Russian investigators have descended on the offices of nongovernmental organizations across the country, demanding to inspect financial records and other documents.
This follows the recent passage of a law designed to impose tighter controls over these NGOs, especially those that receive funding from abroad. Critics say it's part of a broader crackdown on dissent since Vladimir Putin regained the presidency last year.
The offices of the human rights group Memorial are still abuzz after a team of government inspectors paid an unannounced visit
"There were about six or seven people, who said that they represented the authorities: the Moscow prosecutor's office, the tax authorities and the justice ministry," says Sergei Danilin, Memorial's press officer. He says inspectors demanded copies of many of the organization's records.
Oleg Orlov, a member of the group's executive board, says the demands place a huge burden on the staff.
Memorial documents government repression of the Soviet era, but it also reports on what it says are human rights violations in the present day. The group's work on police brutality in Russia's troubled North Caucasus region has drawn the anger of government officials.
But Memorial isn't the only nongovernmental organization that's getting intense government scrutiny.
"We currently have several-thousand inspections all around Russia," says Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, an umbrella group for human rights organizations throughout Russia.
Chikov says the authorities are looking for evidence of a concept that's not well-defined in the new law — "political activity" — as well as evidence of "extremism" and signs that the organization has received funding from outside Russia.
He says that could be funding from the United Nations, the European Union or private charitable organizations in the United States.
The new law requires groups that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents" — an extremely negative term in Russia, Chikov says.
"This means that we are spies of foreign government," he explains.
Parallels With Earlier Era
So far, most NGOs have been boycotting the new law, refusing to voluntarily sign up for a label that could do serious damage to their reputations.
The government inspections have included human rights groups, such as Memorial, and election monitors, such as Golos — groups that Chikov describes as "active, well-known and inconvenient" for the government. But he says the inspectors have also searched environmental groups, HIV/AIDS programs and religious organizations.
Orlov of Memorial says he sees parallels between the current situation in Russia and the Soviet era.
"In order to mobilize the population to support the authorities, they are using, as they used to do in the Soviet past, the image of a besieged fortress," Orlov says. "There are enemies all around."
"Those who criticize the authorities," he says, "are foreign agents, the hirelings of enemies from abroad."
Orlov says the purpose of the latest inspections appears to be to compile a list of organizations that can be identified as foreign agents and punished for failing to comply with the new law.
The real concern, he says, is that the current campaign will instill fear in organizations that seek to hold the government to account, and scare them into censoring themselves.
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