Spying row justifies crackdown on rights groups, claims Putin

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin has claimed the recent unmasking of four British "spies" proved he was right to clamp down on the activities of human rights groups, despite trenchant criticism from the West.

Breaking his silence on the issue for the first time since the furore erupted on Sunday, Mr Putin suggested the spying debacle sent a powerful signal to the West. His message was clear: don't criticise me and stop meddling in Russia's domestic affairs.

His comments showed the scandal's deeply political nature and the fact that the episode has served as a useful device for the Kremlin to rebuff its external critics.

Moscow's central allegation was that MI6 was covertly funding 12 non-governmental organisations. It produced documentation which it claimed proved that. The scandal broke - some would say conveniently for the Kremlin - 12 days after Mr Putin signed a new law that brings non-governmental organisations under Soviet-style scrutiny.

In effect, the legislation allows the Kremlin to shut down undesirable groups overnight and forces them to fully disclose how they are financed.

Russia has come under fierce criticism from the United States and many European countries for the harsh nature of the new law, criticism which Mr Putin has found offensive and inconvenient as his country takes the helm of the G8 for the first time.

The Russian President, himself a former agent of the KGB, is convinced that some human rights groups are little more than fronts for foreign intelligence services whose sole purpose is to foment political unrest.

Russia believes that "velvet" revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan were all engineered with the help of such groups and wants to make sure the same does not happen on Russian soil. Mr Putin said yesterday, with a hint of triumphalism and a thin smile, that the entire spying incident proved he was right all along.

"I believe it will now be clear to many people why in Russia we have adopted a law regulating the activities of non-governmental organisations," he said. "This law is designed to prevent foreign governments from meddling in Russia's domestic political life and to create transparent rules for the financing of non governmental organisations."

He went on to describe as "lamentable" Britain's purported attempts to work with Russian NGOs through its "special services".

"It's not for nothing in the current case that we say that money does in fact have a smell. Beneficial aims cannot be achieved with unsuitable means," he said.

The Russian parliament gave its full support to Mr Putin, passing a resolution condemning the British "spies". The Communist MP Viktor Ilyukhin was one of the few not to support the resolution.

He said: "The President needed arguments to explain why he signed the law on NGOs. And this rock (allegedly used by the "spies" as a transmitter) appeared."

Though Mr Putin revelled in his security service's success in catching foreign spies ,he made it clear that he did not wish to exacerbate the situation. Explaining he did not wish to spoil Russia's relations with its "partners", he said Moscow required very little from the international community.

"We want one thing - that others regard us as we regard them - with respect."

He played down the possibility that the four British diplomats would be expelled. "If we expel these spies, others will come in their place. Maybe bright ones will come and we'll beat ourselves up trying to find them. We'll think things over."