|Russia expels USaid, meddling cited|
|Thursday, 20 September 2012 00:00|
The unexpected move appears part of an increasing crackdown in Russia on civil society after President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term in May amid an outburst of street protests.
“The decision was taken mainly because the work of the agency’s officials far from always responded to the stated goals of development and humanitarian co-operation,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We are talking about attempts to influence political processes — including elections at different levels — through its distribution of grants,” it added.
USaid’s activities “must be halted from October 1,” it added, giving a short deadline that had not been revealed by the Americans when the decision was first made public in Washington on Tuesday. Anxious Russian NGOs expressed fears for their future financing — more than half of USaid’s annual budget in Russia had been spent on democracy and civil society programmes as well as a substantial chunk on health projects.
“I am very sorry that the USaid office is closing,” said Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, Russia's best-known campaigner for human rights and the preservation of historical memory across the country.
“It is impossible not to see here the continuation of the isolationist policy” of the Russian authorities, he added. Without giving further details, he described the material help of USaid as “significant”.
Lilia Shibanova, the director of Golos, described the halt in USaid’s operations as a “heavy blow”.
She told AFP that there was now serious concern for the funding of the independent group’s monitoring of local elections on October 14, two weeks after the deadline for the closure of the USaid office.
“The problem is that as soon as Russian business starts giving funds to monitor elections, it comes under pressure,” she said.
Yelena Panfilova, head of Transparency International in Russia, said USaid’s departure would be a bitter blow for small organisations that rely on the US agency to pay costs such as office rent and telephone bills.
“They have a lot of programmes that are far from politics — education, cultural exchanges, and assistance to children with disabilities. It is a pity they threw out the baby along with the bath water.”
Viktor Kremenyuk, analyst with the USA-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that while the move was not an outright U-turn in foreign policy, it was a Kremlin “gesture aimed at worsening relations between Russia and the US.”
“Russia wants to say ‘we do not need your help, we can stand on our own feet’,” he said.
The foreign ministry statement said that Russian civil society was “quite mature” and the country — now itself a foreign donor — was in no need of “external leadership”.
The expulsion of USaid comes after Putin signed a law forcing NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”.
He has even compared organisations like Golos to the disciple Judas who betrayed Jesus.
A senior US administration official said that Washington regretted the decision, which, according to a US government source, also affects the future of 13 US staff in Moscow and 60 Russian staff.
It is unclear whether some if any US funding of the organisations can continue, but the official said that President Barack Obama’s administration was committed to promoting civil society in Russia.
The departure of USaid echoes the 2007 clampdown on the activities of the British Council cultural agency, which poisoned relations between Moscow and London. The US Peace Corps was also asked to leave Russia in 2002. — AFP.