MOSCOW, April 5 (RIA Novosti) – Russian President Vladimir Putin looks set to face questions over the unannounced inspections of hundreds of non-governmental organizations across Russia in recent weeks when he visits Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 7-8.
“I don’t know how sharp the nature of the exchange of opinions will be, but you know what the mood is ahead of the visit, and it is clear the chancellor will raise the issue of NGO inspections,” presidential aide Yury Shashkov told journalists on Friday.
Russian rights activists say the raids, including inspections of the Moscow offices of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Memorial, are intended to scare NGOs funded from abroad and engaged in “political activities” into complying with a controversial law that obliges them to register as “foreign agents.”
The inspections, which have also hit a number of religious and cultural groups seemingly far removed from politics, sparked concern in the West and allegations from opposition figures that Putin, whose return to the Kremlin last year triggered mass street protests, was attempting to clamp down on criticism of his rule.
The NGO inspections began shortly after Putin told a February 14 meeting of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, that “any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable."
"Neither does anyone have a monopoly on speaking in the name of Russian society, especially structures financed from abroad and serving foreign interests,” he added.
But Putin said last week, in response to concerns raised by Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, that the inspections were “routine measures linked to the desire of the law enforcement agencies to bring the activities of organizations in line with the law.”
He also said, however, that law enforcement should avoid “excesses” as they go about their duties.
Leading NGO figures, including veteran rights worker and Soviet-era dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva have said the “foreign agents” tag is aimed at discrediting them in the eyes of the public, and insist the term is a near synonym for “spy.”
The author of the law, United Russia lawmaker Alexander Sidyakin, disputed that claim in an interview with RIA Novosti last year. He said the law was intended to counter what he called attempts by the United States to “affect Russian politics,” echoing accusations by Putin in late 2011 that the United States was behind the protests against his rule.
The inspections have frequently been filmed by television crews from state media channels which have aired attacks on Putin’s foes.
The inspections have also affected a number of German NGOs, prompting a critical statement from German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
"Our foundations and their partners in Russian society play an important role in the development of German-Russian relations," Seibert said last week. "Measures that impair their work or criminalize them damage our relations.”
He also said Merkel intended to discuss the inspections with Putin.
Germany's commissioner for German-Russian coordination, Andreas Schockenhoff, said the inspections were “weakening” Russia and “detrimental to its claim to be a world power."
The criticism comes amid a cooling of once warm ties between Moscow and Berlin, which has frequently expressed concern over the rights situation in Putin’s Russia.
Russian First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman on Thursday dismissed accusations that the inspections were aimed at intimidating rights groups.
“The inspections are not even finished, no conclusions have been made, and already we’re being accused of being biased,” Buksman said. “We are simply carrying out our responsibilities.”