MOSCOW – Russia's security chief said Thursday his agency has uncovered spy activity that was being conducted under the cover of non-governmental organizations from the United States, Britain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev (search) also suggested that foreign governments are using NGOs to fund and support changes of power in former Soviet republics.
Patrushev's remarks reflected concern in President Vladimir Putin's (search) Kremlin as it grapples with waning regional influence following the ascent of pro-Western governments in ex-Soviet states. The Kremlin is also worried about outside influence within Russia amid U.S. accusations of backsliding on democracy.
"Along with classic forms of influence on political and economic processes, foreign intelligence agencies are ever more actively using nontraditional methods," including working through "various non-governmental organizations," Patrushev told lawmakers.
"Under cover of implementing humanitarian and educational programs in Russian regions, they lobby the interests of the states in question and gather classified information on a broad spectrum of issues," he said.
Patrushev said his agency, which is known by its Russian acronym FSB and is the main successor to the Soviet KGB (search), "has prevented a series of espionage operations" carried out through foreign non-governmental organizations."
He named the Peace Corps (search) — which pulled out of Russia in 2003 amid FSB spying allegations — as well as the British medical aid group Merlin, the "Saudi Red Crescent" and a Kuwaiti group he called the Society of Social Reforms.
Patrushev reiterated claims by Russian officials who have accused the United States and other Western nations of using NGOs to aid opposition forces that have brought down governments in other ex-Soviet republics in the past two years.
His comments came just two days after President Bush visited Georgia, site of the "Rose Revolution" 18 months ago that marked the start of a wave of uprisings against entrenched leaders in ex-Soviet republics. One followed in Ukraine, then in Kyrgyzstan.
"Our opponents are steadily and persistently trying to weaken Russian influence in the Commonwealth of Independent States and the international arena as a whole," Patrushev said. "The latest events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan unambiguously confirm this."
Patrushev said the International Republican Institute, a U.S. democracy support organization, held a meeting in Slovakia last month during which "the possibility of continuing 'velvet revolutions' on the post-Soviet space was discussed."
Patrushev suggested Russia believes the next Western target is Moscow ally Belarus, where U.S. officials have not masked their disgust at authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and have called for free elections next year. Bush has called Belarus the last dictatorship in Europe, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was time for a change there.
He claimed that the IRI has earmarked $5 million to finance opposition groups in Belarus this year and asserted that there were efforts under way to bring Ukrainians involved in last year's "Orange Revolution" to train opposition forces in Belarus, which has close ties with Russia.
In Washington, Peace Corps spokeswoman Barbara Daly dismissed Patrushev's charges as "completely baseless, without merit and not true." She said 700 volunteers have served in Russia since the program was started in 1993, mainly as teachers of English and business education.
A spokeswoman for Merlin, speaking on condition of anonymity from its London office, said it "categorically denies any allegations that it has been involved in espionage operations or activities." She said Merlin had worked in Russia since 1996 on anti-tuberculosis programs, and that the group believed it could continue to work in close collaboration with its Russian partners.
Patrushev is considered a close ally of Putin, a longtime KGB officer and former FSB chief.
The FSB routinely claims to have uncovered spying by foreign countries including the United States, but Patrushev's remarks in the lower parliament house came just days after Putin and Western leaders Bush celebrated unity during commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Putin also reached a new agreement this week deepening cooperation with the European Union.
Patrushev's statement was the latest from a top official assailing civil society groups in Russia, which Putin criticized last year as often being more interested in foreign funding than in helping Russian people. He called for tighter legislation governing NGOs, saying current laws were not sufficient to stem "activity by foreign non-governmental organizations that damages the security of our country."
The Russian security services have long expressed alarm over U.S. NGOs. In 2003, Russia refused entry to a longtime resident U.S. labor activist. It has also frequently expelled foreigners considered a threat to the nation, including missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers. Patrushev accused Peace Corps volunteers of spying in 2002, and that year Russia refused to extend volunteers' visas or issue new ones — forcing the program to shut down