The Kremlin’s decision to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development is an attempt to energize xenophobic sentiment in response to President Vladimir Putin’s declining popularity, says a leading analyst.
“Putin is trying now to …compensate for a falling domestic popularity and a [failure] of domestic economic, social and political policies by emphasizing …. these perceived foreign threats,” Mikhail Dmitriev told reporters.
If Putin’s popularity continues to fall, “it will be a huge challenge for [him] to keep political control,” said Dmitriev, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research.
With USAID’s expulsion and the closure of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, President Barack Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia “has been dealt two painful blows,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov,* a former State Duma deputy and co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom. He criticizes the administration for not contesting the Kremlin’s aggressive moves.
A principal architect of the reset lauded USAID’s remarkable legacy for the Russian people.
“USAID programs, always developed in cooperation with Russian partners, have contributed to improving public health and combating infectious diseases, addressing child welfare issues, protecting the environment, developing a stronger civil society, and modernizing the economy,” the U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul (above) wrote on his blog.
USAID formally ended its operations in Russia this week, “leaving many of the Russian activists it has supported during the past 20 years feeling a chill they thought had disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union,” writes the Washington Post’s Kathy Lally:
Memorial, a human rights society dedicated to preventing a return to the totalitarianism of that earlier era, was one of about 60 Russian organizations operating with USAID grants. It used some of that money to publish a book last month examining torture, kidnapping and execution in the restive Islamic region of Dagestan.
Founded by a small band of volunteers in 1989, Memorial grew rapidly in the warmth that followed the Cold War and the emergence of an independent Russia in 1991, when the new government welcomed American help. But the climate is now less friendly. Some of Memorial’s members have died in their line of work.
Tatiana Kasatkina, Memorial’s executive director, said it is clear that the government expelled USAID because it does not like the organizations that are funded.
“Of course the state doesn’t like us,” she said. “Unfortunately, they don’t understand that we work for the state, but a democratic state.”
The crackdown on civil society demonstrates that the Kremlin is concerned at the emergence of a coherent opposition and increasingly vibrant civil society, observers believe.
“Their strategy is to…intimidate both members of the opposition and also to make sure their own supporters remain in line,” said Daniel Treisman, a Russia specialist at the University of California-Los Angeles.
“The impression is that it’s not even a coordinated campaign by the Kremlin,” he said. “It’s more that they have given a hunting license to people in the Duma from the United Russia Party, and to others to come up with ways to make life more difficult for the opposition and for those who might think about publicly opposing Putin at this point.
“The USAID closing really fits into this pattern …. given that part of the objective of USAID was to support democracy in Russia, and there are clear indications that Putin does not have an interest at this point in promoting democratization.”
As the Post’s Lally notes: Putin has singled out Golos, which has received USAID grants for 10 years, for particular displeasure because of its election oversight activities. It plans to monitor local and regional elections on Oct. 14, documenting violations on a map, training observers and offering legal help. Whether it will find money to keep working is unclear.
But the impact of USAID’s eviction will be felt well beyond the sphere of democracy and governance programs.
“Not only the so-called politically oriented NGOs came under attack, but also the social programs funded by USAID,” Ryzhkov writes in the Moscow Times:
These include projects ranging from the fight against AIDS and tuberculosis to assistance for the disabled and the protection of the environment. …. The Russian authorities explain that they rejected U.S. humanitarian aid because Russia has “gotten up off its knees.” Try telling that to the thousands of Russian children who die every year because they can’t receive basic medical care, or to the country’s AIDS and tuberculosis patients who don’t have access to medication. The Post’s Lally gives a further example:
Natalia V. Vartapetova, who said she still feels regret over how she and her baby daughter were treated when she gave birth nearly 30 years ago, directs the Institute for Family Health, which has helped reduce the infant mortality rate in Russia by replacing Soviet-era medical practices with world-approved standards.
The institute said it has translated the latest medical literature, arranged exchanges between doctors here and in the United States, educated pregnant women and promoted simple practices. …..Previously, the infant mortality rate in the first week of life was 3.7 per 1,000 live births. In areas where the institute worked, the rate averaged two per 1,000.
USAID’s expulsion coincided with confirmation that several leading members of the ruling United Russia party, which has led the crackdown, attended USAID-funded programs.
“Representatives of the United Russia party and their affiliates regularly participate,” said Kathy Gest, director of public affairs at the National Democratic Institute, which ran the training programs in question.
Of course, USAID is not the only mechanism for the provision of democracy and governance assistance.
“We will continue to be vigilant in supporting democracy, human rights, civil society in Russia. We’ll just do it another way,” State Department Press Secretary Victoria Nuland told reporters.
So it should come as no surprise that pro-Kremlin cheerleaders are now pressing the regime to target non-governmental providers of assistance to Russia’s beleaguered democrats and civil society activists, including the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Russia needs to enforce its decision [to expel USAID] and shut operations [sic] of NED and its all four mandated grantees,” writes Veronika Krasheninnikova, head of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives in Moscow, referring to the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS).
“The process of concealing an institution’s income or funding is called money laundering, and is forbidden by international law,” she asserts.
She has called on other autocratic regimes to follow Russia’s precedent, describing the closure of USAID operations as “an excellent example for any other country where USAID operatives still work on ‘winning hearts and minds’ of the local population.”
*Vladimir Ryzhkov is an executive member of the World Movement for Democracy.