EU powers confront Russia over NGO raids
Putin uses new laws to accuse ‘foreign agent’ groups of interfering in domestic affairs
Vladimir Putin: he has denounced “structures financed from abroad and serving foreign interests”. Photograph: Aleksey Nikolsky
The European Union, Germany and France have challenged Russia over raids on a host of democracy, anti-corruption and human rights groups that have come under fire from President Vladimir Putin.
Investigators from Russia’s tax authorities and prosecutors office arrived unannounced at Human Rights Watch and Transparency International in Moscow yesterday to conduct searches and demand documents.
Amnesty International in Moscow was searched in similar fashion by the same agencies on Tuesday, and the non-governmental organisation Memorial has been searched three times in a week.
“This is part of a massive, unprecedented wave of inspections of NGOs in Russia that is intensifying pressure on civil society in the wake of the adoption of a number of restrictive laws last year,” said Rachel Denber, the head of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia department.
The new laws force NGOs in Russia that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”; they massively increase fines for people taking part in unsanctioned protests; and they expand the legal definition of treason to include any co-operation with a foreign organisation deemed to undermine Russia’s security.
In a recent speech to security service chiefs, Mr Putin told them to prevent “any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners”. Reiterating his suspicions of NGOs, Mr Putin denounced “structures financed from abroad and serving foreign interests”, saying “no one has the right to sow hatred, stir up society and thus threaten the lives, wellbeing and peace of millions of our citizens”.
Mr Putin, an ex-KGB agent and former head of Russia’s domestic intelligence service, accused Washington of funding protests against his return to the presidency last year and expelled US development agency USAid from Russia.
Pavel Chikov, a member of the Kremlin human rights council, says that about 2,000 NGOs have been subjected to raids in the past month. These searches are often recorded by television crews from state channels which regularly broadcast attacks on Mr Putin’s critics.
“The ongoing raids, taken together with the recent package of legislation that curtails the civil freedoms of the Russian population . . . constitute a trend that is deeply troubling,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said this week.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle on Tuesday expressed concern to a Russian diplomat in Berlin over inspections conducted at two German think tanks in Moscow.
An unnamed German diplomat told Spiegel Online : “Hampering the activity of German foundations could inflict lasting damage on bilateral relations.” A French foreign ministry spokesman said Paris had “asked the Russian embassy . . . to furnish explanations on these raids conducted on several organisations”.