ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Viktor Voronkov has seen it all before. Arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1983 for disseminating dissident literature, he went on to play a major role in developing Russia’s civil society at a time when the authoritarian system he fought against was nearing collapse.
Today Voronkov, a 69-year-old sociologist, believes tactics reminiscent of that system have returned to haunt him. Branded a foreign agent under the government’s newly toughened law against foreign-funded NGOs, the Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), which he founded almost 25 years ago in St. Petersburg, has been drawn into a potentially crippling legal battle with the state.
Facing onerous auditing requirements, intrusive government inspections and a hefty fine if he loses his appeal against the decision, he is counting the cost of continuing his work.
“We’ll ask for support from colleagues, from those we’ve helped before. But it’s going to be very expensive to keep going,” he said.
Since returning to Russia’s presidency three years ago, Vladimir Putin has launched a crusade against foreign influence. Seeing Western meddling in protests against his disputed re-election in 2012 and involvement of U.S.-funded NGOs in the revolution that toppled Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych last year, the Kremlin has ratcheted up a campaign to rein in outside forces. Organizations linked to Russia’s nascent civil society, which attracted much Western backing in the 1990s, have been the primary targets of the clampdown. Now with parliamentary elections next year, the campaign has geared up.