Germany and France summoned Russian diplomats in Berlin and Paris on Wednesday, after Russia launched a series of raids on international non-governmental organizations (NGO) across the country amid a wider crackdown on critics of the Kremlin.
The sweeps, billed as an attempt to weed out “foreign agents,” targeted human rights organizations, environmental advocates, women’s groups, non-Orthodox churches, charities and at least one French language school.
Among the sites raided were the Moscow offices of the rights groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International.
“This is the planned destruction of the NGO sector in Russia,” said Lev Ponomarev, head of For Human Rights, a Russian group that was targeted on Monday. “It’s a war on NGOs and the strengthening of the authoritarian police state.”
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said she was “concerned” by the raids and said they formed part of “a trend that is deeply troubling.”
“The inspections and searches launched against the Russian NGO community and conducted on vague legal grounds are worrisome since they seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society in the country,” she said in a statement.
The German foreign ministry summoned the No. 2 diplomat in the Russian embassy in Berlin on Tuesday “to express the German government’s concern” over the raids.
Two German NGOs in Moscow and Saint Petersburg were raided earlier this week. Hans-Gert Pottering, chairman of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation in Saint Petersburg, said officials had seized four of the group’s computers.
The French foreign ministry sent a note to its Russian embassy on Wednesday demanding an explanation, but said in a statement that the ambassador had been “invited” for a discussion.
The US embassy in Moscow said via its Twitter feed: “It is with great concern that we are following reports of unprecedented inspections of NGOs across Russia.”
Prosecutors, tax inspectors and officials from the justice ministry have conducted unannounced “checks” on more than 80 organizations around Russia, said Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, a legal group that provides assistance to activists.
Thousands more are expected to be targeted, he said. Agora was raided on Wednesday.
The sweep comes eight months after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a widely criticized law demanding that NGOs which receive funding from abroad label themselves as “foreign agents.” Critics said the law was reminiscent of Soviet-era efforts to demonize foreigners and those “collaborating” with them.
A handful of groups, including For Human Rights, have refused to follow the law.
“I am not a foreign agent,” said Ponomarev, adding that following the law — which includes stamping “foreign agent” on all paper and electronic documents — would make his work impossible.