Kerry meets Russian NGOs as crackdown mounts

May 08, 2013, 7:17 AM EDT
REUTERS/Mladen Antonov/Pool

MOSCOW (AP) — Leading Russian activists said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured them on Wednesday that Washington is concerned about 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. Kerry and Lavrov's 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 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.