Russia's only independent election monitoring agency has become the first organization charged under Russia's controversial new NGO law.
Golos ("Vote") was ordered to pay 300,000 rubles ($9,500) for failing to declare itself a "foreign agent," as all "politically active" nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from outside Russia are now required to do.
For most Russians, according to RIA Novosti, registering as a foreign agent would be synonymous with calling yourself a spy.
Golos, which plans to appeal the ruling, says it has not accepted foreign donations since the law came into effect in November.
The watchdog insists it even returned prize money it was awarded by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for its work documenting election fraud to avoid violating the new rules.
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The Russian government says the legislation is necessary to prevent foreign interference in internal affairs. NGOs and activists, however, see it as part of what they claim are the Kremlin's efforts to restrict civil society in Russia.
The authorities have carried out inspections of hundreds of NGOs' offices in the past month, in some cases more than once.
President Vladimir Putin dismissed on Thursday comparisons drawn between his government's recent activity and Stalinism during an annual Q and A session with Russian citizens.
"I don't see any elements of Stalinism here," he said. "Stalinism is linked to the cult of personality, massive legal violations, repressions and labor camps...There is nothing like that in Russia and I hope there never will be again. But this does not mean that we should not have order and discipline."
"Nobody is putting anyone behind bars for their political views," Putin added.
The government's critics believe Golos was the new law's prime target, having collected evidence of large-scale voting irregularities in the most recent parliamentary and presidential polls that kept Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party in power.
Russia's only independent election watchdog has been subjected to what US officials call a "pattern of harassment" since parliamentary elections in 2011.
"This is total lawlessness," the executive director of Golos, Lilia Shibanova, told AFP when first informed of the latest charges. "They have given an instruction not to let us cover elections."
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