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Consumer-Rights Advocate Calls Putin 'Paranoid' After 'Foreign-Agent' Slur

"Mr. Putin V.V. is badly informed," says Mikhail Anshakov, chairman of the Society for the Protection of Consumer Rights.
"Mr. Putin V.V. is badly informed," says Mikhail Anshakov, chairman of the Society for the Protection of Consumer Rights.

MOSCOW -- A Russian consumer-protection group lambasted by President Vladimir Putin as a "foreign agent" after giving cautionary advice to Russians traveling to annexed Crimea has accused Putin of "paranoia" and called him "badly informed."

Mikhail Anshakov, chairman of the Moscow-based Society for the Protection of Consumer Rights (OZPP), said his group has not been declared a "foreign agent" by the Justice Ministry and receives no foreign funding -- a crucial criterion in the 2012 legislation that Russian authorities have used to ostracize Kremlin critics.

Anshakov suggested that the president is "not authorized to give his evaluation of the activity of public organizations."

Putin on June 23 accused the OZPP of "serving the interests of foreign states" when it advised Russians to seek permission from Kyiv before traveling to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in an internationally unrecognized annexation in March 2014.

Putin said the group's travel memo vindicates the controversial "foreign-agent" law that invokes the pejorative Cold War-era term to target nongovernmental groups engaged in loosely defined "political" activities.

"Mr. Putin V.V. is badly informed, as the OZPP does not have official foreign-agent status and doesn't receive foreign financing," Anshakov wrote on Facebook. "Such statements from Mr. Putin V.V. himself and a number of his colleagues with regard to the publication of the Memo to consumers traveling to occupied territories look like symptoms of paranoia."

The consumer group e-mailed and posted on its website a travel advisory cautioning Russian citizens to liaise with Ukrainian authorities before visiting Crimea -- territory it called "occupied" -- in order to avoid being barred from traveling to Ukraine or the European Union.

While all but a tiny handful of states reject Russia's Crimea grab as illegal, Russian authorities chafe at any notion of the peninsula as "occupied" territory.

There are no known examples of the European Union or Ukraine taking retaliatory measures against Russian travelers to Crimea since the annexation, but Anshakov told Russian media that his organization has been approached by Russians seeking clarity on the issue.

Speaking at a session of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body, Putin asked of the travel memo: "Is this concern about Russia's citizens? No, this is serving the interests of foreign states with regard to Russia. This is why the notion of 'foreign agent' was brought in, so that foreign states don't use such instruments like this to interfere in our domestic affairs."

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has launched a probe into the consumer-rights group that could lead to a criminal case over making calls to "violate Russia's territorial integrity" -- a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.

The Roskomnadzor media watchdog has blocked the OZPP website.

After Putin's speech, ruling United Russia party lawmaker Aleksandr Sidyakin wrote to the Justice Ministry calling for it to check whether the group should be branded a "foreign agent."

While the ministry has never branded it as such, the OZPP in July 2012 voluntarily labeled itself a "foreign agent" out of solidarity with other NGOs and vowed to print the term on all its publications and public materials -- a principle stipulation of the law.

"The reaction of the authorities was to be expected," Anshakov told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview on June 22, before Putin's comments. "They are the ones who, above all, should be warning Russians about potential problems they could face if they travel to Crimea or buy property there and so on. They don't do that. This is unacceptable practice in bad faith on their part."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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