THE OXYGEN of democracy is a thriving civil society, the interaction of rulers and the ruled. This can be as simple as a neighborhood rallying for better sidewalks or as profound as dissidents risking their lives for free speech. In the 20th century, Communism sought to snuff out civil society with the paternalistic notion that the party was all that people needed. Communism has gone the way of the fedora, yet the battle over civil society still rages in Russia today.
In Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere, groups devoted to protecting human rights and filling the gap between state and society have grown up over the past two decades. One of them, Memorial, has roots in the years of glasnost and perestroika, the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, and has become a mainstay of Russian civil society, chronicling the history of Stalin’s mass repressions and exposing human rights violations in the North Caucasus, among other things.
So it was disturbing to see Russian investigators pounding on the doors of Memorial this week for the third time, along with those of dozens of other groups. The raids appear to be a concerted effort by President Vladimir Putin to intimidate such organizations. Last year, Mr. Putin pushed through legislation requiring nongovernmental groups that receive money from abroad and are involved in politics to register as “foreign agents,” a term used in Stalin’s day to stigmatize and discredit people as spies. The law took effect in November. Then, in February, Mr. Putin told a meeting of security officials that the law “must be enforced unconditionally.”
Most of the Moscow civil society groups have ignored the law, and none has registered so far. But the message sent in recent weeks has been ominous: Tax police and investigators from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs and the prosecutor’s office have arrived without warning, then carted away boxes of documents and, in some cases, computers. The raids disrupt a group’s operations. They also portend more severe measures to come. Among those raided lately, in addition to Memorial, were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, For Human Rights, Transparency International, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Many of these groups have grown used to such confrontations with the Russian authorities. But the latest crackdown is unprecedented in scope, and it appears to be part of Mr. Putin’s broader campaign to suppress any challenges to his monopoly on power, which has been shaken by street protests for more than a year.
When civil society was blossoming under Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Putin was far away — working for the KGB in East Germany. He seems to have never embraced the democratic ideal of civil society for Russia. The country has changed — Russia is definitely not the Soviet Union any longer. But the latest round of harassment of civil society reeks of obsolete and discredited Soviet thinking.