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Russian-British Spy Flap Entangles Pro-Western Russian Charities

Russian President Vladimir Putin says allegations that surfaced this week that British spies are funding non-governmental Russian charities justifies the controversial new law on the financing of such organizations. Members of Russia's non-governmental-organization community, independent rights groups, and political analysts say a far more chilling purpose may be behind the purported discovery.

State-run television was the first to broadcast the allegations that Russian security agents had cracked a British spy ring in Moscow that was reportedly connected to charities advocating human rights and civil society issues in Russia.

According to the television documentary, the British spies were allegedly caught downloading classified information from a communications system planted inside a fake rock in a Moscow park. While pro-Kremlin loyalists were touting the security agency, known as the FSB, for unearthing the alleged scam, there was an outcry from the scant remains of Russia's independent press.

The opposition business daily, Kommersant, said the FSB is using the spy scandal to discredit human rights defenders in Russia.

In his first public comments on the allegations, President Putin told leaders of several other former Soviet republics meeting in St. Petersburg that the scandal explains why Russia approved a law earlier this month regulating the financial activities of such organizations.

In comments broadcast on Russian television, Mr. Putin says the attempts by the British secret service to work with and influence Russian NGOs is regrettable. But he declined to specify whether the alleged agents would be expelled from Russia immediately.

Mr. Putin said Russia is still considering how to respond to the case. But those organizations accused and outside rights defenders have had something to say.

Yevgeny Ikhlov, who works at one of Russia's most established rights groups, named For Human Rights, tells VOA that paranoia within the Russian government is growing as evidenced by, what he says, is a clear attack on Russian charities financed by the West.

Ikhlov says the spy flap represents the signal rocket for the start of what he predicts will be a major attack on pro-western charitable organizations, especially those dealing with political or civil society issues. Ikhlov says he also believes the spy case is a bold-faced fabrication.

The deputy head of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute, Viktor Kremenyuk, says Russian officials have gone a long way toward promoting the idea that the West is trying to weaken Russia, in order to facilitate a political revolution like those seen in the past two years in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

"The timing was perfect because, yes, no sooner had the Duma passed the law and the president has signed it, on the NGOs, that immediately we have the evidence, hard evidence, that some of the NGOs are financed and sponsored by foreign intelligence services," he said. "It is rather clumsy, but I think that the majority of Russians will believe it."

But why involve Britain? According to Kremenyuk, it is related in part to the Kremlin's desire to prosecute so-called-oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who lives in Britain.

"The British have demonstrated unreliability in the eyes of the Russian president. He had very friendly relations with [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, but that relationship did not lead him any closer to the Russian dissidents in London," he said. "Russian opponents of the Kremlin in London feel quite comfortable, protected by British law and [there is] no chance Mr. Blair will in anyway be helping Mr. Putin in somehow putting them under Kremlin control."

Kremenyuk notes Britain has also angered Russia over issues such as human rights, especially in Chechnya, where Russia remains mired in a decade-old, guerrilla-style war with rebel Chechen separatists.

Other analysts say the attack on Britain is a way of warning the United States, which also funds Russian NGOs, not to support revolutionary political change in Russia. As one analyst told the French news agency, AFP, it is inevitable Russia would choose to target the one country most closely associated with the United States.

But President Putin, who responded that noble aims can not be reached by ignoble means, says he wants to preserve respectful relations with other foreign states.

The Russian president has also repeatedly argued in the face of heated western criticism that the new law is no different than those governing charities in France, Israel, and the United States.

The latest developments have pro-Western groups in Russia worried. They fear the accusations linking Russian charities to the alleged British spies could be used as a pretext to crack down, or even halt their operations.

Andrei Kortunov, who heads the Eurasia Foundation in Moscow, tells VOA his organization is feeling a chilling effect after being named in the Russian documentary.

"Even now I can feel that there is a sort of caution among a number of our Russian partners about what they are cooperating with us [on] because, indeed, if some institutions are even suspected of being connected to foreign intelligence, these institutions can not really count on a very favorable attitude on the part of their partners," he said.

But Kortunov, and many of his colleagues say they will not stop receiving foreign funding as it is the lifeblood of thousands of such organizations in Russia.

Kortunov also expresses dismay that many civil society supporters in Russia and abroad seem to be operating under the notion that there is little left they can do, now that the law restricting charities (NGOs) is about to be implemented. He urges people to continue to fight for basic civil rights in Russia.

"We can still use the legal mechanisms that we have and we can still try to influence the implementation of the new law on NGOs," he continued. "And I hope that in these efforts we will not be alone, we will be acting in coordination with the international community at large."

Several countries and organizations, including Amnesty International, have criticized the new law on non-governmental charitable organizations, with Washington expressing serious concerns.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said it will be necessary to monitor the way in which the law is applied. She also suggested Russia's behavior on this issue raises doubts about its fitness to chair the upcoming Group of Eight Summit later this year.