Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed a state award on Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a veteran human rights activist and vocal critic of his actions over 18 years in power.
Putin's decree, published on December 11, granted Alekseyeva a "state award for outstanding achievements in the protection of human rights in 2017."
A Soviet-era dissident who was among the founders of the human rights movement in the 1960s, Alekseyeva is the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
She has spoken out about what she has described as a dramatic backsliding on human rights and democracy since Putin came to power in 2000.
The award, announced five days after Putin said he will seek a new six-year term in a March 18 election, is likely to deepen suspicions that he is seeking to win the respected activist's support or blunt her criticism.
It comes after Putin visited Alekseyeva at her Moscow apartment on her 90th birthday in July. The Kremlin website and state media outlets covered the visit in detail, and many government critics saw it as an effort to burnish Putin's image.
Alekseyeva said on December 11 that she was "very grateful" and considered the award an acknowledgement of her "50 years of work" as a human rights activist, the Interfax news agency reported.
She said she would hand the award over to her organization "as always."
"They are awarding not Babushka Lyuda but the Moscow Helsinki Group," she said, using a short version of her name and referring to her advanced age.
Alekseyeva also suggested that Svetlana Gannushkina, an advocate for migrants -- a group she said is "very much without rights in our country" -- may have deserved the award more.
"She works...around the clock and selflessly, as a human rights advocate should -- and as I worked as long as I was in the physical condition to do so," Alekseyeva said.