"What's wrong with the word 'agent?'" Dmitry Medvedev asked Friday during a television interview when asked if the word "agent" was synonymous with "spy." "Agent means 'representative,' and that's all."
"Anything else is just a coincidence," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
In November, a new law took effect requiring NGOs receiving funding from other countries to register as foreign agents. Critics say the law, along with another one signed recently by President Vladimir Putin that expands the definition of treason, is part of a crackdown on dissidents pushing for legal reform and respect for human rights.
"The law only concerns those NGOs that engage in politics and receive money from foreign governments," Medvedev said Friday. "Imagine if an NGO in the U.S. dealing with politics received money from the Russian federal budget. There would be an outcry."
Russian human rights organizations have reacted angrily to the new law, which went into effect in November, RIA Novosti said.
Russia's oldest rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, has said it would close rather than comply with the law. Other rights groups have said they would not register.