Irina Yasina said her phone started ringing almost as soon as President Vladimir Putin stopped speaking. Alarmed callers wanted to make sure the director of one of Russia's largest foundations had heard the president's unmistakable warning.
Putin last week launched a broadside at nongovernmental groups during his annual state of the nation address to parliament, complaining that instead of defending "the real interests of the people," some organizations were interested only in securing financing from foreign sources or serving "dubious group and commercial interests."
To Yasina and her callers, it was a threat aimed squarely at Russia's community of human rights and civil society activists, who are increasingly the only voices of dissent raised against Putin's policies. Most depend on international funding from sources such as billionaire George Soros and the U.S. government. Yasina's foundation, Open Russia, is one of the few that do not, but her group's funder, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been jailed in a long-running feud with the Kremlin.
"Everybody started to call us, saying he was talking about you. We understand very well that next it will be our turn," Yasina said. "As I listened, I was under the impression I'm living in the USSR again."
A day after Putin's speech, a human rights group that Open Russia has funded in the regional capital of Kazan was ransacked by two masked men, who smashed computers, a TV set and a fax machine. The attack on the office of the Tatarstan Human Rights Center came hours after the group held a news conference accusing local police officials of pressuring them.
"The people who organized this attack in our office were trying to follow the president's instructions," the center's Oleg Khabibrakhmanov said by telephone. "This was Putin's signal."
In the days since, nervous activists and their international funders have convened emergency meetings to work out a response to the president as Russian officials have issued more threatening statements. The Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters, for example, that nongovernmental groups in Chechnya "are predominantly engaged in collecting information, not in providing real humanitarian aid." And Kremlin consultant Gleb Pavlovsky accused groups that receive international funding of a "conflict of interest" because they embraced foreign notions of human rights.
Such rhetoric has convinced many activists that Putin's speech was the beginning of a new campaign to punish groups that do not adhere to the government's line. The nongovernmental sector, they say, is the logical next target as the Kremlin seeks to establish what Putin advisers call "managed democracy."
"The government has already taken under control the mass media, parliament and many other independent structures, and this is a step to attack our independence and a desire to take us under control," said Arseny Roginsky, chairman of the public council of the human rights group Memorial, which relies on funds from Soros, the Ford Foundation and other international organizations.
Putin's signal to Russian officials was clear, Roginsky said. "If it was not a direct threat from the president, then at the least it's a signal given to bureaucrats that they should divide organizations into good and bad, help the ones they consider good and build barriers for the ones they consider to be bad."
On Monday, exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky responded to Putin's speech by vowing to give an unspecified amount of additional funds to 100 groups here ranging from the antiwar Committee of Soldiers' Mothers to prisoner rights' groups. Berezovsky, an implacable Putin foe granted political asylum in Britain, said in a statement, "Putin declared war on Russia's civil society. Our duty is to give it resources for self-defense."
But Russian businesses are not likely to follow suit. The bottom line, according to activists and their international funders, is that Russians simply haven't stepped in to foster major philanthropic and activist work and are almost certain not to do so in the wake of Khodorkovsky's arrest, which was interpreted here as a warning to avoid politicized activities.
"We think it's really unfortunate that only Western foundations finance activities here," said Yuri Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum. "But the problem is there are no Russian sponsors."
Putin's speech marks his most harsh rhetoric to date about funding of independent groups, but top officials in his government have long inveighed against international funding of human rights organizations. The Peace Corps was thrown out of Russia during Putin's presidency, as was the longtime AFL-CIO representative here. Several international humanitarian groups have been denied access to Chechnya, and homegrown rights groups often complain they are pressured by authorities.
Just a few weeks ago, a top Justice Ministry official accused human rights campaigner Lev Ponomaryov of inciting prison riots and asserted that Ponomaryov's funding from Berezovsky's foundation meant that he was being financed by "criminal structures."