Russian consumer group under fire over 'occupied' Crimea travel advice
A Russian consumer rights group that advised caution to tourists visiting Crimea has provoked a major outcry, with Vladimir Putin accusing it of serving foreign interests and authorities blocking its website.
The Public Control consumer protection group, a non-governmental organisation that offers legal advice to consumers, last week released a memo warning Russians of potential problems if they travel to the "occupied territory" of Crimea.
According to the group's chairman, the memo was inspired by complaints from Russians who said they had been refused Schengen area visas for Europe after travelling to the peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine last year.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin accused the group of "serving the interests of foreign states," a day after authorities blocked its website.
The memo says that Russians planning any purchases on the Black Sea peninsula must understand that Crimea is still a part of Ukraine according to international agreements.
"Russian tourist firms generally do not provide consumers with complete information about possible problems" they may experience, the memo said, warning that any business activities in Crimea may be illegal under Ukrainian law.
The memo was sent out via the group's mailing list Friday and posted on its popular website Monday, sparking outrage among officials.
Russia's Prosecutor General said the memo contained "calls for supporting a foreign state... which are directed toward violating Russia's territorial integrity" and that its website must be blocked.
The prosecutor's statement added that the memo could lead to a criminal case on charges which carry up to five years in prison.
Public Control's lawyer Sergei Yemelyanov said the consumer group had received no guidance from the authorities over what to do next and could not remove the memo from the blocked website.
He declined to comment on the text of the memo, beyond saying he had not approved it before publication.
Mikhail Anshakov, who chairs Public Control, told the RBK business news agency that the group had released the memo following multiple complaints from Russians unable to get a Schengen visa after travelling to Crimea.
"People ask us how to visit Crimea so that there are no problems visiting other countries later," he was quoted as saying.
Crimea, a popular seaside resort since before the Soviet era, suffered a slow season last summer after the majority of its traditional tourists from mainland Ukraine stayed away following the Russian annexation in March 2014.
The Russian government has stepped up efforts to lure tourists to Crimea, offering package tours to state workers, although the peninsula is still suffering the effects of Western sanctions and a transport blockade.
Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when it was handed over to the Soviet republic of Ukraine.
© 2015 AFP