World News

Russia brands Kremlin critic's anti-corruption group 'foreign agent'

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s Justice Ministry on Wednesday formally labelled opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption group a “foreign agent”, a move the Kremlin’s critics said was part of a coordinated government attack on the group.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny delivers a speech during a rally to demand the release of jailed protesters, who were detained during opposition demonstrations for fair elections, in Moscow, Russia September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Navalny and his allies led political protests this summer over a local election in Moscow that grew into the biggest sustained protest movement in the Russian capital in years, peaking at around 60,000 people before appearing to lose steam.

Civil society groups designated as foreign agents, a term that carries a negative Soviet-era connotation, can be subjected to spot checks and face bureaucratic scrutiny.

Russian legislation requires foreign agent groups to submit regular reports on their sources of funding, on their objectives, on how they spend their money, and who their managers are.

On Wednesday, the justice ministry said Navalny’s FBK anti-corruption foundation was receiving foreign funding and that it had been formally labelled a foreign agent under the 2012 law.

Ivan Zhdanov, FBK’s director, denied the group was receiving or had ever received foreign financing.

“The inclusion on these lists they thought up themselves is just the latest attempt to stifle FBK,” he wrote on Twitter.

The foreign agents law was passed in 2012 following a series of mass protests over allegations of election fraud, and has been criticised by Western governments.

It was seen as an attempt by Moscow to insulate itself from a wave of popular revolutions in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Moscow said they were fomented by Western governments using civil society groups as proxies.

In this summer’s protests, police detained more than 2,000 people at rallies that Moscow authorities said were illegal, and courts have handed jail terms to a handful of protesters for charges such as assaulting the police that the opposition denies.

Moscow police and several state-run and other companies have filed 11 lawsuits against Navalny and his allies for damages caused by the protests totalling 24.4 million roubles ($375,000), according to Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.

The opposition denies causing any damage.

Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan