OF ALL THE repressive measures President Vladimir Putin of Russia has taken in the last decade, one of the most consistently destructive has unfolded in recent weeks. At Mr. Putin’s order, hundreds of civil society organizations across the country, whether defending migrants, the environment or voting rights, have been targeted for “inspections” under a new law that requires them to register as “foreign agents” if they engage in political activity and accept foreign funds. If this witch hunt continues, many of them may be forced to close.
The new law, which took effect Nov. 21, defined “political activity” broadly and vaguely, thus leaving open a loophole under which almost any group active in the public sphere can be arbitrarily targeted. The groups have steadfastly refused to register as “foreign agents” because of the pejorative meaning of the term in Russian history — in Stalin’s day it was used to stigmatize and discredit people as spies. Arseny Roginsky, chairman of the board of Memorial, a prominent human rights group whose work includes preserving the records of Mr. Stalin’s repressions, said the group will never register as a foreign agent. “For us, this is not possible,” he said. “It’s not just that it is a lie. We are Memorial. We know how many people, in what year, under torture, confessed to being spies and foreign agents. We know how these confessions were beaten out of them.”
In February, Mr. Putin insisted the law must be enforced, and his statement has unleashed a torrent of activity. Inspection commissions, made up of officials from the prosecutor’s offices, as well as tax and other authorities, descended on small and understaffed organizations. Anna Sevortian, writing for opendemocracy.net, reports that one St. Petersburg human rights group was asked about their rubbish disposal arrangements; at another group, the inspectors photographed the spines of all books with foreign titles. Memorial was asked to produce 8,766 pages of records in 24 hours.
The point of the inspections is to intimidate the groups and disrupt their programs. In a bout of anti-Americanism, Mr. Putin has expressed resentment that such groups receive money from abroad, ignoring the good they do with these funds — helping people who are left behind by Mr. Putin’s own government, and protecting that which the state does not. At its core, the issue here is that Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule allows no role for civil society. This was also the approach of Soviet Communism.
According to Ms. Sevortian’s account, 528 inspections had taken place as of April 15 in 49 regions. By another report, at least 39 Russian groups have been found to be “foreign agents” and are facing warnings or court action. Many of the groups have nowhere to turn; the pressure of the authorities can destroy them. Elena Panfilova of Transparency International wrote recently that they face no option: either accept punishment, or self-destruct. She predicted that “at the end of the autumn in our country, there will remain not one public organization. Literally not a single one. Period.”