MOSCOW, 25 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The ruse was worthy of a James Bond film: British spies communicated with a Russian agent via a transmitter hidden in a fake rock. The device, planted in a Moscow park, received information electronically and later transmitted it to a hand-held computer.
This is, at any rate, what a prime-time documentary film aired on 22 January on RTR state television described as a British spy ring in action. The program named four British diplomats it claimed were spies working undercover at the British Embassy in Moscow.
The next day, the FSB publicly confirmed the accusations and said a Russian citizen with alleged ties with the diplomats had been arrested and confessed to espionage. The whereabouts of the diplomats still remain unclear. Tit For Tat?
Many view the incident as retribution against Britain, which has long riled the Kremlin by granting political to high-profile opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin. These include top Chechen rebel Akhmed Zakayev and tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
Commenting on the issue in St. Petersburg today, President Putin said that "we are not going to escalate the situation and damage relations with our partners. We only want to be treated the same way as we treat other members of the international community -- with respect." He went on to add that, "of course, it is lamentable that we see attempts to work with nongovernmental organizations with the use of [intelligence] tools and to finance nongovernmental organizations through [intelligence] channels. I don't think anyone can say 'Money has no smell' in this case. Noble goals cannot be achieved by improper means."
But the allegation that the purported British spies were connected to Russian NGOs is fuelling intense speculation that the scandal targeted chiefly NGOs promoting human rights and media freedom. The U.K. Foreign Office says it is no secret that it provides financial support to Russian NGOs working in the field of human rights and civil society.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva is a frequent contributor to RFE/RL who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the NGOs named in the television report.
"We are not going to escalate the situation and damage relations with our partners. We only want to be treated the same way as we treat other members of the international community -- with respect." -- President Putin
Alekseyeva acknowledged that her group received money from the British Embassy in 2004, but said the money was to finance a trip by activists to Britain to study international documents on human rights.
She described the FSB's accusations as a "fabrication" aimed at discrediting human rights groups ahead of the 2007 State Duma election and 2008 presidential race.
"As far as I understand it, the goal of these actions is to prepare the public for the crushing defeat of human rights groups, [which are] the more active and independent part of civil society in Russia," Alekseyeva said. "The idea is to repress human rights activists and after that trample down civil society, so that everyone will be silent for 2007-08 and beyond." Long Hand Of The Law
Putin, himself a former KGB spy, has said the West is using NGOs to foment political unrest in former Soviet states. This month, he quietly signed a controversial new law that will allow Russian authorities to closely scrutinize the activities and funding of NGOs operating in the country. The legislation is due to go into force in April.
While rights campaigners fear the legislation will be used to crack down on groups overtly critical of the Kremlin, Putin defended it today as a mean to curtail terrorism and money laundering.
"I suppose many people will now understand why Russia has adopted a law regulating the activities of nongovernmental organizations," Putin said. " This law, I repeat, is designed to prevent interference in Russia's internal political life by foreign countries and create transparent conditions for the financing of nongovernmental organizations."
Supporters of the law, however, had to this point conspicuously failed to provide any evidence of criminals using NGOs in Russia as a cover.
On 23 November, the day the State Duma approved the bill in its first reading, Andrei Makarov, one of the law' authors told reporters that the legislation would help combat criminal groups that, in his words, "disguise themselves as NGOs to launder dirty money."
Pressed several times by reporters to offer examples, Makarov had fallen into an embarrassed silence.
Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow, says Russia engineered the British spy scandal to set a precedent that could justify the unpopular NGO law.
"I think this incident was chosen with the aim of trying to convince Russian public opinion that there are indeed bad Western diplomats who give money to Russian social organizations," Volk said. "The subtext here is that this is a hostile action against Russia." Timing Is Everything
The timing of the television program has also arisen suspicion. The report, which portrays the Kremlin-appointed Public Chamber as the only body worthy of representing civil society, was first broadcast on 22 January -- the day the chamber held its first session.
In Russia, the scandal has sparked strong concern among analysts and NGOs. Some, however, have downplayed the incident, saying the "spy-rock" scenario is too implausible to have long-term consequences.
But Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, warns the report could deal a severe blow to human rights groups in Russia, where television remains the only source of information for many.
"I think this incident was chosen with the aim of trying to convince Russian public opinion that there are indeed bad Western diplomats who give money to Russian social organizations. The subtext here is that this is a hostile action against Russia." -- Heritage Foundation Director Yevgeny Volk
"Experts underestimate the possibility of influencing public opinion in this manner," Petrov said. "In the head of the average person who does not follow what's happening with the Moscow Helsinki Group, the idea will stick that it is in some way linked to spies and receives money from them."
The scandal entered its fourth day today, with the State Duma issuing a statement denouncing what it called "the funding of NGOs by individuals engaged in intelligence activities."
Putin, meanwhile, said today that "my attitude to nongovernmental organizations, of course, has not changed. Society needs such activity in order to establish proper control over the state and so the state can solve more effectively human rights tasks and humanitarian tasks in general. Such incidents [alleged spying] cannot compromise the idea. We will support nongovernmental organizations working in our country." Colorful Regional Similarities
Russia is not the only country in the former Soviet Union to crack down on NGOs. Georgia's Rose Revolution in November 2003, which led to the peaceful ouster of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, prompted governments in the region -- particularly those in Central Asia -- to place harsh restrictions on the civil-society sector.
Just a few weeks after the Georgia uprising, Uzbekistan amended legislation on foreign NGOs operating on its territory, forcing them to reregister with the country's Justice Ministry. This was the beginning of the end for groups like the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, which was denied new registration and was closed by the spring of 2004.
In June 2005, Uzbekistan opened a criminal case against the Uzbek branch of Internews, a U.S.-based media support group. Another criminal investigation into the U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House.
In Kazakhstan, meanwhile, President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- who had already cracked down on the Soros-Kazakhstan foundation in 2004 -- used his re-election campaign ahead of the December 2005 poll to warn foreign NGOs their activities would be closely watched. He blamed NGOs for playing a key role in inciting the colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
Most recently, an Astana court yesterday shut down an NGO working on anticorruption issues.
Kyrgyzstan has been the most open of the Central Asian republics to foreign-funded NGOs. But even there, Justice Ministry officials yesterday ordered a probe into the activities of NGOs receiving funding from abroad, saying it was necessary to determine which groups might represent a threat to national security.
Some NGOs in Tajikistan faced problems ahead of last February's parliamentary elections. The Open Society Institute there has also complained of increasing pressure from both the government and the state media. Turkmenistan, the most repressive of the Central Asian states, allows only a few NGOs to operate on its territory, and none having to do with politics.