The spy drama unfolding in Russia has all the cloak-and-dagger tension - as well as exotic gadgetry - of a James Bond thriller.
Authored by Russia's security service and given huge play on national TV, the narrative involves a fake rock packed with high-tech computer gear, planted in a Moscow park by the British MI6 intelligence service. Cameras hidden by the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) caught alleged Russian spies uploading secret data into the rock with palm-held computers and British embassy staffers later retrieving the data.
But the tale veers ominously away from standard spy-versus-spy fare with the FSB's insistence on a direct link between the alleged MI6 espionage and the British government's approximately $1 million annual support for Russian democracy-building groups.
Coming two weeks after President Vladimir Putin authorized the creation of a new state agency to scrutinize the activities and funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), some see the espionage charges as part of an escalating effort to clamp down on foreign-funded civil society groups.
"The FSB is trying to convince the public that foreign-funded NGOs are agents of influence of other countries, that they can't be trusted," says Andrei Kolesnikov, deputy editor of the daily Izvestia newspaper.
Sergei Ignatchenko, the FSB spokesman, showed documents on TV suggesting that one of the British diplomats caught on tape, political secretary Marc Doe, had authorized payments for 12 Russian NGOs under the British government's Global Opportunities Fund. Recipients include Russia's oldest human rights organization, the Eurasia Foundation, and the Committee Against Torture. "We found out that [the British] were financing a number of NGOs," Mr. Ignatchenko told Russian TV. "It needs to be established how those funds were used."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday refused to comment on the allegations, but a spokesman at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office says, "We've made clear that we give approximately £500,000 [$892,400] in financial assistance each year to a range of different projects in Russia in support of the development of civil society." Asked whether Marc Doe would have signed the checks, he adds: "We can't comment on individual names. But people in the embassy there deal with the civil society area and arrangements for giving sums to particular projects."
In an interview last year with Russian media, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev warned that foreign espionage activity was on the increase, and that NGOs are frequently used as "vehicles" for spy services. In response to concerns that these groups were engaging in "political activities" aimed at undermining Russia, a controversial bill was drawn up to create a new NGO-monitoring state agency. Mr. Putin signed the bill into law two weeks ago, giving the agency power to close down NGOs deemed not to be working in accordance with their stated goals.
Some see the move as reminiscent of Soviet times - and inconsistent with the responsibilities of key players in today's geopolitical climate.
"If Russia wants to be taken as a proper G8 player, with respect for democratic norms and open society and the rule of law, then it will have to accept outfits like [NGOs] operating on the ground," says British MP Denis MacShane, Mr. Blair's minister for Europe from 2002-05. He adds, "I would have no problems if the Russians wanted to open offices here to support whatever they want to support."
Most of the groups named by the FSB have issued angry denials. "All of our activity is open and legal," says Maxim Prytkov, a spokesman for the Committee Against Torture, a group that spotlights abuses by Russian police and security forces. "We never received any money to spy, and have never had any under-the-carpet activities of any kind whatever." The Eurasia Foundation said in a statement that it has used every penny of the $226,602 received from the British Foreign Office "for training and consultative support" for independent media in the former Soviet Union.
The affair has sent a collective shiver through much of Russia's fledgling NGO community, particularly those groups that receive foreign assistance or whose work sometimes brings them into friction with Russian authorities. "If Western aid is going to stop, the victims will be people who have nowhere else to turn for help," says Veronika Marchenko, head of Mothers' Right, an organization that assists the families of soldiers who die or are disabled.
Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial, a Russian human rights group, says the spy scandal is part of an ongoing Kremlin effort to eliminate independent social voices and replace them with tame groups. "Putin doesn't want to prohibit all NGOs, as ... in communist times, but to make them manageable, loyal, and predictable," he says. "He's already done this with business, the media, and regional governors, and now it's the turn of the civil society sector."
• Mark Rice-Oxley contributed from London.