TALLINN - Russia's State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, backed a proposal from the pro-Kremlin United Russia to allocate 500 million rubles (14.7 million euros) to Russian NGOs, particularly those set up in defense of ethnic Russian rights.
The money is likely to flow mainly to NGOs in Estonia and Latvia, which have large ethnic Russian populations that are considered noncitizens, a term that the Kremlin insists means nothing and is in violation of international rights norms.
Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a member of United Russia, was quoted by Interfax as saying, "We think that we have to finance civil society institutions not only in our country but also abroad 's in the Baltic countries."
He added, "Look, democracy, freedom and human rights are being violated. It is necessary to develop democracy in those countries."
Modest Kolerov, head of the presidential administration's department for international cultural relations, who was recently in the Baltics, was quoted by The Moscow Times as saying, "Not every social organization in our country gets proper grants. And most grants people get from the West represent politically motivated funding."
Kolerov's department was created in March as part of Moscow's effort to promote a more positive image of Russia abroad. He stressed the need to support Baltic NGOs, particularly in Latvia.
"Those people have almost no rights. Something should be done," he said.
Indeed, many saw the funding as a direct response to Congress' recent decision to provide $4 million to the development of political parties in Russia, The Moscow Times reported.
In Estonia, Sergey Sergeyev, board chairman of the association of Russian organizations in Estonia, welcomed the decision. "In conditions where the financing of Russian culture and public life of Russians living in Estonia is disproportionate compared to the funding of Estonian culture, this decision represents major support for us," he said.
Chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Enn Eesmaa, said he saw no threat in the State Duma's decision. "If Russia wants to support its public organizations abroad, it has the right to do so," he added. "There is nothing special to comment on."
But there were critics of the bill in Russia. Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent MP, blasted United Russia's initiative. "Over the past five years, United Russia has been doing everything to strangle democracy in Russia by rubberstamping one anti-democratic bill after another," he said.
"It's very likely these funds will go to propagandists close to the Kremlin who will spend them on dubious PR projects, including one in the Baltics," he said.
Sergeyev voiced regret that Russian associations in Estonia could not count on financial support from businesspeople, despite the fact that many of them have Russian roots.
"Businesspeople prefer to pal up with the authorities and invest in political structures that are capable of lobbying for their interests. Unfortunately, our voluntary organizations do not rank among them," Sergeyev said.
In his opinion, the funds coming from Moscow should be spent on the development of Russian culture, legal and other assistance to ethnic Russians.