Governments and rights organizations are decrying raids by Russian authorities on more than 2,000 international and domestic advocacy groups, what observers say is an unprecedented campaign to silence critics of the Kremlin.
In the past couple of weeks, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office has conducted surprise inspections at hundreds of locations, including the offices of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Transparency International.
In addition, Russian groups that receive money from foreign donors have been targeted, as have religious groups, environmental advocates, and cultural exchange and education programs.
"This is an unprecedented crackdown on civil society in Russia that started in June with the adoption of a number of restrictive laws, which curtailed freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "There is a lot of poisonous anti-foreigner rhetoric and proposals for new laws; it is a very bad atmosphere."
The raids are being conducted under Russia's "foreign agent" law, which requires Russian nongovernmental organizations that engage in public advocacy and receive money from foreign donors to register as foreign agents. In most cases, the raids are carried out by prosecutorial, Justice Ministry and tax officials.
"The bigger fear is that this is just round one, and that, after the smearing, the forced closures will come," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International.
The Russian Prosecutor General's Office said Thursday that the raids are aimed at combating money laundering and corruption.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The Obama administration is "deeply concerned by the unprecedented wave of inspections" and has raised its concerns with Russian authorities, the State Department said in a statement.
"These inspections appear to be aimed at undermining important civil society activities across the country," the State Department added.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, said the raids are part of "a trend that is deeply troubling."
France and Germany summoned Russian diplomats to explain the raids. The St. Petersburg office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is affiliated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, also has been searched.
Critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin say it is no coincidence that the crackdown started after he returned to the Kremlin for a third term in May.
"The regime decided to frighten civil activists and prevent them from defending human rights," said Dmitry Gudkov, who represents A Just Russia party in the Federal Assembly in Moscow. "This is a crackdown against Russian civil society and opposition leaders who expose corrupt officials, but it's being set forth by the state propaganda as an intention of the power to fight corruption."
Ms. Denber of Human Rights Watch said Mr. Putin has stated often that "he doesn't accept foreign criticism of Russia's human-rights record, and that it is the equivalent of an incursion on the sovereignty of the Russian state."
Russian authorities have cracked down on religious organizations, including a Pentecostal church, and on environmental groups, especially those that have been critical of damage caused by construction for the 2014 Winter Olympics at the Black Sea resort city Sochi.
Agora, a Russian human rights advocacy group that advises on laws governing nongovernmental organizations, and its chairman, Pavel Chikov, are among those being investigated.
Russian officials have sought to justify their actions by saying some of the raids are linked to accusations that the targeted groups have ties to extremists.
Russia's parliament, dominated by the pro-Putin United Russia party, has adopted several laws that criminalize dissent and impose restrictions on civil society. One law expands the definition of treason in ways that could criminalize human rights advocacy.
In December, Mr. Putin signed legislation that bans Americans from adopting Russian orphans. The law was enacted in retaliation for a U.S. law that denies U.S. visas to and freezes the assets of blacklisted Russian officials suspected of being involved in the torture and killing of whistleblowers in Russia.
The foreign agent law was adopted in November, and the crackdown started three months later.
Activists say the crackdown likely was triggered by a Feb. 14 speech by Mr. Putin in which he told officers of the Federal Security Service, Russia's main domestic security agency, that the law on NGOs "should be enforced."
The law is "an effort to tar, discredit and demonize" groups that promote accountability of governments, progressive change and human rights, Ms. Denber said.
She doesn't expect any Russian organizations will agree to register under the law.
"'Foreign agent' can only really mean one thing to the Russian public's ear — foreign spy," she said. "It is absolutely anathema in the Russian community of NGOs. Accepting foreign money doesn't mean you are working for a foreign master."
Russian human rights groups decided at a meeting in September not to register as foreign agents.
"The general decision was that we cannot allow ourselves to register as foreign agents as the bill demands of us. The reason is that we do not act as agents of any foreign government," Ludmilla Alexeeva, founder and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest Russian human rights group, told an audience in Washington last month.
The Moscow Helsinki Group's offices also have been raided.
Ms. Alexeeva said the foreign agent law "destroys the independent human-rights community."
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