Sep 20, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Russia Says Goodbye to a Slice of the American Pie

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In Vladimir Putin’s most recent show of strength (the previous being his flight with endangered Siberian cranes), he has unceremoniously kicked USAID out of Russia. On Tuesday, the US State Department announced the notification from the Kremlin that USAID operations were to be concluded by October 1. While the USAID Russia program page has not been updated to reflect this imminent status change, officials within the organization and outside have interpreted the relatively short time frame as a slap in the face. Since 1992, USAID projects have covered health, human rights, civil society, and environmental issues in Russia and the quick withdrawal of almost $50 million in funding will have serious repercussions for a number of Russian NGOs that have come to rely heavily on the US to operate.

While the time frame for USAID’s Russian office dismantling is short and, to some, this announcement seemed abrupt, it is not too surprising that this would be one of Putin’s next steps in limiting foreign, specifically US supported, programs and perceived influence in the country. In March 2012, the New York Times ran an article describing the work of the Obama administration to get $50 million (money accrued from a foreign aid program that reinvested tax dollars in post-Soviet states and actually made a profit, designated in part to the promotion of democracy and civil society in Russia) in stalled aid moving again. These efforts, thwarted for years, continued as such with Putin declaring resistance to US aid as a tool to meddle in Russian domestic affairs. In July, Putin signed a law that mandates all foreign-funded non-government groups involved in political activity to register as “foreign agents,” with a difficult registration process and all the negative connotations of such “agents” implied. Most recently, the protests revolving around the arrests and sentencing of three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock band who performed protest songs on the altar of the central Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, have unsurprisingly fueled the President’s desire to squelch the unrest in Moscow’s streets and undermine any foreign influences believed to be stoking the fires.

This most recent act of Russian self-affirmation, coming on the heels of its accession to the World Trade Organization in August, can and should be seen as just that. The country hopes to become a giver of aid, not a receiver. This attempted shift can also be seen in its announcement to forgive a significant portion of North Korea’s accumulated debt, with other motivations obviously also at play.

But what does this mean for the Russian people who were working for NGOs funded, at least in part, by USAID and for those who benefited from these programs? Funding cuts will certainly terminate many programs, or stall operations until other methods of funding are discovered. Organizations like Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitoring organization that was key in exposing voter fraud in December’s election, will suffer significant setbacks. Though the Obama administration has stated that it will continue to support democracy and human rights programs in the country, it will be doing so via an endowment to a vaguely mentioned private fund established under Russian law. No telling how long something like that will take to actually materialize. Also important to note, however, is not just the loss in funding to these organizations, but also one of the important messages being sent to the world. As Yelena Panfilova, the head of the Moscow branch of Transparency International explained, Russia is now in the ranks with the other countries who have taken similar actions in the past including Venezuela, Somalia, and Belarus (running with the wrong crowd, as any good mother would say).

It is difficult to predict just how long these steps towards complete insulation from foreign actors deemed meddlers will continue, but it seems that Putin might have made a bit of a mistake here. Cutting off US funding to Russia’s domestic NGOs and making it more difficult for foreign countries to establish or maintain NGOs there, means a tightening in the number and the scope of NGO actors, clearly a current goal of the Kremlin. These restrictions, however, limit the more formal, structured, and arguably more peaceful means for Russian citizens to exercise their feelings of opposition. As the protests in Moscow continue, and in fact grow, it seems that the lack of these structures could prove more problematic for Putin and his attempts at a consolidation of power, not less.

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2 Comments

  • How would the Obama administration react to Russia funding NGOs that advocated replacing democracy in the US with a more Russia-friendly autocracy? While I support the work of organizations like Golos and think the US should fund them, I won’t for a second pretend that they are neutral. US democracy assistance, like all forms of US foreign aid, ultimately ties back to US foreign policy. I understand why Putin doesn’t like it. The question now is how should the Obama administration react? Is it worth spending political capital on this issue or is it better for the administration to let Putin wear his big boy pants on this in return for cooperation on other more important issues like Iran?

  • I completely agree that Putin’s dislike of US democracy assistance is logical. I would argue, however, that the Obama administration when faced with a similar issue might appreciate the range of benefits that this aid brings and attempt to stymy its influence in a more nuanced way. But nuance does not really seem to be Putin’s mo. I find the idea of continuing democracy promotion efforts through a private fund dubious at best. Perhaps it is time for the US to withdraw these attempts for the time being and work on progress in other areas. But then that leads to the question of when does it become appropriate to get back in the game? Whenever Putin is ready for some temporary relaxing of civil society controls to appease the masses? It seems a bit ineffective to play this according to his schedule.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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