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A wave of inspections of nongovernmental organizations in Russia is intensifying pressure on civil society since the adoption of a series of restrictive laws in 2012. Teams of officials from a variety of government agencies have inspected at least 30 groups in the past two weeks in Moscow, and many more in at least 13 other regions of Russia.

The inspections appear to target groups that accept foreign funding and that engage in advocacy work, and are part of a broader crackdown on civil society that began in 2012, the organizations said. The Russian prosecutor’s office has stated publicly that it plans to inspect between 30 and 100 nongovernmental organizations in each of Russia’s regions, which could amount to thousands of groups throughout the country. According to media reports, the prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg alone plans to inspect about 100 groups.

“The scale of the inspections is unprecedented and only serves to reinforce the menacing atmosphere for civil society,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.“The Russian authorities should end, rather than intensify, the crackdown that’s been under way for the past year.”

On March 21, 2013, five officials from the prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, and the Tax Inspectorate arrived without warning at Memorial society, one of Russia’s most prominent nongovernmental groups, to conduct an inspection.

A television crew from NTV, a pro-Kremlin station, arrived with the inspectors to film the proceedings. It is not clear how NTV learned about the inspection since most government inspections in the current wave are unannounced.

Nevertheless, later that day, the station aired a news report alleging that Memorial may be in violation of the “foreign agents” law. In recent years, NTV has broadcast numerous shows seeking to portray Russia’s political opposition as foreign-sponsored.

“The foreign agents law was, from the start, aimed at demonizing advocacy groups in Russia,” Williamson said.“It’s distressing, but sadly unsurprising, that NTV is part of the effort to discredit independent voices.”

Also on, March 21, the prosecutor’s office inspected the offices of at least four other human rights organizations, all in St. Petersburg.

Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a human rights group that provides advice about laws governing nongovernmental groups, said that the inspections are to determine whether groups are complying with a raft of regulatory laws. The laws include one adopted in November that requires any group that accepts foreign funding and engages in “political activity” to register as a “foreign agent.”

“There has long been a fear that Russia’s new NGO law would be used to target prominent critical organizations,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director.“The spate of inspections in recent weeks appears to confirm this suspicion. The bigger fear is that this is just round one, and that, after the smearing, the forced closures will come.”

The “foreign agents” law was roundly criticized in Russia and abroad, including by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member.

For months after the law’s adoption it was not clear how and whether it would be enforced. However, at a February 14 meeting with the Federal Security Service, President Vladimir Putin said,“We have a set of rules and regulations for NGOs in Russia, including rules and regulations about foreign funding. These laws, naturally, should be enforced. Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, on our allies and partners is inadmissible.”