- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

MOSCOW — Yevgeny Ikhlov does not look like a man who is easily frightened. As a longtime peace and human rights activist, he has frequently clashed in the courtroom with Russia’s secret services, the military and public prosecutors.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) — successor to the feared Soviet-era KGB — once tried to imprison him on trumped-up charges of accepting money from terrorist organizations after he attempted to broker a peace deal in Chechnya.

But now he is scared, and like other human rights activists in Russia, is bracing himself for a Kremlin crackdown unprecedented since Soviet times.

It follows the exposure last week of four purported British spies whom President Vladimir Putin’s government accused of secretly funding and advising pro-democracy groups.

Less than a week earlier, Mr. Putin quietly signed into law controversial new measures forcing all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia to report their activities and funding sources to Kremlin apparatchiks, who will have the power to shut down those deemed to be acting against state interests.

“Putin has started his frontal attack on the last remaining segment of society not subordinate to him,” said Mr. Ikhlov. “Politics is subordinate to Putin; the mass media and business are on their knees. We are the last part of society that does not get any funding from the state. There is a battle coming to a head, and they have already put ‘zelyonka’ on our foreheads.”

By “zelyonka” he means a near-indelible green antiseptic [the Russian equivalent of “merbromin,” better known in the United States by the patented name of the red solution called “Mercurochrome”] most commonly seen on schoolchildren who have bashed their knees. To dissidents, however, it has a more sinister association: Soviet-era doctors daubed it on the foreheads of prisoners facing firing squads to improve the marksmen’s aim.

Mr. Ikhlov, 48, is head of information and analysis at the Moscow-based group Za Prava Cheloveka (For Human Rights), which occupies a cluttered warren of rooms in a quiet side street, 10 minutes’ walk from the Kremlin.

Sitting in a drafty basement room, the trained surveyor and former journalist smiles ruefully in memory of the early 1990s, when it seemed that endemic fear in Russia had been abolished along with the gulags (prison labor camps) and the KGB.

That atmosphere of confidence and freedom — although steadily eroded in recent years — was swept away at a stroke last week, when Mr. Putin used televised accusations of British diplomats spying in Moscow and funding human rights groups as a pretext to justify the draconian new laws on NGOs.

Suddenly, hundreds of Russian and foreign NGOs now fear the ground is slipping from beneath them.

Mr. Ikhlov’s human rights group, formed in 1998, has brought numerous cases against the Russian secret services and government ministries. Its successes have included reversing an FSB decision to reintroduce Soviet-style anonymous denunciations and scrapping an anti-Semitic school textbook.

In the past, Mr. Ikhlov said, officialdom had to listen to them, if grudgingly. But he added: “Now every chinovnik (official) has been made to understand that we are somehow connected to spies. It completely robs us of our moral authority.”

Pausing to look out at passing pedestrians trudging through a thick afternoon snowfall, Mr. Ikhlov said an odd incident last fall now began to make sense.

Members of the group said they were being followed. Later they became aware that various men were filming their comings and goings. The men ran off when challenged, and none of the group was ever sure what it was all about.

Mr. Ikhlov now views those brushes as a precursor — “attempts to scare you, but not really to do any worse.”

He and his colleagues are now prepared to return to secret kitchen meetings, just like the Soviet dissidents of old.

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