Russia calls US funding of democracy a 'problem'
MOSCOW - Agence France- Presse
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev walks in the Moscow Kremlin, on April 3, 2012, as he meets representatives of groups initiating the formation of political parties. AFP PhotoRussia said Tuesday that continued US funding of groups supporting the spread of democracy in the country was turning into a problem in advance of Vladimir Putin's return for a third Kremlin term.
Putin has repeatedly accused Washington of using the programme to bankroll the mass street protests that first rose against his 12-year domination of Russia three months ago -- a charge that US officials firmly deny.
But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow continued to raise the issue "repeatedly" with US officials and had still not received a clear assurance about the funding's ultimate aims.
"This activity is reaching a scale that is turning into a problem in our relations," Ryabkov said in an interview with the Interfax news agency.
"We really are concerned that Washington is funding certain groups and movements in Russia" opposed to Putin's rule.
Pro-democracy groups in Russia complained of fierce intimidation from the authorities during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency.
They claimed to enjoy broader freedoms under President Dmitry Medvedev and voiced immediate fears about their future upon Putin's September announcement that he intended to return to the Kremlin for a newly extended six-year term.
The ex-KGB agent used one of his first major campaign speeches to accuse Washington of funding the nascent opposition movement -- a charge other Russian officials and media outlets began repeating in subsequent weeks.
The claims led to a probe into the activities of the Western-funded Russian election monitoring group Golos and the watchdog's eventual expulsion from its Moscow premises.
Ryabkov said US President Barack Obama had recently earmarked $50 million in new funding for Russian non-governmental organisations involved in various opposition work.
"The scale of this activity is fairly significant," said Ryabkov.
Russian television has also focused on meetings US ambassador Michael McFaul has held with members of the anti-Putin movement since his arrival in Moscow two months ago.
McFaul says the meetings are a part of Washington's two-track approach to Russia that promotes both democracy issues and close relations with Moscow.
But he also accused a Kremlin-owned TV channel of illegally accessing his private schedule after it caught him entering the office of Russian opposition leader Lev Ponomaryov.
The US State Department last week said it had raised McFaul's treatment in Moscow through diplomatic channels and expressed "concerns about his security and safety." Ryabkov confirmed receiving an official complaint from the US embassy and promised "careful checks" into the television incident with McFaul -- author of Obama's 2009 "reset" in ties with Russia under Medvedev.
Yet he also accused the State Department of making too big a deal out of its envoy's run-in with the NTV television crew.
"If you compare the material open to public access with the comments issued in Washington, you will find that they do not quite match," said the Russian diplomat.
"Looking at the information open to public access, you will find that the NTV crew never impeded or tried to impede the ambassador. He was simply being asked questions," Ryabkov said.