Amnesty International has joined a growing list of organisations raided by Russian officials in recent weeks amid what activists describe as a ruthless Kremlin crackdown on dissent.
Prosecutors and tax police searched the venerable rights watchdog’s Moscow headquarters on Monday, 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 said more than 40 non-governmental organisations 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 estimated that up to 2,000 organisations may have been searched.
Lev Ponomaryov, director of For Human Rights, said 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 said. “The new law on high treason, in particular, has transformed the legal system. It is a Soviet-style law. What is now happening with non-governmental organisations is a continuation of this. Hundreds of non-governmental organisations are being subjected to unlawful actions by the Prosecutor-General’s Office.”
Prosecutors said on Monday they were simply conducting extra checks of foreign-funded organisations 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.
Non-governmental organisations are crying foul and accuse authorities of seeking to muffle critics in response to unprecedented anti-government protests last winter.
Analysts say the inspections 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,” said Mark Urnov, who heads the Political Behaviour Department at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Authorities are very scared of all organised protests and groups that gather information to this effect, on issues such as corruption, for instance. This is why these organisations are being targeted. This is the behaviour of a regime that is becoming increasingly insecure.”
The Kremlin is rumoured to be distancing itself from United Russia, the increasingly unpopular ruling party.
Urnov said 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 said, is experiencing its worst crisis to date.
“Authorities no longer have any positive levers to boost their ratings,” Oreshkin said. “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 stigmatise 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 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 organisations 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 paralysing 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.
Organisations that have yet to be inspected are actively preparing for an unannounced visit from prosecutors – often with a dose of humour.
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 behaviour, Lukashevsky encourages his staff to offer inspectors “tea and cookies”.
Oreshkin said civil groups should certainly brace for more pressure from the authorities in coming months.
“The ideal scenario for the government would be for non-governmental organisations to give up, to cease their activities themselves,” he said. “And the sooner the better because the faster these organisations are destroyed, the less [the government’s] reputation will suffer.”
-Radio Free Europe. www.rferl.org