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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Russia, government investigators have descended on non-governmental organizations across the country. They're demanding to inspect financial records and other documents. Among those NGOs: Amnesty International on Monday and Human Rights Watch today. It's the result of a new law designed to impose tighter controls on NGOs, especially those that receive funding from abroad. But critics say its part of a crackdown on dissent, since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The offices of the human-rights group Memorial are still abuzz after a team of government inspectors paid an unannounced visit.

SERGEI DANILIN: There were about six or seven people, who said that they represented the authorities, the Moscow prosecutor's office, the tax authorities, and the Justice Ministry.

FLINTOFF: That's Sergei Danilin, Memorial's press officer. He says the inspectors demanded copies of reams of the organization's records.

OLEG ORLOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Oleg Orlov, a member of the group's executive board, says the demands place a huge burden on the staff.

Memorial was set up to document the government repression of the Soviet era, but it also reports on what it says are human rights violations in the present day. The group's work, documenting police brutality in Russia's troubled North Caucasus region, has drawn the anger of government officials.

But Memorial isn't the only non-governmental organization that's getting intense government scrutiny. Pavel Chikov is the head of Agora, an umbrella group for human rights organizations throughout Russia.

PAVEL CHIKOV: We currently have, well, several thousands inspections all around Russia.

FLINTOFF: Chikov says the authorities are looking for evidence of a concept that's not well-defined in the new law - political activity, as well as evidence of extremism, and signs that the organization has received funding from outside of Russia. That could be funding from the United Nations, he says, or the European Union, or private charitable organizations in the United States.

Groups that receive foreign funding are required by the new law to register themselves as foreign agents, something that Chikov says is an extremely negative term in Russia.

CHIKOV: This means that we are spies of foreign government.

FLINTOFF: So far, most non-governmental organizations have been boycotting the new law, refusing to voluntarily give themselves a label that could do serious damage to their reputations. The government inspections have included human rights groups, such as Memorial, and vote monitors, such as Golos, groups that Chikov describes as active, well-known and inconvenient for the government. But he says the inspectors have also searched environmental groups, HIV/AIDS programs and religious organizations.

Oleg Orlov says he sees parallels between the current situation in Russia and the Soviet era.

ORLOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: In order to mobilize the population to support the authorities, Orlov says, they're using, as they used to do in the Soviet past, the image of a besieged fortress - there are enemies all around. Those who criticize the authorities, he says, are foreign agents, the hirelings of enemies from abroad.

Orlov says the purpose of the latest inspections appears to be to compile a list of organizations that can be identified as foreign agents, and punished for failing to comply with the new law. The real concern, he says, is that the current campaign will instill fear in organizations that seek to hold the government to account, and scare them into censoring themselves.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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