Year into new term, Putin clamps down on dissent in Russia
A Russian flag reads "Stop Political Terror" during a protest against the Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 7, 2013 in Hanover, western Germany. When Putin returned to the Kremlin in May last year, Alexander Zamaryanov, head of a tiny non-profit group, was already expecting the screws to tighten after huge protests against the Russian strongman's 13-year rule.
What Zamaryanov did not expect was that his group -- where he is the only permanent employee -- would be labelled a "foreign agent", accused of trying to influence Russia's state policies and face the prospect of closure.
"This is absurd," Zamaryanov, the 22-year-old executive director of a NGO called the Kostroma Centre for the Support of Public Initiatives, told AFP.
"We were simply conducting roundtables. We never participated in any protests and rallies," he said from Kostroma, a town around 350 kilometres (217 miles) northeast of Moscow.
In February, his NGO, which accepts foreign and Russian grants, organised a roundtable about Moscow's troubled relations with Washington and invited a US diplomat to speak at it.
In April came the prosecutors, who searched the group's premises and oversaw the opening of two administrative probes into Zamaryanov's refusal to register as a "foreign agent" in line with legislation adopted upon Putin's return to the presidency.
The non-profit group now faces a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($16,000) and Zamaryanov himself one of up to 300,000 rubles -- fines that threaten the very existence of the NGO, Zamaryanov said.
For him, the main result of the first year of Putin's new mandate has been a campaign of repressions.
"We can't deny that this campaign began with Putin's third (presidential) term," he said.
Putin has spent the past year reasserting his authority through tough legislation which requires NGOs receiving foreign aid to register as "foreign agents," expands the definition of treason and introduces steep fines for misdemeanours at protest rallies.
Russia's leader, either as president or prime minister for more than a decade, has accused protest leaders of being financed from abroad. He has also sought to play up traditional values to rally support from blue-collar workers, his core constituency.
The Orthodox church headed by ultra-conservative Patriarch Kirill has dramatically raised its profile over the past year, and Kremlin-controlled parliament is now considering legislation with a heavy conservative tilt, including a bill that can be used to ban any gay events.
In August, two members of punk band Pussy Riot were imprisoned for two and a half years for an anti-Putin rant in a Moscow cathedral.
Putin's top critic Alexei Navalny, who led the unprecedented protests, faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of embezzling half a million dollars in a timber deal.
Some two dozen activists face jail time over their involvement in a rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration. One of them was already jailed for four and a half years, while another was sentenced for two-and-a-half years.
-- 'Never have we seen such a crackdown' --
"Putin proceeds from the fact that the risks today are higher than average. That is why measures are taken to minimise any ways to influence the situation from abroad," said political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko.
As part of the ongoing crackdown, some 600 NGOs have been searched since March.
The searches led by prosecutors and representatives of the FSB security services also involved tax inspectors and firefighters, and paralysed the work of groups for days as officials were cataloguing organisations receiving foreign assistance.
As part of the checks, one group was asked to provide X-ray pictures for its employees to make sure they are tuberculosis-free. Another group was told to submit proof that its staff members have been vaccinated against measles.
"Never before have we seen such a crackdown on civil activists," said Tanya Lokshina, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Russia.
But Kremlin aides deny the authorities are tightening the screws.
"Of more than 100,000 NGOs just over 600 are being checked. There is no systemic pressure," said Dmitry Orlov, a political analyst who advises the presidential administration.
"All those who sought the destruction of the current system have been significantly limited in their capabilities," he said.
Relations with the West have also fallen victim to the Kremlin's domestic agenda.
Putin banned adoptions by Americans after US legislation targeted Russians implicated in human rights abuses and also threatened that Russia could revisit adoption arrangements with countries legalising gay marriage.
Observers warn that by persecuting dissenters the Kremlin is squandering precious time and energy needed to address Russia's chronic dependency on oil and gas, as well as corruption and terrorism, now that the economy is slowing down.
"There remains little time and energy for a creative agenda because the time and energy are needed to cleanse the field of saboteurs and foreign agents," commentator Maxim Trudolyubov wrote in Vedomosti newspaper.