U.S. NGOs evacuate Russian personnel following closure of offices in Russia - newspaper

The U.S. non-governmental organizations National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republic Institute (IRI) have not only closed their offices in Russia, but also evacuated seven Russian citizens working there, including the heads of the offices, Tamerlan Kurbanov and Natalia Budayeva, abroad along with their families, Kommersant reported on Wednesday.

"The NDI left only its accountant in Russia, who works under a power of attorney and performs only the minimum function of compiling financial reports. However, the NDI administration is seriously worried about the accountant's fate as well," one of the employees who left Russia told Kommersant on condition of anonymity.

After Russia adopted laws complicating the work of NGOs on its territory, Federal Security Service (FSB) officers started visiting the heads of the NDI and IRI offices increasingly frequently, he said.

"We were working in an atmosphere of growing nervousness. The U.S. central office knew that the atmosphere was becoming increasingly more hostile. Considering that our work here was hampered, they decided to close the Russian office. And knowing that we were threatened with high treason charges, the administration proposed that we leave and arranged for our relocation to Lithuania," the employee said.

The main reason for concerns about the NDI and IRI personnel were amendments to the Criminal Code regarding high treason and spying, which were passed by the State Duma in the fall of 2012.

The amendments stipulate that an individual "providing consultative assistance to a foreign organization" could face up to 20 years' imprisonment if it is proven that this organization was involved in "activities aimed against Russia's security," the newspaper says. For the time being, the Russian employees of the NDI and IRI are staying in Vilnius, Kommersant said.

"The Lithuanian authorities are considering the issuance of employment visas. We are afraid, however, that they would not like to do this so as not to provoke a new conflict with Russia, from whom they buy gas," one of the NGO employees told Kommersant.

If not granted visas, they will consider applying for political refugee status in other EU countries.

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