards transparency and disclosure," Reinsalu said.

As it is unlikely that foreign intelligence officers or troublemakers would get registered, the law could then function as a basis to issue immigration bans against those who have gone against it, the minister added.

In the face of the "actual army" of associations, societies, and clubs that Russia employs to keep its communities abroad in check, a democratic small state like Estonia had the right to demand that these operated transparently. The direction of the bill neither goes against the freedom of expression nor anyone's basic rights, Reinsalu pointed out.

Kross: Legislation not necessary

The Reform Party's Eerik-Niiles Kross, himself the Estonian government's intelligence coordinator in the late 90s and a former national security advisor, sees no need for the introduction of such a law.

"Globally speaking, Estonia has been pretty successful catching foreign intelligence officers as well as countering influence attempts in a broader sense," Kross commented.

All those organizations present in Estonia that are currently obfuscating where there funding is coming from will do so in the future as well, and there is already a sufficient legal base to impose immigration bans, he said.

Toom: Proposal is undemocratic

Estonian MEP and prominent member of the Center Party, Yana Toom, is against the introduction of new legislation concerning the issue as well. Toom describes Reinsalu's proposal as a means of controlling "strangling organizations with bureaucracy."

"If we want to keep something undemocratic in check, we can't become undemocratic ourselves, because we'd basically undermine the foundations of democracy," she said.

Lang: Difficult to imagine how law would be implemented

Former Minister of Justice Rein Lang (Reform) said on Wednesday that he can't imagine how such a law would be implemented.

According to lang, a serious issue would be that a business or organization might end up on such a public list of foreign agents that had nothing to do with the kind of activities it suddenly finds itself accused of.

"We have all of these registers that deal with not-for-profits and companies here in Estonia. How do you differ between the good and the bad ones? I certainly wouldn't know how to do it, but perhaps Reinsalu does," Lang said.

Editor: Dario Cavegn



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