Arseny Roginsky, chairman of Russia's leading rights group Memorial, pictured in Moscow on December 10, 2014, is among activists blasting an official decision to label the US National Endowment for Democracy an "undesirable" organisation
Moscow (AFP) - Russian activists on Wednesday blasted an official decision to label the US National Endowment for Democracy an "undesirable" organisation, cutting them off from a key source of funding.
Prosecutors on Tuesday named the US Congress-funded NED the first "undesirable" organisation under a controversial new law to ban foreign groups deemed a threat to Russia.
Critics say the move -- which bars the NED from operating in Russia or giving funding to Russian groups -- is the latest step in a Kremlin drive against civil society that is being fuelled by anti-Western rhetoric over the crisis in Ukraine.
The foundation -- which has slammed the new law as a bid to "intimidate and isolate Russians" -- has given out millions of dollars to Russian organisations promoting human rights, battling corruption and raising civic awareness.
"The shuttering of NED is a heavy blow for the NGOs that it helps," Arseny Roginsky of Russia's leading rights group Memorial, which has received funding from the endowment, told AFP.
"They will be forced to halt or even close down projects."
Activist Svetlana Gannushkina from the Civic Assistance Committee described the decision as "incomprehensible" and said it was likely to force the NGO to close down a programme to teach Russian to migrants.
"I cannot understand how this work is damaging Russia," Gannushkina told AFP.
- 'Beautiful facade' -
Russian authorities have accused the West of trying to stir a revolution in the country similar to the one that toppled Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine last year.
Russia's foreign ministry lashed out at criticism from Washington over the closure of the organisation, accusing it of receiving money from US intelligence agencies and acting as a "beautiful facade" for the funding of opposition groups.
"We are never going to tolerate being lectured to and open interference in our affairs from abroad," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed off complaints over the clampdown, saying the banning of "one or several organisations" would not cut Russians off from "democratic values".
International rights groups, however, have condemned the new law and say its real aim is to hit the work of Russia's beleaguered civil society.
"The final objective of this law was to cut them off from financing, marginalise them, suffocate them until they are on the edge of disappearing," Tanya Lokshina, a Russian programme director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
The controversial new law could see Russian activists jailed for up to six years for "participation in the activities" of any banned organisation.
Earlier this month, Russian senators compiled a proposal to blacklist 12 foreign NGOs, including the endowment.
Also on the list was the US-based MacArthur Foundation, which last week announced it was closing its Moscow office.
After mass protests against Putin's return to the presidency for a third term, Moscow passed a law in 2012 forcing local NGOs that get international funding to register as "foreign agents".
Dozens of organisations including leading human rights groups have been hit by the legislation, which evokes Soviet-era anti-US rhetoric.