Through the past two weeks, the Putin administration has been conducting raids on nonprofits in what Human Rights Watch calls the "worst crackdown since Soviet era."
“This has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russia’s civil society is standing strong but with the space around it shrinking rapidly, it needs support now more than ever.”
Targeting more than 2,000 NGOs, some analysts have considered the raids a sign that Russia is moving in an increasingly authoritarian direction. "The Kremlin cynically conflates legitimate expressions of concern about human rights and the rule of law with undermining Russia’s sovereignty,” Williamson said, according to the Human Rights Watch. "Instead of meaningfully investigating human rights abuses, the government is spending time and energy retaliating against civil society and free speech."
German newspapers editorialized that the Kremlin has never been able to accept civil institutions as a part of society.
The business newspaper Handelsblatt wrote: "More than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin still has a problem understanding the point of political foundations. They're suspect because they often work with the opposition. Since the beginning, Moscow has feared being undermined from abroad. In reality the foundations are concerned with freedom, democracy and the strengthening of civil society. Even Russia's economy can profit from that, if both sides work together to improve the legal system."
The raids on NGOs come after bouts of 2012 legislation that cracked down on everything from Internet usage to defamation. The same bill that bans U.S. adoptions that Putin signed in December of last year also allowed suspension of nonprofit organizations with "political" motivations or ties to the U.S. Another bill, passed last July, required NGOs with international ties to register as "foreign agents."
In the New York Times, director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service and Putin biographer Masha Gessen wrote that the action on increasingly stricter policy should not come as a surprise.
"As in Soviet times, the search for hidden meaning or complicated signals is misguided. The Putin administration’s rhetoric, practice and law have been remarkably consistent — and the agenda for the months ahead is laid out in plain sight," Gessen wrote.
"It’s all there, in black and white, in Russian law."
While no arrests have been reported in the crackdowns thus far, The Economist reports that the raids are highly publicized, accompanied with national television camera crews — and at the worst, inconvenience workers by having them struggle to find documentation.
"The larger fear, many in civic-society groups say, is that other newly passed laws that have so far remained dormant will also be reanimated," writes J.Y. for The Economist.