Amnesty International has joined a growing list of organizations raided by Russian officials in recent weeks amid what activists describe as a ruthless Kremlin crackdown on dissent.
Prosecutors and tax police on March 25 searched the venerable rights watchdog’s Moscow headquarters, along with three other prominent advocacy groups -- the movement For Human Rights, the Public Verdict Foundation, and the Agency for Social Information.
The Agora rights association says more than 40 nongovernmental organizations across Russia, many of them vocal critics of President Vladimir Putin, have been subjected to unannounced audits in the past month.
Other groups have also reported surprise inspections by the Justice Ministry, the fire-safety service, and the Health Department.
Agora estimates that up to 2,000 organizations may have been searched in total.
Lev Ponomaryov, director of For Human Rights, says the raids are part of a wave of pressure that began last year with the adoption of restrictive new laws.
“The State Duma has been passing laws that contradict the spirit of the constitution, the spirit of the law," Ponomaryov says. "The new law on high treason, in particular, has transformed the legal system. It is a Soviet-style law. What is now happening with nongovernmental organizations is a continuation of this. Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations are being subjected to unlawful actions by the Prosecutor-General’s Office.”
Riot police detain rights activist Lev Ponomaryov during an unsanctioned protest in Moscow in May 2012.
Prosecutors on March 25 said they were simply conducting extra checks of foreign-funded organizations that fall under controversial new legislation requiring such groups to reregister in Russia as “foreign agents” -- a term widely used to discredit or execute people during Josef Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Many groups have refused to comply.
Nongovernmental organizations are crying foul and accuse authorities of seeking to muffle critics in response to unprecedented antigovernment protests last winter.
Analysts say the inspections also signal deep uneasiness in the Kremlin as public discontent continues to build up.
“It reflects the intense nervousness of authorities over the fact that their popularity is falling, that Putin’s popularity is falling, that United Russia’s popularity is falling," says Mark Urnov, who heads the Political Behavior Department at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. "Authorities are very scared of all organized protests and groups that gather information to this effect, on issues such as corruption, for instance. This is why these organizations are being targeted. This is the behavior of a regime that is becoming increasingly insecure.”
The Kremlin is rumored to be distancing itself from United Russia, the increasingly unpopular ruling party.
Urnov says several top members of Putin’s team have already left the party and more could follow suit.
Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst, also sees the raids on civil groups as an attempt to salvage what remains of the government’s clout.
Putin’s 13-year rule, he says, is experiencing its worse crisis to date.
“Authorities no longer have any positive levers to boost their ratings," Oreshkin says. "People’s incomes are not growing. The economy is, at best, stagnating, and industrial production is shrinking. The country is increasingly dependent on oil and gas. Authorities are unable to increase positive stimuli, and they don’t have the funds to pay people more. But they are not ready to step down and admit this model is ineffective. This is why they are resorting to negative methods.”
'Worrying And Unprecedented'
Amnesty International condemned the inspections in a toughly worded statement, accusing Russian authorities of seeking to “deliberately stigmatize and discredit NGOs in the eyes of the public.”
It also reiterated fears that the new law on “foreign agents” may be used “to harass and seek closure of those highlighting abuses and critical of the government.”
Both Amnesty International and the movement For Human Rights claim officials involved in the searches requested documents that the government already has on file.
Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected rights group, said it was also inspected last week. It called the audits "worrying and unprecedented."
Putin has long been suspicious of organizations with foreign funding, especially from the United States, and has publicly accused them of meddling in Russian politics.
The searches began soon after he gave a speech urging the FSB secret services to increase their scrutiny of such groups, which he said were “putting pressure on Russia.”
So far, the inspections have succeeded in temporarily paralyzing some of Russia’s top rights watchdogs. Memorial alone has been required to submit more than 600 documents to prosecutors and tax inspectors.
Preparing For The Worst
Many activists fear the audits will eventually force them to close up shop.
Organizations that have yet to be inspected are actively preparing for an unannounced visit from prosecutors -- often with a dose of humor.
Sergei Lukashevsky, who runs the Sakharov Center, has issued a list of recommendations for colleagues in the event of an audit.
In addition to obvious advice such as asking for identification and avoiding boorish behavior, Lukashevsky encourages his staff to offer inspectors “tea and cookies.”
Oreshkin says civil groups should certainly brace for more pressure from the authorities in coming months.
“The ideal scenario for the government would be for nongovernmental organizations to give up, to cease their activities themselves. And the sooner the better, because the faster these organizations are destroyed, the less [the government's] reputation will suffer," Oreshkin says. "So I think Putin’s vertical will only intensify pressure on independent sources of information.”