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NGO Anger At Putin Ally's Role On U.S.-Russia Body

Vladislav Surkov
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Leading Russian rights campaigners on July 9 criticized the Kremlin's pick to head a new U.S.-Russian commission to strengthen democratic values claiming he would instead suffocate their efforts.

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed to set up a new commission to boost bilateral relations when the U.S. and Russian presidents met in Moscow this week.

The Kremlin then appointed Vladislav Surkov -- who has said democracy needs to be "managed" by the authorities -- to represent Russia on the commission's civil society arm.

"We categorically reject this appointment," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the influential Moscow Helsinki Group. "With the help of this commission he will suffocate civil society as he has before."

Campaigners blame Surkov, the Kremlin's first deputy chief of staff, for a clampdown on opposition media and political parties under the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

Alexeyeva said he was to blame for restrictions that led to the closure of two-thirds of Russian nongovernmental groups.

Two dozen rights activists joined Alexeyeva in demanding Surkov's removal from the commission in an open letter to Obama and Medvedev, published on July 8 by the Helsinki Group.

The letter blamed Surkov "for the removal of the freedom of the press, the liquidation of competition in the political system, and finally the intentional implementation of barriers for the development of civil society."

A Kremlin spokesman said he could not immediately comment on the letter.

Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Centre for Development of Democracy and Human Rights said Surkov's public objection to foreign funding to Russian NGOs made him a "perplexing" choice to boost U.S.-Russia civil society ties.