MOSCOW — Russia's prosecutor general on Tuesday accused 215 NGOs of bypassing a recent law on foreign funding by refusing to register themselves as foreign agents.
Parliament passed a controversial law in November requiring all such groups that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as foreign agents, a term that carries Cold War connotations of spying. Critics said the definition of political activity is so loose that it could be used against almost any non-governmental organization.
Prosecutors have searched the offices of as many as 2,000 NGOs across the country, while 36 groups have had legal action brought against them, according to Agora, an NGO that provides legal assistance to other NGOs and is itself one of the 36.
At a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika defended the sweeping searches, saying they have uncovered 215 NGOs that "in our opinion" should register as foreign agents, even though most of them stopped receiving foreign funding after the bill was passed.
Chaika also decried attempts by some NGOs, including Agora and election monitor Golos, to "dodge the law" and urged the groups to comply. Golos was fined 300,000 rubles (about $10,000) in April in the first penalty imposed under the law.
Grigory Melkonyants, deputy executive director, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the board of Golos in June decided to discontinue the organization in order avoid legal complications. Golos members have set up a new NGO that will run their projects, Melkonyants said. They also will set up a separate fund that will handle the donations, he said.
Putin has been distrustful of foreign-funded NGOs and has accused the U.S. State Department of funding Russian non-profit groups with the aim of undermining his government.
Chaika's comments came less than a week after Putin sided with rights activists who want the law amended to make NGOs that do not engage into politics exempt from it. Several Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, have indicated that the law could be amended that way.
Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, told the AP Tuesday that most of the recent legal action taken against Russian NGOs was related to funding received before the law was adopted.
In a statement that made top news in Russia on Tuesday, Chaika told Putin that prosecutors have uncovered 17 Russian NGOs that have received funding through embassies.
Dozens of embassies have been active in Russia in the past two decades, funding projects run by Russian NGOs, Chikov of Agora said, adding that "this is an absolutely legal source of funding" in Russia and the government has never banned it.