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Putin, a KGB veteran, has clamped down on his critics following a series of huge street protests in Moscow against his re-election, which he said were staged by Washington in order to weaken Russia. The Kremlin-controlled parliament quickly stamped a series of repressive bills and opposition activists have faced numerous searches and arrests.

“There is an effort to recreate an old sense of fear,” Denber said, adding that the new legislation was apparently aimed at discouraging Russians from joining protests. “One of the aims is surely to never have that happen again and to demonize any … people or organization that might be associated with that.”

One of the laws passed this summer required non-governmental organizations in Russia that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity to register as “foreign agents,” which aims to destroy their credibility among Russians. One such group is Golos, Russia’s only independent vote monitor, which collected evidence of massive violations in recent elections.

And in October, Moscow ended the U.S. Agency for International Development’s two decades of work in Russia, saying the agency was using its money to influence Russian elections — a claim the U.S. denied.

Denber said her group already felt a new chill on a recent visit to one of Russia’s Siberian provinces while doing a research on health care. Local officials demanded to know who invited them, who paid for the trip and the names of the group’s local contacts.

“It was very hard, it was an echo of a different time,” she said.