Russian Police Raid U.S. Funded Organization

Russian police raided a non-governmental organization that receives U.S. funding, seizing documents and equipment in a search its director said Thursday was likely linked to growing government pressure on Western-funded NGOs.

Police spent nearly 11 hours Wednesday at the offices of the Educated Media Foundation -- the legal successor of Internews Russia, the Russian office of a California-based organization that promotes independent media worldwide. Officers confiscated financial records and computer servers, said the head of its analytical center, Anna Kachkayeva.

Foundation President Manana Aslamazian said police told her the search was linked to a criminal case launched against her after she failed to declare cash she brought into the country in January.

Aslamazian said, however, that she suspected the raid was part of "the overall campaign of caution and suspicion toward non-governmental organizations that receive money from abroad."

Top Russian officials have accused foreign countries, including the United States and Britain, of using NGOs to spy on and weaken Russia. President Vladimir Putin, who has warned against foreign-financed groups interfering in domestic politics, signed a law early last year tightening requirements on NGOs.

With parliamentary elections coming up in December and a vote to replace Putin in March, he and others have expressed increasing irritation with foreign-funded groups that promote democracy and human rights.

The government and loyal lawmakers reacted angrily last week to a U.S. State Department report that described U.S. financial aid to NGOs and independent media, including efforts to help promote free and fair elections. The lower parliament house called it "rude interference" in Russian politics.

Kremlin critics lament the government's tight grip over the main state-run or state-connected media, considered a main lever of influence over the elections. Allies of Putin -- who is barred from running for a third straight term -- are eager to retain power.

The U.S. Agency for International Development says it spent about $38 million last year on projects to strengthen democracy in Russia, including nearly $5 million to support media freedom and freedom of information. It listed Internews Russia as a principal partner in that program.

Aslamazian said the Educated Media Foundation -- still commonly known here as Internews Russia -- had received about $1 million from USAID last year. Other sources of grants included a European group and income from paid programs it offers media outlets, she said.

She said the foundation had been paralyzed by the search and confiscation of documents and equipment.

"I cannot close the organization, but on the other hand, we cannot work," she said.

Aslamazian acknowledged that in January she had brought into Russia euro notes worth more than $10,000 without declaring it at customs, as required by law, but that she had immediately acknowledged she was carrying money and produced it when asked by a customs officer.

She said it was money she had borrowed for personal reasons and that she had not declared it because it had not occurred to her at the time that it would amount to more than $10,000.

Aslamazian said that her "personal mistake" had nothing to do with the organization and would not affect it if the authorities act fairly. She said the foundation operates legally and has nothing to hide.