MOSCOW, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Russia is threatening to restrict access to the BBC's Russian language website after the British broadcaster refused to remove an interview with an activist branded by Moscow as an extremist.
The Kremlin has steadily tightened its grip on local media during the rule of President Vladimir Putin since 2000, but Western media have remained largely unaffected by this trend.
A move to block the BBC website would be a rare example of direct Russian government interference in the work of Western media. The spat comes amid rising tensions between the West and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions on Moscow by the United States and the European Union.
Russia's communications watchdog said it might limit access to the website because of an interview with Artyom Loskutov.
Loskutov upset Moscow by calling for a rally in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to press for "federalisation" - greater political and economic autonomy - for oil-rich Siberia, under the slogan "Stop feeding Moscow".
The BBC said access had already been restricted in Russia. However, the interview was still available in Moscow on Tuesday for downloading. ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/multimedia/2014/07/140731_siberia_federalisation.shtml )
In a statement, the BBC said: "We have no plans to remove this interview from our website. Mr Loskutov is an artist and activist known for organising events which are, at first sight, parodies of political activity, but which also bring out serious issues about life in Russia."
Even though Loskutov's planned protest was unlikely to draw large-scale public interest, the authorities banned it on the grounds that it contained provocative slogans that could incite mass riots.
"Federalisation" is a sensitive concept for Moscow.
While Russia is already a federation, political power is heavily centralised in practice, with the president maintaining broad powers to influence regional governor appointments.
Putin says such tight control has prevented the vast, nuclear-armed nation from disintegrating, a risk he believes loomed large when he took over as president from Boris Yeltsin.
Yet Putin has also spoken out repeatedly in favour of "federalisation" in neighbouring Ukraine, where many in the largely Russian-speaking eastern regions are opposed to the new pro-Western government in Kiev.
The West accuses Moscow of supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine with funds and weapons, a charge that Russia denies. (Reporting by Denis Dyomkin, Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov, Editing by Jason Bush and Gareth Jones)