Russia’s ruling party participated in programs funded by the US Agency for International Development, the same agency the Kremlin is expelling from the country on the grounds that it interferes in domestic politics.
“The allegation could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party, whose members have often accused government critics of being bankrolled by Washington,” the Moscow Times reports.
United Russia, the party most closely associated with President Vladimir Putin, took part in USAID-funded programs of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
“Our understanding is that United Russia has participated in some of IRI and NDI’s programs over the years,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed. “IRI and NDI offer these programs to any party in Russia that wants to take advantage of it.”
The party’s members have also directly accepted US funds, says a veteran opposition leader.
Boris Nemtsov today published a list of several instances over the last six years in which party members received U.S. funds, primarily to attend IRI training sessions. In May 2010, he writes on his blog, IRI paid for United Russia youth leader Yulia Yakovenko’s flight and hotel accommodation when she attended a training program for women political leaders.
“For years the Party of Crooks and Thieves has with pleasure partnered with the Americans,” Nemtsov writes.
The Kremlin’s decision to expel USAID is “part of an obvious general tendency to limit the activities of civil society,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, a former member of the official human rights council.
The move should also be understood in the context of a creeping authoritarian clampdown, a Washington meeting heard this week, evident in the re-criminalization of libel and recent legislative initiatives to restrict non-governmental organizations, the internet and freedom of assembly.
The opposition is “becoming a more cohesive movement that has done much better than many people expected,” she told a forum on “New Russian Laws – Tightening the Noose on Free Speech?” hosted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
“Last December there was the perception that they would come out on the streets once, blow off their steam and then forget all about it. That clearly is not the case,” said Lanskoy. “The protest movement has been sustained. The opposition is building alliances and improving its structure.”
The emergence of a new civic activism is threatening to bring about a tectonic shift in Russian politics, the meeting heard.
“Putin is as bad as he has always been. He hasn’t changed,” said Susan Corke, Director of Eurasia Programs at Freedom House. “What has changed is the Russian people. They have changed and they’re looking to the future.”
The vibrancy of the anti-Putin opposition is also undermining the stereotype of the apathetic, politically passive Russian, the forum heard.
“Indifference gives way to indignation,” said Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza. “This is what we are seeing in Russia.”
The opposition’s new energy is evident in the emergence of grass roots activists like Zhenia Chirikova (right), who is running for mayor of a Moscow satellite city on the ballot of Yabloko, an established opposition party, said the NED’s Lanskoy.
The opposition will hold elections for a coordination council in October, she observed, and it has expanded from its traditional urban bases to work in the regions.
“Politics used to be confined to Moscow but now it is clear that there are opposition constituencies all over the country,” she said.