I have been active in the human rights scene here since the dark days of the Soviet Union. As I look across today's Russia, I have every reason to believe that at the very top, the Kremlin has decided to destroy my country's civil society for daring to raise its head in protest against government repression and to demand fair elections and respect for the constitution.
From the end of the 80s to the middle of this century's first decade, a lively and active civil society formed in Russia. Today, it is an obstacle in the path of President Putin and his circle, who aim to form a harshly authoritarian, perhaps even totalitarian, regime.
It is precisely to destroy civil society – and primarily the human rights groups that form its backbone – that a series of repressive laws were adopted in 2012 by Russia's Duma, elected fraudulently and obedient to Putin. One of these laws requires that NGOs which receive funding from abroad and "engage in politics" voluntarily register as "foreign agents". This demand is the equivalent of Nazi Germany's demand that Jews don a yellow star.
This law is directed against human rights organisations that have to receive financing from foreign donors in order to maintain their independence – since neither the Russian government nor big business will support organisations whose goal is to protect citizens from violations of their rights by the state.
The foreign agents' law should not apply to human rights NGOs, as they do not engage in politics. However, the law defines the term "politics" as including "influencing the formation of public opinion" – and, of course, human rights NGOs do exactly that. For violating this law, NGOs face closure and fines of up to 500,000 rubles (£11,000), while their leaders face fines of up to 300,000 rubles and up to two years' imprisonment.
If the law demanded that NGOs register as organisations receiving foreign grants, all of us would register, as this would reflect the truth. But we cannot register as foreign agents. In Russia, "foreign agent" means "traitor", "spy". We are not agents of foreign governments or private foundations, as we do not carry out their instructions. To register as their agents would mean sacrificing our reputation.
Because not a single NGO registered as a foreign agent, several weeks ago the authorities began a mass wave of inspections across the country led by the state prosecutor, the ministry of justice and the tax authorities. We are aware of about 500 NGOs that have undergone such inspections – there are probably many more.
By law, the prosecutor has the right to conduct inspections only where there is evidence that a given organisation has, or is planning to, violate the law. The simultaneous inspection of hundreds of NGOs is a clearly illegal action by the prosecutor, whose mission is to ensure the law is obeyed.
Several dozen of the inspected NGOs have now received instructions stating that they are required to register as foreign agents. Golos, which organised election observers who uncovered massive falsifications during the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011-2012, was the first to be sanctioned by the courts, receiving a fine of 300,000 rubles. All of these organisations are on the verge of being closed down.
The Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organisation, awaits this fate by the end of May, as do others. It is absolutely clear that Vladimir Putin's goal, as he begins his third term in office, is to destroy all independent civic activity. It is clear he fears that otherwise he will not succeed in retaining his office, let alone strengthening his authoritarian regime.
Lyudmila Alexéyeva is chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, part of the Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition of over 50 NGOs from across the OSCE region.