(CNSNews.com) – President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday Russia “never” interferes in other countries’ political affairs but was itself a victim of outside interference, including through “so-called non-governmental organizations.”
Putin also denied, again, that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election campaign, dismissing allegations to that effect as mere “rumors” that were being used in the internal political debate in the U.S.
“We never interfere in the political affairs or the political processes of other countries,” he said during a joint press conference in Sochi with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “And we certainly do not want anyone to interfere in Russia’s political affairs either.”
“Unfortunately, we are witnessing the opposite,” Putin continued, according to an official Kremlin translation. (A slightly different translation was used by the pro-Kremlin RT network’s video of the event.)
“For many years, we have seen attempts to influence Russia’s domestic politics, both through so-called non-governmental organizations, and directly,” he said.
Although the attempts to interfere in Russia were harmful – and futile – “we have never thought about interfering in the political processes of other countries.”
Putin also dismissed claims of Russian meddling in the U.S. campaign, saying they had never been confirmed and were “just rumors used in the internal political struggle in the U.S.”
Earlier, a reporter referred to allegations that Russia sought to influence the U.S. campaign and asked Merkel whether she could be sure it would not do the same in the campaign leading up to German elections in the fall.
Merkel, who faces a hard battle in her bid for a fourth term as chancellor, declined to comment on the U.S. interference allegations, but said she was not “afraid.”
In the event of attempted disinformation campaigns, she said, “we will, of course, handle it, and work with our citizens.”
Merkel cited two examples of debunked “fake news” claims suspected to have originated from Russia – allegations early last year that a 13-year-old Russian-speaking girl in Berlin had been raped by asylum-seekers, and more recently, claims that German NATO troops deployed in Lithuania had raped a teenager.
“Of course, hybrid warfare plays a certain role in Russia’s military doctrine,” Merkel said. “However, I am confident that we will hold the election campaign by ourselves, with all the different positions in our political arena represented.”
Merkel broaches difficult subjects
Russia and Germany have longstanding relations and Germany is currently Russia’s second-largest trading partner, after China. But ties have taken strain in recent years over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and, in response, NATO’s biggest military build-up since the Cold War, which includes Germany taking the lead in one of four new battalions along the alliance’s eastern flank with Russia.
Standing alongside Putin, Merkel did not shy away from difficult topics.
After Putin restated Moscow’s stance that the conflict in Ukraine was the result of “a coup, an unconstitutional change of power in Kiev,” Merkel pushed back.
“We do not share this point of view, and we believe that the Ukrainian government came to power through democratic means,” she said.
Merkel told the gathered media that during her talks with Putin she had raised the issues of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, homosexuals in the Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“I once again noted the importance of observing the right to assembly and of non-governmental organizations to work freely,” she said. “I also said that we received negative reports about what is happening with homosexuals in Chechnya, and I asked the president to use his influence to protect the rights of minorities. The same applies to Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Putin has overseen a long-running crackdown on civil society groups, including pro-democracy U.S. groups and Russian NGOs which the government accuses of interfering in the country’s domestic political affairs.
Just last week, the government designated another three prominent groups, the U.K.-registered Open Russia, its Russian sister organization the Open Russia Civic Movement, and the U.S.-based Institute of Modern Russia, as “undesirable” foreign organizations.
In recent weeks, reports of abduction, torture and killings of homosexuals by Chechen authorities have drawn widespread alarm. Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported that 100 people had been detained, with many reportedly undergoing torture in secretive prisons and at least three having died in custody.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley last month called on authorities in Chechnya to “immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses.”
And also last month, the Russian Supreme Court outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses, calling the denomination a threat to public order and security. The move was cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its recent call – for the first time – for the U.S. government to designate Russia as a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious freedom violations.