The Kremlin has ramped up its attacks on the US ambassador to Moscow and to a proposed civil society fund for non-governmental organizations in Russia.
Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov this week claimed that US democracy assistance to Russian NGOs “is reaching a scale that is turning into a problem for our relations.”
But US officials had been helpful in “providing some specific data on what is being done, when, and how” to support the groups, he said.
The initiative could prompt new measures to tighten curbs on foreign funding for Russian NGOs, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party and head of the pro-Kremlin Politika Foundation.
The complaints follow the announcement of a new $50 million fund which, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, is designed to allow Russian civil society groups “to develop their skills and their voice and their ability to represent the aspirations of Russians to increasingly deepen and strengthen their democracy.”
“This is designed to support a vibrant civil society in Russia and to allow us to work with those Russian NGOs who want to work with us,” she said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has denounced foreign funding of NGOs as a violation of Russia’s sovereignty and unjustifiable interference in the domestic political process. But democracy and human rights groups insist foreign assistance is needed to compensate for the denial of domestic funding.
“We are forced to exist on foreign money,” said veteran human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group. “Our government does not consider it necessary to spend money on maintaining the nongovernmental human rights community.”
Some activists fear that foreign funding could harm the integrity of the newly-revived opposition, presenting Kremlin spin doctors with an opportunity to project Russian democrats as unpatriotic or acting on behalf of foreign powers.
“It’s very easy to present this as a kind of subversive activity. … Unfortunately, yes, this initiative would rather harm civil society and the opposition in Russia more than it would help,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the initiative is designed to empower Russians and give them “a real stake in the future there.”
“That has nothing to do with us. It has to do everything with the Russian people themselves,” she said of the proposed fund.
The fund’s impact and effectiveness will depend on the politics of its administrators, said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-linked political technologist and vice president of the Plekhanov Institute of Economics.
“Who will distribute the funds, an idealist or a Russophobe?” he asked.
US aid to Russian civil society is emphatically not designed to promote opposition political parties or politicians, said Michael McFaul, the US Ambassador to Moscow. He dismisses Kremlin allegations that the US is promoting regime change or color revolutions, portraying the recent democratic protest movement as a political renaissance rather than the harbinger of turmoil and dislocation.
“I wouldn’t call it civil unrest; I would call it civil society renewal. This is not a movement that is seeking the violent overthrow of the current regime. They seek to engage in peaceful actions to reform the current system. That’s different from other places around the world,” he said. “There are real politics in Russia again. The society is taking their constitutional rights more seriously and the state is responding to that.”
McFaul recently blasted the government-controlled NTV station for monitoring his communications.
“I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question,” he wrote on Twitter. “But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?”
As a prominent advocate of democracy assistance and analyst of democratic transitions, McFaul has been targeted by a regime eager to portray democracy as an alien source of instability, analysts suggest, while promoting a chauvinistic and xenophobic agenda to bolster the regime.
“The problem is with him personally,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. But he added: “It is an attack on America indeed because he is the most important representative here, and it’s unfortunately impossible to separate the two. It has implications for the whole relationship.”
The new ambassador’s situation “was complicated by the fact that he arrived in Moscow in the midst of the most perilous political crisis of Putin’s rule — at a time when mass street protests over election fraud had severely aggravated the Kremlin’s paranoid fears of a color revolution,” writes Vladimir Ryzhkov,* a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, and a co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom.
“Fearing the potential might of the protest movement, the Kremlin renewed its crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, focusing on those that receive their funding from Washington,” he notes “At the same time, Kremlin propagandists were in desperate need of a ‘foreign enemy,’ and the United States was a logical choice since it has historically played this role quite effectively.”