Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow, Russia says ‘spies’ work in foreign NGOs

Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow

Russia says ‘spies’ work in foreign NGOs

Friday May 13 2005

The Guardian

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Russia’s security chief accused Britain and America of using civic groups as a front for spies yesterday, and blamed similar operations for fomenting recent uprisings in other former Soviet republics.

Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the KGB successor Federal Security Service (FSB), told parliament that his agency had uncovered spies working for the British and US governments, as well as for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, operating under cover of non-governmental organisations.

Among those he named was the British medical charity Merlin, which denied the allegation last night.

«Foreign secret services are ever more actively using non-traditional methods for their work and with the help of different NGOs’ educational programmes are propagandising their interests, particularly in the former Soviet Union,» Mr Patrushev said.

The FSB chief’s comments, an unusually detailed reiteration of suspicions often voiced, came days after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, hosted George Bush and other world leaders for the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow.

The visit of Mr Bush, who described the Soviet occupation of Europe as one of the great wrongs of the 20th century, underlined growing mistrust of the west among Kremlin hardliners.

During his visit, Mr Bush made a point of meeting Kremlin critics and telling them they could count on his support to build a civil society and democracy. The US has also been accused of involvement with opposition movements in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, three former Soviet republics transformed by popular uprisings.

In a broad reference to the supporting role that Washington and EU member states played in the protest-led regime changes, Mr Patrushev added: «Our opponents are steadily and persistently trying to weaken Russian influence in the commonwealth of independent states and the international arena as a whole. The latest events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan unambiguously confirm this.»

Mr Patrushev, a close Putin ally, also accused an American NGO of organising a meeting in Slovakia last month at which further «velvet revolutions were discussed». The International Republican Institute had, he said, earmarked £2.6m to finance opposition

groups in Belarus, whose authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has attracted strong censure in the west. Mr Lukashenko retains a brittle alliance with Mr Putin, with both leaders facing calls for greater democracy.

The IRI responded by saying it spends around £250,000 a year on programmes in Belarus and that the Slovakia retreat had been convened to discuss «programme initiatives».

Russia considers the old Soviet empire its own sphere of influence, off limits to western powers, and is irked by the suspicion of western intervention. Yesterday, Moscow and Washington again starkly disagreed about Russia’s continuing military presence in Georgia, whose pro-west president, Mikhail Saakashvili, hosted Mr Bush this week.

Moscow vowed to take action if Tbilisi took measures against the Russian military bases still operational on Georgian soil.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said that, instead, Russia should pull its forces out of Georgia.»We are really encouraging the Russians to get this done and remove their forces so that Georgia regains that element of their national sovereignty.»

Mr Patrushev did not specify how many spies were uncovered in Russia or what they were accused of doing, except «pursuing the interests» of other states.

A year ago, Mr Putin attacked NGOs for pursuing «dubious group and commercial interests» and for taking foreign money.

The British charity Merlin «categorically denied» the spying allegations.

A spokeswoman said the group had been working in Russia in 1996 and had never experienced visa problems. «All of Merlin’s programmes have been approved by the relevant authorities.» She said it was funded by the EU.

Mr Patrushev also said spies were operating within the US Peace Corps, which was thrown out of Russia amid spying allegations in 2002, the Saudi Red Crescent and the Society for Social Reform, a Kuwait group.

In Washington, a Peace Corps spokeswoman dismissed the charges as «completely baseless» and untrue.

According to Interfax, Mr Patrushev said most industrialised states did not want «a powerful economic competitor like Russia», adding that Russia had lost £2bn a year via «trade discrimination» with the US, EU and Canada.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

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