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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Chief: NGOs a Cover for Spying

U.S., British and other foreign nongovermental organizations are providing cover for professional spies in Russia, while Western organizations are bankrolling plans to stage peaceful revolutions in Belarus and other former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev told the State Duma on Thursday.

Patrushev said the FSB has monitored and exposed intelligence gathering activities carried out by the U.S. Peace Corps, the British-based Merlin medical relief charity, Kuwait's Society of Social Reforms and the Saudi Red Crescent Society.

He said foreign secret services rely on NGOs to collect information and promote the interests of their countries.

"The imperfectness of the legislation and lack of efficient mechanisms for state oversight creates a fertile ground for conducting intelligence operations under the guise of charity and other activities," Patrushev said in televised remarks.

He said a bill to regulate the activities of foreign NGOs will be submitted "soon" to the Duma. He said the bill would change registration procedures for foreign NGOs, but did not elaborate.

The unusually harsh rhetoric caps a year of growing concern among NGOs about a government crackdown on their activities. The worries were sparked by President Vladimir Putin in his state of the nation address last May when he questioned whether NGOs were really pursuing their stated missions and sharply accused them of advancing their sponsors' interests.

A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on behalf of the government-funded Peace Corps, dismissed Patrushev's claims as "completely baseless."

"We deny them utterly," the official said.

The Peace Corps began sending volunteers to Russia in 1992, but the program was abruptly canceled in 2003 after Russian authorities refused to issue visas to volunteers, saying Russia was as developed as West European countries and those countries did not receive Peace Corps volunteers.

Patrushev, however, offered a new explanation in December for why the Peace Corps had been shut out, hinting that its volunteers in Russia had been surreptitiously gathering intelligence. The program's leadership denied the accusation at the time.

In the Duma, Patrushev also said the FSB has uncovered a "regime change" plan for Belarus that involves Western organizations and the Ukrainian activists who played a key role in that country's Orange Revolution last year.

He said directors of the U.S. International Republican Institute's CIS offices recently met in Bratislava, Slovakia, to discuss ways of supporting the Belarussian opposition. "At the meeting, they discussed the possibility of continuing orange revolutions" in former Soviet republics, Patrushev said. He said the directors decided to allocate $5 million for projects to support the opposition and to study the feasibility of recruiting Ukrainians to train the opposition.

Lisa Gates, a spokeswoman for the International Republican Institute's headquarters in Washington, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Patrushev said the threat of uprisings looms in other former Soviet republics as well, and that representatives of the secret services of those republics met in April to discuss it. While he did not say what countries apart from Belarus might see uprisings like those in Ukraine, in Georgia in 2003 and in Kyrgyzstan this year, he said those three uprisings show that "certain forces in the West are trying to weaken Russia's influence" with its neighbors. He would not identify the Western countries.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who addressed the Duma after Patrushev, used more diplomatic language to express Kremlin concerns about the West's growing influence in the former Soviet Union. While conceding that influence from "third countries" was growing, Lavrov insisted that "we are not putting a claim on monopolizing [the influence] in this region, but we won't tolerate any one else having a monopoly either."

Calls to the Saudi Red Crescent office in Riyadh went unanswered Thursday evening, and Marie-Francoise Borel, spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, declined to comment when reached by telephone in Geneva.

Merlin representatives in London could not be reached for comment.

Social Reform Society officials in Kuwait City also could not be reached for comment. The organization's Moscow branch was registered in 1993 as a charity organization aimed at Russian-Kuwaiti cooperation. In February 2003, however, it was included on a government list of 15 international terrorist groups accused of presenting a national threat, and its operations were subsequently banned from Russian soil.

FSB officials have previously asserted that foreign NGOs collect sensitive information on Russia and are used as a cover by career spies. However, Thursday was the first time that Patrushev publicly pointed the finger at educational exchange programs as a means to advance foreign interests.

Patrushev's assessment of Western activities was echoed by a nationwide poll released by the state-controlled VTsIOM polling agency earlier Thursday. The poll of 1,600 people in early April found that "every second Russian" is very suspicious about U.S. and EU activities in the former Soviet Union.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Patrushev's worries were "natural for the leader of a secret service." What is alarming, however, is that the political leadership has begun to share his fears, he said, referring to Putin's criticism of NGOs in his state of the nation speech last year.

Petrov also said he believed Patrushev overestimated the role that Western organizations are playing in former Soviet republics. "If it indeed takes only $5 million to overthrow a regime, that means public discontent is so overwhelming that the regime is already hanging on by a hair."

Meanwhile, Patrushev said Thursday that the FSB staged a successful operation that captured key members of a terrorist group responsible for at least nine attacks, including a series of explosions in Voronezh in 2004 and this year and suicide bombings outside Moscow's Rizhskaya metro station and on a train heading to the Avtozavodskaya metro station last year. Some 70 people died in the two bombings.

Patrushev said FSB officers have detained three people suspected of organizing the attacks. He identified them by their last names, Khubiyev, Panarin and Shavorin. Another suspected member of the group was arrested in Voronezh.