Russia today sought to justify its “provocative” expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development by claiming that the U.S. government agency was deploying funds to influence the outcome of elections.
“We are talking about attempts through the issuing of grants to affect the course of political processes, including elections on various levels, and institutions of civil society,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
The Obama administration rejected the allegations and highlighted the non-partisan thrust of democracy assistance funding.
“We completely reject the notion that our support for civil society, democracy, human rights in any way interferes with elections, whether in Russia or anywhere else in the world,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “We do these programs all over the world. We are even-handed as to access to the resources for political parties.”
Nearly 60 percent of the aid agency’s $50 million annual budget this year has been allocated for the promotion of democracy and civil society in Russia, reports suggest. Some of this money has gone to support Russia’s only independent election monitoring group, Golos, which fielded thousands of observers in last winter’s parliamentary and presidential elections, and compiled reports of widespread vote fraud in support of Putin’s party.
“This is just the latest event in an undercurrent of serious tensions with Russia that will be hard to turn round, whoever wins the election,” said Carnegie’s Rojansky. “There is a fundamental disagreement over our democracy promotion activities. The Russian government feels very strongly that we are rooting against them and that will be very difficult to change.”
A prominent activist and former dissident said the Russian population rather than the US would suffer from the loss of “useful services… free legal consultations, educational programs and others”.
“We are the victims, I mean the ones who received the grants, as well as our population who got useful services from those grants,” said Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
The move is a telling sign of Russia’s political trajectory.
“What is the list of other countries that have expelled U.S.A.I.D.?” said Yelena A. Panfilova, the head of the Moscow branch of Transparency International. “It’s not about money — we can cope somehow — the problem is about this whole feeling that we have been brought together with Venezuela, Somalia and Belarus.”
Some U.S.-government funded groups will continue to promote democracy in Russia, including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, Natasha Abbakumova and Kathy Lally report for the Washington Post:
But the loss of USAID support will jeopardize the work of many civil society groups, said Lilia Shibanova (above), the head of Golos, an election monitoring agency.
“This is a very bad signal,” she said. “USAID has been our partner since 2002. I believe they have done a lot for Russian people, for the support of the human rights organizations and development of free journalism in Russia.”
The eviction of the US agency should not have come as a surprise, say observers.
“Russian authorities have made clear for the better part of a decade that they see Russia as a great power, and a provider of assistance, not a recipient,” said Matthew Rojanksy, an expert on Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Add to that tension over the pre- and post-election protests, which the Kremlin alleges were orchestrated by U.S.-funded NGOs, plus the deep disagreement over U.S. democracy promotion activities in the Middle East, and you can see why this decision may have come now.”
U.S. officials have pledged to maneuver around the Kremlin, the New York Times reports:
The Obama administration last October proposed the creation of a new $50 million fund— essentially an endowment for a private foundation established under Russian law — for Russian civil society groups, and one senior administration official said work on that project would speed up.
Mr. Putin, facing large-scale dissent at home for the first time, has said unrest is being stoked by the State Department, working covertly through nonprofit organizations.
“All of this is part of a series of moves aimed at toughening policy toward protests, the Internet, NGOs and freedom of speech,” said Grigory Melkonyants, the deputy director of Golos. “The people who make these decisions intend to crack down on dissent and criticism in a way that is as harsh as possible. It is frightening even to think about what may happen tomorrow.”
USAID’s expulsion is the latest in a series of Kremlin maneuvers to close political space and stifle opposition voices, says Melkonyants.
“They see us as the source of criticism, and they are trying to halt that source,” he said. “Many people are already scared to talk about the problems that exist today. The press is already frightened. Now they are trying to shut up civil organizations.”
“Another loser will be the human-rights watchdog Memorial, which was founded by Soviet dissidents to collect files on victims of the Soviet purges,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
More recently, the group has been documenting abuse and disappearances in Russia’s North Caucasus, especially in Chechnya. The foreign ministry statement clearly referred to Memorial’s work in Chechnya as a threat to the government, said Memorial chairman Oleg Orlov.
“We believe that the fight against terrorism by state terrorism is foolish, harmful and irrational,” said Mr. Orlov, who said USAID funding made up a “meaningful part” of the group’s budget. Of the foreign ministry announcement, he said “a more stupid…statement is hard to imagine.”
The Kremlin’s decision to expel USAID has serious implications for the Obama administration’s “reset” of US-Russian relations, analysts suggest.
“Things are changing, and you can see that the relationship between the US and Russia is growing constantly worse. In this atmosphere, it was not likely that USAID would be able to continue as before in Russia,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant.
“[President Vladimir] Putin made it clear from the beginning of his new term that he was moving away from trying to build close ties with the US, when he simply didn’t show up at a G8 meeting that President Obama had specifically moved to accommodate him,” says Mr. Strokan.
“In any case, Russia under Putin wants to shift its priorities to the Asia-Pacific region, and so relations with the US will not loom so large in future,” he adds. “But Putin has also made clear that he has a long-standing suspicion of the US, and he is certain that it’s behind the street protests against him.”
Memorial, Golos and the Moscow Helsinki Group are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.