President Vladimir Putin and Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva attending a Kremlin meeting of human rights activists Wednesday.
Putin's remarks made it clear that the Kremlin is worried about upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and the possibility of a popular uprising such as the ones that toppled the governments of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan over the past two years. Government officials have accused Western countries of helping bankroll the uprisings through NGOs.
"We are against overseas funding for the political activities [of NGOs] in Russia. I categorically object," Putin said at a meeting with human rights activists in the Kremlin.
"Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won't allow it either," he said.
Putin said he had been briefed that "money is being allocated for concrete political activity" in very sensitive areas. "We understand that he who pays the piper calls the tune," he said.
Putin did not identify which countries or organizations were providing money.
A U.S. Senate committee on June 30 advised the Senate to pass a bill that allocates $85 million in assistance to Russia next year. Some of the money comes under the Freedom Support Act, which is aimed at nurturing democracy abroad. Izvestia reported on July 7 that $5 million of that money would fund programs to develop political parties.
The United States has been allocating FSA money for Russia and other former Soviet republics since the early 1990s, and the amount earmarked for Russia for 2005 also totaled $85 million. Russian government officials have suggested the money that went to Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan was used to facilitate the uprisings, which in each case followed a controversial election.
The funds for Russia are distributed to a wide variety of NGOs. Some of the U.S. money is used to help NGOs and political parties create conditions for free and fair elections. NGOs that work with the disabled, orphans and the environment also are recipients.
Putin urged the activists to remain independent of foreign influences.
"Let's solve our internal political issues ourselves," Putin told the group, which included leading human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Putin also called for greater cooperation between human rights groups and the government in ensuring citizens' rights and promised that the government would make more state grants available to NGOs.
Putin spoke during his first meeting with the advisory Council for Fostering the Development of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, which was formed in November to replace the Human Rights Commission.
Putin's comments reflect the Kremlin's efforts to contain a possible Western attempt to spark an uprising in Russia, said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information.
"The money troubles the Russian government. The Kremlin is ready to track it down," Mukhin said.
The Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and the Financial Monitoring Agency, which was set up to fight money laundering, are probably at the forefront of any effort to follow the flow of cash, Mukhin said.
Kremlin adviser and political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky said Putin was reacting to "the shadowy financing" of NGOs that had gotten into politics in recent years. "He is against … a political group acting under the guise of an NGO," Pavlovsky said.
He noted that the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees was set up to help draftees defend their rights but its founders last year formed a political party and called for Chechen peace talks.
Putin's remarks Wednesday could also affect political parties. Legislation bans political parties from receiving foreign funding for campaigning but does not prohibit them from accepting the money for daily activities.
Parties are required to publish their campaign budgets but are allowed to keep information about their other financial operations to themselves, Pavlovsky said.
Mukhin said foreign money was increasingly going toward outspoken youth organizations such as the National Bolshevik Party, while support for liberal parties such as Yabloko had decreased.
Mukhin said new legislation might soon be drafted that would force parties and NGOs to open their books and pay prohibitive taxes on any foreign grants used for political activities.
But Pavlovsky said, "This does not suggest that there will be any new laws or a repression of NGOs."
Authorities, however, could charge parties and NGOs with tax evasion or money laundering if they use foreign grants for nondesignated activities, Pavlovsky said.
"Western foundations act absolutely legally when they transfer money, but the next step may often be illegal, as the money is cashed and used for something other than what is written in the accounting books," Pavlovsky said.
Yabloko deputy head Sergei Ivanenko cautioned that cutting foreign funding to politically active NGOs would restrict civil liberties. He said Putin appeared to be continuing down a course of getting rid of organizations that do not pledge their loyalty to the Kremlin, Interfax reported.