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Russia's Crackdown On Foreign NGOs Strains Ties With Europe
Grigoriy Tumanov, Elena Chernenko, Galina Dudina and Vladislav Litovchenko

MOSCOW - Since February, Russian authorities have been investigating all of the NGOs operating in the country in an attempt to root out any organizations with foreign ties or foreign funding sources.

The entire operation risks further alienating Moscow from Europe – particularly from Germany, after Russian authorities cracked down on two German NGOs operating in Russia.

Representatives from the agency in charge of carrying out the NGO inspections looked into the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Moscow, while in St. Petersburg they turned their attention to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), both supported by German political parties.

St. Petersburg prosecutors weren’t satisfied to look at financial reports or other documents, instead seizing the NGO’s computers. “The work at our office has been practically brought to a stand still. We never expected that something like this could happen. It’s an alarming sign if this is how the government treats organizations that are working to promote bilateral relations between our two countries,” said Lars-Peter Schmidt, head of the Russian branch of KAS.

Rudolph Traub-Merz, the head of FES in Russia, added: “This audit business has already had a negative impact on Russian-German relations, especially the confiscation of our colleagues’ computers.”

In addition, Russian prosecutors have audited five branches of the Alliance Francaise, an organization promoting French language and culture overseas. The Alliance Francaise was asked provide documents proving that the money it gets from the French Embassy was used only for cultural programs and not for political activity.

The massive NGO crackdown began at the end of February, and as of March 27, 90 different organizations in 24 different Russian regions are known to have been inspected. According to Pavel Chikov, from the Agora organization that monitors prosecutorial activities in Russia, all together there are probably more than 2,000 organizations that have been investigated.

Organizations like Amnesty International have criticized the investigations, but human rights organizations are not the only ones who are upset. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, characterized the NGO inspections as “raids,” and said they were “worrisome because they seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society activities in the country.”

Russia’s image problem

There has also been a very negative reaction in Germany, one of Russia’s closest friends in the European Union. Russian diplomats in Germany have been called in and asked to explain the inappropriate behavior of the Russian government towards many NGOs, including the German foundations. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle warned Russian diplomats that, interfering with the foundations’ work could have “a sustained effect on bilateral relations.” A source in the German foreign ministry explained that this announcement should be taken very seriously.

“It’s totally unacceptable that the offices of German foundations in Russia have been searched and their representatives summoned to the prosecutor’s office. It is especially unacceptable that long-standing German project partners have come under the suspicion of being ‘foreign agents.’ This practice violates the spirit of cooperation between the societies of Germany and Russia,” said Andreas Schockenhoff, Germany’s commissioner for German-Russian relations.

President Vladimir Putin will be visiting Berlin on April 7, and everyone Kommersant spoke with seemed sure that Angela Merkel will bring up the NGO raids. Many German politicians aren’t convinced that criticism will be enough to stop the investigations.

Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the German Parliament’s foreign committee, said in a radio interview that if the foundations were not able to operate without being subject to discrimination, then a more “energetic” response would be called for. “I, for example, think that in this situation it will be very difficult to talk about liberalizing our visa agreements for Russian citizens.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment on the prosecutorial actions.

According to political scientist Aleksander Kyinev, Russia can expect long-term negative effects on its relationship with Europe due to the NGO audits and raids. “These raids, first of all, damage Russia’s image," he said. "I don’t understand why the government is going after international organizations that are known around the world and don’t raise problems for anybody.”

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