Russia accuses US of meddling over 'witch hunt' remarks

Moscow on Saturday accused Washington of interfering in its domestic affairs after the State Department compared searches of Russian non-governmental organisations to a "witch hunt."

The Russian foreign ministry referred to remarks by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who said earlier this week that Washington continued to provide financing to some of Russia's embattled rights groups.

"The remarks of Victoria Nuland who compared routine checks of NGOs to a 'witch hunt' cannot be called anything but cynical and provocative," the spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, said in a statement.

He said Moscow saw Nuland's statement that Washington continued to finance some Russian rights groups through intermediaries as "direct interference in our domestic affairs."

"Essentially we are talking about direct instigating of certain non-governmental and public structures to violate legislation related to the work of non-governmental organisations in the Russian Federation."

Russian prosecutors have in recent weeks staged a wave of searches of dozens rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The EU called the searches worrisome, with Germany saying the raids could lead to a deterioration of ties.

Rights activists link the searches to a controversial law forcing foreign-funded NGOs involved in politics to carry a "foreign agent" tag.

Lukashevich claimed Washington's criticism was triggered by Russia's decision to kick out the US Agency for International Development (USAID) last year which he said financed "Washington-friendly" rights groups as well as Kremlin's move to ban foreign financing of political activism.

"Let there be no doubt: attempts to influence domestic processes in our country and the development of civil society from outside are doomed to failure," said Lukashevich.

Nuland told a briefing earlier this week that "the sheer scope of these inspections now... really gives us concern that this is some kind of a witch hunt."

"We are providing funding through platforms outside of Russia for those organisations that continue to want to work with us."

President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with Kremlin's rights envoy Vladimir Lukin this week dismissed the searches as "routine" checks aimed at verifying how NGOs were complying with Russian legislation.

The law on "foreign agents" was fast-tracked through parliament after Putin returned to the Kremlin in May for a third term in the face of unprecedented protests against his 13-year rule.

Rights groups say the aim of the searches is to mute their role as a rare critical voice in Russia.

This week members of the Kremlin's own rights council denounced the "unprecedented" raids and compared them to the pressure on civil society under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

On Saturday, the Kremlin published a decree saying non-governmental groups this year would receive 2.3 million rubles ($74,000) in an apparent bid to show authorities were supporting their work.