MOSCOW (AP) — Leading Russian activists said Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has assured them that Washington is talking with the Russian government on the Kremlin's crackdown on nongovernmental organizations that have received U.S. funding.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Tania Lokshina, one of nine activists who met with Kerry at the end of his two-day visit to Moscow, said he told them he had been up until 2:30 a.m. discussing the legal pressure on NGOs with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Their discussions earlier in the day had focused on the civil war in Syria.
Russia is pushing to enforce a new law that requires all NGOs funded from abroad that engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as "foreign agents," a term that recalls Soviet-era propaganda casting suspicion on foreigners. The measure is seen as aimed at restricting Kremlin critics and undermining their credibility.
"Foreign agents in Russia has only one single interpretation: It reads like foreign spies," Lokshina said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been suspicious of NGOs, especially those with American funding, which he has accused of being fronts for the U.S. government to meddle in Russia's political affairs.
Prosecutors have raided hundreds of groups since Putin gave a speech in February demanding that the law passed last year be fully enforced, and 36 groups have had legal action brought against them, according to AGORA, an NGO that provides legal assistance to other nongovernmental organizations and is itself one of the 36.
Golos, an election monitoring group, was the first to be punished under the law when it was fined 300,000 rubles (about $10,000) last month for failing to register as a foreign agent. Golos appealed the court decision on Wednesday.
Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika told the upper house of Russia's parliament last month that civil society groups should "mind their own business" rather than question the legal system, and promised to apologize to any groups searched unduly.
The risk for NGOs has been made sharper by recent revisions to the law on state treason, which now includes providing help or advice to a foreign state or giving information to an international or foreign organization in any way that damages Russia's security.
Giving Kerry information about human rights and civil society in Russia "could formally fall under the law, it's just a question of interpretation," said AGORA head Pavel Chikov, who also attended the meeting. "From the point of view of the Russian government, it's definitely harmful."
Since the law on foreign agents essentially regards any advocacy as political activity, prosecutors can go after any NGO, Lokshina said.
Other groups that have faced legal pressure include prominent Moscow-based watchdog organizations, like the local branch of Transparency International and the human rights group Memorial. But the law also has been used against organizations that would appear to have little to do with politics, like a crane sanctuary in the remote Far East, which came to prosecutors' attention because it receives foreign funding and participates in international conservation projects.