A creeping crackdown is underway in Russia as the Kremlin has accused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of spying, moved to restrict political parties, and is considering measures that would weaken its print media.
Earlier this month Nikolai Patrushev, head of the state's FSB security service, charged that NGOs - including the US Peace Corps, the British Merlin medical relief foundation, and the Arab Red Crescent Society - were vehicles for "conducting intelligence operations under the guise of charity" activities. All the named groups issued angry denials.
Tough talk of limiting Russia's foreign-funded civil society, coupled with a new election law to limit the political field, does not represent a sudden shift, but rather a trend begun under President Vladimir Putin to tighten control over the country's press and public politics, experts say.
"We are returning to the Soviet system of governing, when all was officially under control, although in practice nothing was actually under control," says Dmitri Oreshkin, an expert with Merkator, an independent think tank. "The state being constructed through this process will be unitarian [have a single power center] and will, to a great extent, be an authoritarian state."
Individual NGOs have frequently been accused of spying by the FSB in the past, but Mr. Patrushev went further by alleging that even many think tanks were using legitimate educational exchanges and civil society projects to work for "regime change."
Demands by the security service chief that NGOs must be curbed are seen as an official reaction to recent popular revolts around Russia's periphery - Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
"To accuse NGOs of subversion is something new, and it is a sign the FSB is returning to the role of the former KGB," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, a website devoted to studying the intelligence services. "The FSB has recently reconstituted the KGB's 'anti-subversion' department. It is actively returning to old methods of surveillance over the whole society."
Many NGOs say the atmosphere is becoming chillier by the day and worry that a new law governing their activities, currently being drafted, could make life impossible. "International foundations are being actively pushed out of Russia," says Alexei Simonov, director of the Glasnost Foundation, an independent media watchdog. "Financing is becoming much harder; we already feel it."
Says Alexander Shuvalov, deputy director of Greenpeace-Russia: "We are being squeezed out of the mass media, and government agencies are actively thwarting our attempts to work. This is a continuation of policies we've felt for some years."
The new election law, passed in first reading by the Duma a week ago, has been planned since the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan last September. Experts say it will easily pass the needed two more readings in September. The law would prohibit coalitions of small parties, raising the threshold for entry into the Duma from 5 to 7 percent, making it easier for officials to disqualify candidates and ban independent observers from polling stations.
"The essence of these changes is to eliminate checks and balances and to distance citizens from real participation in the political process," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Some experts suggest the Kremlin's goal is to ensure that only one or two big, officially approved parties will remain. "This is an attempt to create a one-party state," says Yury Levada, head of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency. "We are being pushed into the past, back to the state we previously inhabited."
Gleb Pavlovsky, who advises the Kremlin on political strategy, said this week that Russia's existing opposition parties are "useless" and that the Kremlin's goal will be to build a better opposition before the next Duma elections, slated for December 2007.
"Paradoxical as it may sound, it is a task for Putin's allies, not his opponents, to set up a functioning opposition," Mr. Pavlovsky said. He warned that existing Russian opposition parties may be working with outside forces to engineer a Ukrainian-style revolution against Putin. "That would rob Russian rule of legitimacy, while the decision-making center would shift to another force - one outside Russia," he said. "No one wants an opposition like that."
Experts say the Kremlin recently added several tough amendments to the draft electoral law to control the way media outlets cover elections.
According to the version passed by the Duma, journalists and editors will be held legally accountable for any false or unverified information, even if they have reprinted it from another source, such as a wire service. "This is a very dangerous law," says Andrei Kolesnikov, deputy editor of Izvestia, one of Russia's largest daily newspapers. "It will enable bureaucrats to take control over the media, especially newspapers."
During Putin's first term the Kremlin squeezed out independent TV networks, but largely left print alone. "Now the authorities are showing an interest in newspapers. The trend is to over-regulate everything; and it's a very bad trend," says Mr. Kolesnikov.
MOSCOW - Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, is headed for a labor camp until 2012 after being sentenced Tuesday on six counts of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement.
The announcement caps a marathon 12-day session of Moscow's Meshchansky Court. The tedious point-by-point reading of the telephone book-sized judgment inspired a walkout by defense lawyers and led to quips that Mr. Khodorkovsky was condemned to "10 years of hearing his verdict read."
The nine-year sentence meted out to Khodorkovsky and his codefendant Platon Lebedev - minus time already served in detention - has experts warning that the dire political and economic fallout of the two-year-old "Khodorkovsky Affair" may now be irreversible.
"I had hoped until the very end that our leaders would put the country's interests first," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy. "I fear this will lead to a wave of similar trials in the provinces. The message [to private business] is: sell and run away."
The signal to independent political actors is similar, says Vladimir Pozner, a leading TV commentator. "This verdict had very little to do with justice. It was a politically motivated case, based on [President Vladimir] Putin's dislike for Khodorkovsky and wish to eliminate what he saw as a political threat."
Since Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003, the oil company he founded, Yukos, has been torn apart by astronomically high back-tax bills, and its most productive units have been renationalized.
Russia's economic growth has slowed, capital flight has spiraled, and some foreign companies have backed off investment plans citing uncertainties provoked by the Yukos case.
Khodorkovsky's law- yers allege the case was marked by violations of judicial process. They plan to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, in addition to seeking redress through the Russian system.
Irina Khakamada, a leading liberal politician, says the outcome "proves that there is no independent court system in Russia.... What we have is an all-powerful General Prosecutor, which serves only the interests of our new Kremlin oligarchs."
But Natalya Vishnyakova, a spokewoman for Russia's Prosecutor, hailed the verdict as fair and objective. "It matches the actual circumstances of the case and the gravity of the crimes committed," she said.