"Their goal was simple: We have few traitors, it's difficult to prove their guilt, so it's necessary to expand it," Morshchakova said. "Now they don't have to prove it any more. An opinion of law enforcement agencies would suffice."
The revised treason bill first came up in 2008, under then-President Dmitry Medvedev, who quickly shelved the bill after an outburst of public criticism.
Medvedev, now prime minister, was seen as more reform- and compromise-inclined than Putin and initially raised tepid hopes that Russia would turn away from the domineering policies of Putin's first two terms as president. But Medvedev was a comparatively weak leader and stepped aside to allow Putin to run for another term.
Now "there is an effort to recreate an old sense of fear," Denber of Human Rights Watch said, adding that the new legislation was apparently aimed at discouraging Russians from joining protests. "One of the aims is surely to never have that happen again and to demonize any ... people or organization that might be associated with that."
Along with the series of tough measures enacted this year, Moscow in October ended the U.S. Agency for International Development's two decades of work in Russia, saying the agency was using its money to influence Russian elections — a claim the U.S. denied.
Denber said her group already felt a new chill on a recent visit to one of Russia's Siberian provinces while doing a research on health care. Local officials demanded to know who invited them, who paid for the trip and the names of the group's local contacts.
"It was very hard. It was an echo of a different time," she said.
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