Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

Vladimir Putin's decision to increase the number of personal guards might have to do with fears of an assassination plot, according to a prominent Russian activist.

Irina Yasina, former head of the department of public communications in the Russian Central Bank and a director of the Open Russia foundation established by jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, raised the possibility of a president in the grip of paranoia.

"Does he expect to be assassinated? We don't know," she said during an event at Chatham House, the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Whatever he believes, Yasina thinks he will continue in power for a while yet, however. "I think he will remain where he is until 2018," she said.

Daughter of former economics minister Yevgeny Yasin, Yasina has been involved in the Open Russia's project for regional journalists. She claimed that the number of volunteers for charitable and civic programmes was growing, thanks to the growing number of internet users in Russia and the diffusion of self-funded local organisations and movements.

Despite having worked for major publications and news agencies including Interfax, Moscow News, Moscow Times and Echo of Moscow, Yasina said she was not concerned about freedom of expression in Russia.

"As a member of regional journalist board I should be worried that only a few free media are left in the country but I don't. Freedom of information is limited but it's still there, on the internet. To say that there's no freedom of media is untrue."

Yasina argued that Putin's decision to shut down the US agency for international development (Usaid) in September for alleged political interference proved to be a double-edged sword for Russia's last czar.

"I'm actually grateful to Putin," she joked. "He has done so much to squeeze out foreign funds that local NGOs were forced to find ways to self-fund themselves. So I say 'Well done, Putin!'"

Civil society in Russia was filling the vacuum left by corrupt authorities and flawed administrations, according to Yasina. During 2012's severe floods in Crimea, volunteers were ready to intervene before the local authorities.

But local movements and organisations were hampered by the vertical structure of Russian society, she said.

"Putin decides everything. Local businesses that fund local institutions and civic organisations are scared to reveal their identities."

She recounted her experience with two local businesses that supported a petition to investigate allegations of cheating in local elections.

"I invited them to talk on my radio programme and they refused, saying 'Do you want to see us buried?' Anything that has to do with politics is not accepted in Russia."

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks with Irina Yasina, representing Open Russia, as they participate in a roundtable discussion with Civil Society in St Petersburg, Russia, July 14, 2006
Former US president Bush meets Irina Yasina, representing Open Russia (Reuters)