The recent backlash against democracy assistance in Russia, Egypt and elsewhere “should prompt Americans to craft new strategies, rather than leading to a retreat,” says a Washington-based observer.
USAID’s expulsion from Russia is also a consequence of President Vladimir Putin’s conviction that the country is engaged in a war of ideas, resorting to Soviet-era propaganda “to suppress the modernized liberals of today,” a leading analyst writes from Moscow.
Presiding over a recent meeting on “patriotic education” in the southern region of Krasnodar, Putin “set the tone by saying that spiritual values, necessary to ‘consolidate the nation,’ were a highly contested realm, and a target of ‘information confrontation,’” writes Masha Lipman.
“This confrontation, he said, was ‘one of the forms of competitive struggle … just as the struggle for mineral resources.’”
The Kremlin’s line is echoed by a prominent pro-Putin commentator who highlights the national security background of certain USAID personnel to suggest that its programs were designed to undermine Russian stability and sovereignty.
Other states should follow Russia’s precedent, says Veronika Krasheninnikova, Director General of the Moscow-based Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives.
Russia’s closure of USAID operations is “an excellent example for any other country where USAID operatives still work on ‘winning hearts and minds’ of the local population.”
It is significant that the Kremlin backlash against democracy assistance directly preceded the anniversary of the Putin-Medvedev ‘job swap’ that sparked the last year’s emergence of a vibrant new opposition, observers suggest.
“There are no longer any checks and balances,” according to opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Russia is suffering from “governance paralysis” since former President Dmitri Medvedev no longer serves to constrain his mentor. By endorsing Putin’s return, the ruling elite made the “most erroneous choice of the past 15 years,” analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote in the mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Russia, had “followed in the footsteps of Spain, Paraguay and the Philippines where only the death or deposition of a ruler would abruptly ‘break off’ a historic epoch.”
“Power is not just a certain person but a system, and right now we are watching how the system is destroying itself,” he said.
By expelling USAID, Putin “has effectively laid to rest the reset policy with the United States” and revealed the Kremlin’s strategic priorities, writes Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator and host at radio Kommersant FM.
“Priority number one for Putin and his entourage is keeping his regime firmly in power and preventing development of the so-called Orange Scenario, along the lines of the peaceful 2004 revolution in Ukraine, which is widely perceived in Moscow to have been a Western plot to change the pro-Moscow regime there,” he argues. “If reaching this goal means giving the Americans (or the Europeans, for that matter) a little bit of a hard time, then so be it.”
Putin will also have been emboldened by the relatively muted response to USAID’s expulsion from Washington and the democratic West that may adversely affect the morale of Russian democrats, some observers contend.
“Western silence shows Russian civil society organizations that they cannot rely on Western support,” says Anna Borshchevskaya, an assistant director at the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, undermining faith in democratic values and traditions, and setting a precedent for other authoritarian regimes.
This represents a potential lost opportunity, she suggests, since the “sustained protests in Russia show that Russians themselves increasingly wish to see a democratic and peaceful Russia that respects its citizens.”
Washington is asking for a “dignified” end to USAID’s programs after the Russian authorities insisted on an Oct. 1 deadline.
“We are in negotiations with the Russian government about the timing,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow. “We would like to do this in an orderly and dignified way. We think it will take at least a year and by next summer we’ll be able to phase out all of our grants and all of our employees.”
McFaul’s insights in his earlier career as an academic help explain why USAID’s “has stunned aid workers, infuriated American diplomats and left many nonprofit groups on the brink of collapse,” the New York Times reports:
[USAID's eviction] .. marks the end of an extraordinary collaboration between the two former cold war enemies, one that was unimpeded, at least initially, by the suspicion that often shadows foreign aid, in part because such programs have historically in many places provided cover for intelligence activities.
“In the fall of 1991 and early in 1992, the door for Western engagement and influence in remaking the Russian economy and polity was wide open,” Michael A. McFaul, the American ambassador, and his co-author, James M. Goldgeier, wrote in “Power and Purpose,” a 2003 history of American policy after the cold war. “Issues of sovereignty that often emerge as major sources of tension between donors and recipients in other countries were simply not an issue.”
They are now.
USAID rejects claims that its operations were politically-driven or designed to foment regime change, and stresses that Russian citizens will be the principal casualties of the move.
“We have always been doing this from the American people to the Russian people,” said Paige Alexander, the agency’s assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia. “And that’s who is losing out.”
The Kremlin’s claims were also undermined by revelations that United Russia, the pro-Putin ruling party, took part in USAID-funded programs of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
The Kremlin’s attempt to portray both USAID’s programs and the recent upswing in anti-government protests as the result of Western meddling is not registering with Russian citizens, says a leading pollster.
“In the wake of the Russian presidential vote this past spring, a Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 58 percent of Russians believed the election protests were home-grown, rather than the result of Western governments attempting to destabilize Russia,” writes James Bell, Pew’s director of international survey research, in a New York Times symposium, Should the U.S. Be a Political Player in Russia?:
Only 25 percent thought foreign powers were behind the protests. Moreover, 56 percent supported the protests for free elections, and fully 64 percent agreed that attending demonstrations gave people like themselves an opportunity to express their opinion……Despite his broad popularity, Putin’s publicized suspicions about Western intentions appear to have had little impact on Russian views of the United States. In the spring, 52 percent expressed a favorable opinion of America, essentially unchanged from the previous year. At the same time, though, Russians were very negative about political exports from the United States — just 26 percent said they liked American ideas about democracy.
The government’s attempt to portray the opposition as an instrument of foreign powers “points to a tragic flaw in the current regime,” says a prominent observer.
“Not only do the Kremlin’s policy makers see the world through siege-mentality, cold-war-era glasses, they are also very poorly informed,” writes Masha Gessen, the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. “I was involved in the protest organizing efforts from December through June, and I can say with certainty that the bulk of the money came from private donors inside Russia — and many of those were members of Putin’s own elite.”
“No one has apparently reported to the top the simple truth that U.S. money has little or nothing to do with the protests while the very people on whom Putin relies for much of his authority have been secretly funding the demonstrations,” she writes in The New York Times symposium.
“Which is not to say that U.S. funding has nothing to do with the Russian opposition,” says Gessen, who writes for The Times’ Latitude blog:
One of the organizations that have relied on money from the Agency for International Development is Golos, one of two groups that played a key role in documenting the election fraud that inspired the protests. It stands to reason that it is easier to find private funding for street demonstrations that are immediate and visible than for long-term projects that involve sociological research and statistical analysis — which describes what Golos did. If the organization is unable to find funding to fill in the void left by the A.I.D.’s departure, this will not make the protest movement less numerous — but it will make it less informed.
The recent backlash against democracy assistance in Russia, Egypt and elsewhere “should prompt Americans to craft new strategies, rather than leading to a retreat,” writes Brian Katulis.
It is necessary to “adapt to the complexities of 21st-century geopolitics rather than using methods better suited for previous waves of democratic transitions,” says Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based center-left think-tank.
“The U.S. government’s overlapping bureaucracies working on democracy, governance and human rights are often too slow in response to fast moving transitions — and their efforts are sometimes not synchronized with the other parts of the U.S. government, including the Pentagon,” he argues:
U.S. diplomats and other government officials also need to eventually get out of the business of direct funding of these efforts and focus on what they do best — diplomacy. ….[T]he very visible direct U.S. funding of Egyptian civil society organizations created a nationalist backlash there this year — leading to court trials and unhinged conspiracy theories accusing civil society activists of being spies trying to undermine Egypt. To avoid this, it would be more effective to channel support through multilateral organizations and groups like the National Endowment for Democracy instead of direct U.S. government funding.
Finally, nongovernmental organizations need to step up their efforts to garner private donors and build stronger collaborative efforts with partners in these countries. These people-to-people networks can serve as shock absorbers during rocky periods of relations between governments. RTWT
USAID’s spending on democracy and governance programs in Russia increased from 41 percent of its budget in 2004 to 72 percent in 2007, even though there is “scant evidence that this promotes a viable civil society,” writes Nicolai N. Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island.
“Analysts have observed that the typical N.G.O. rarely survives beyond the initial grant period, and throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, direct foreign assistance had led to weaker ties between civic institutions and society and greater dependence on foreign support,” he argues:
In 2006 the Russian government moved to change this dynamic. That year it held the first national grant competition for N.G.O. projects and distributed $15 million. By 2011 more than $350 million annually was being disbursed for N.G.O. projects in fields as varied as the environment, historical and cultural preservation, welfare assistance, and human rights. This amount now dwarfs total U.S. government assistance to Russia.
Criticism that the Kremlin is primarily motivated to establish tame, regime-friendly GONGOs is “off the mark,” Petro asserts:
In a careful review of N.G.O. studies, Debra Javeline and Sarah Lindemann-Komarova show that there is little evidence of co-optation by the government — even anti-government N.G.O.s, like the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee of Soldier’s Mothers, can receive funding. They also found little substance to claims that the government limits what recipients can do with the money or that new legislation has intensified difficulties for N.G.O.s. Indeed, only 2.9 percent of N.G.O. leaders say that pressure from the government is the primary problem for their organization.
“Civil society can flourish only if it is domestically oriented, locally funded and motivated by patriotic sentiments. Dependence on foreign funding undermines each of these objectives,” he concludes. “Even worse, it isolates democracy advocates from their most important constituency, the citizens to whom they should be appealing for support.”
To the contrary, Katulis asserts, foreign-funded democracy assistance plays a valuable role in facilitating home-grown change.
“Investments in civil organizations can pay off substantially,” he writes. “A study examining 67 different political transitions over three decades found that nonviolent civic forces from inside countries produced the most pressure that led to sustainable democratic transitions.”
Closing USAID’s programs in Russia “may deal little more than a short-term setback, at least for the groups that have become political foes of the Kremlin; many of them have other sources of financing,” the Times reports.
“Some groups, including Golos, already receive American aid through channels other than the agency, including the National Endowment for Democracy, a private group that receives financing from Congress,” it notes.
Putin’s attempt to portray USAID’s ejection and the opposition movement’s emergence as manifestations of a new ideological Cold War have led him to rely on appeals to chauvinism and Soviet-style negativity towards Western liberalism, argues Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Center.
“But when it comes to defining the positive, the Soviet experience is not much help. The very pillar of Soviet ideological righteousness—Marxism-Leninism—has been dead for a few decades,” she writes in The New Yorker:
So, while mixing in some things Soviet, Putin and his government tend to improvise and garnish them with other ingredients. The result is an ideological fusion, hardly functional and at times truly bizarre. At the meeting in Krasnodar, Putin called for “fully using the best experience of education and enlightenment that existed in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.” In fact, the very legitimacy of the Soviet Union was built on the annihilation of and subsequent incessant condemnation of Imperial Russia. But Putin appears determined to reconcile the ancien régime with its Bolshevik conqueror (or rather, the latter’s heirs of the nineteen-seventies) and use this tool to suppress the modernized liberals of today.
“Putin’s attempt to define post-Communist Russia’s set of values may be doomed; the ingredients he’s using are stale and discordant and will hardly work to consolidate his nation or help Russia’s development,” Lipman concludes.
“What it can do, however, is unleash all kinds of ugly forces who have their own ideas about patriotic duty.”
The Kremlin’s Americaphobia not only threatens to spark Russophobia in the West, but exposes the fact that Russia “has not yet dealt with adequately reinventing itself as a post-superpower,” says Richard Lourie,?author of?The Autobiography of?Joseph Stalin and?Sakharov: A?Biography.
“Still in flux,’ Russia has five different strategic “choices, possibilities or ways of being,’ he writes in the Moscow Times:
- It could conceivably make an attempt to create a 21st century of tsarist or Soviet imperial might. It could seize control of Belarus, its Sudetenland. If it got away with that, it could set its sights on eastern and southern Ukraine, which are heavily Russian, then go on to ‘liberate” parts of northern Kazakhstan. This is exceedingly unlikely but not impossible.
- It can throw in its lot with Europe and the United States in an alliance against China in the coming “resource wars.”
- On the contrary, Russia could throw in its lot with China. Both countries suffer from a similar strain of Americaphobia, fearful of containment and contamination by nongovernmental organizations. The Chinese worry that radar installations in Japan to be deployed against a North Korean nuclear threat are actually directed against them. The Russians think the same about the anti-missile sites directed against Iran in Poland. Russia has the largest amount of fallow arable land in the world, and China has 1.3 billion people to feed. Agricultural cooperation has already begun in Russia’s under-populated eastern territories. ?
- Russia can continue on the path of accelerated repression taken since Putin’s inauguration in May. This will result in alienation, brain drain and capital flight. That, coupled with a failure to diversify the economy, will lead to social collapse around the middle of the century, unless postponed by an Arctic oil bonanza.
- The most hopeful possibility is that Russia will go its own way and find the strength within its rich and resilient culture to fashion a new society that is prosperous and more just and democratic. Some see the recent flurry of volunteer organizations as the first signs of Russia generating a civil society from the bottom up. A grassroots revival is especially important in a society that has known change only from the top down, from violent revolution or from the chaos that follows on collapse.
“Russia’s friends in the West — and it may have more that it sometimes thinks — must do what they can to prevent the Kremlin’s current paranoid style from producing negative foreign policy consequences in the real world,” Lourie concludes.