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Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All

MOSCOW—When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 8, there was one item on the agenda she was not expecting. Sitting down with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the two discussed missile defense and Syria, talked about Iran’s quest to get a nuclear weapon. And then Lavrov dropped the bomb: USAID was to cease all operations inside the Russian Federation starting October 1. Four days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered the news in writing.

USAID, the government development agency started by John F. Kennedy in 1961, first opened its operations in Russia right after the end of the Cold War. The goal was to help Russia transition from a command economy to a market one. Since then, the agency has helped Russians draft land and tax reform, has tried to jump-start the small business sector through micro loans and has addressed public health issues like Russia’s mammoth AIDS and tuberculosis problems.

Mostly, of course, it finances civil society and democracy initiatives. Today’s USAID office is a shadow of its former self, with a budget of under $50 million, a drop fom $207 million in 1995, but it still finances large chunks of the operating budgets of a number of prominent Russian organizations like the storied human rights and historical “memory” group Memorial, the Russian branch of Transparency International, and the election monitoring NGO “Golos”. These organizations, not coincidentally, are an irritant for the Kremlin, which is often the target of their criticism.

There has long been talk in Moscow of shutting down USAID, but it’s impossible to appreciate today’s news without first considering the backdrop of continuing anti-government protests and the Kremlin’s increasingly harsh way of dealing with them. The foundation for this move was laid back in May when the Russian parliament passed a law that required such groups—which participate in the political life of the country and get foreign financing—to register as “foreign agents.” The new measure goes one step further and threatens to shut the spigot off altogether.

Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, sees something even more sinister in this. Golos and its army of fastidious election monitors are a favorite of the American government and of the U.S. ambassador to Russia. But to Putin, they are spoilers; the Kremlin likes its elections engineered just so. Last fall, a week before the December parliamentary elections, Putin took a shot across the bow at Golos, saying: “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money—so called ‘grantees’—whom they instruct…in order to influence the result of the election in our country.” He added, “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” Shortly thereafter, Golos offices were raided.

Shibanova sees today’s news as the next act of the crackdown. “If what I’m hearing is true, that the deadline is October 1, then it seems that the government is in a rush to close us down in time for the regional elections, which are October 14,” she said. “The timing seems very suspicious to me.”

The U.S. government, for its part, insists that this doesn’t spell the end of their support for civil rights in Russia. “We haven’t changed our policy,” said one senior government official, and echoed State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland’s statement that State “remains committed to supporting, democracy human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” In December of last year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and floated the administration’s idea of creating a $50 million fund to sponsor democracy development in Russia. This could take on new urgency given today’s news and the State Department’s defiant pledge to continue in this line of work, be it through USAID or some other vehicle.

“This is not anything new,” says Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International Russia. “In 2005, when they found the rock”—a British spy camera that looked like a rock—“they went after foreign funding. A lot of our donors left us then, but we made it out alive.” Panfilova says she and her employees simply found other work and contributed parts of their salaries to the project. And while finding domestic sponsors becomes increasingly unlikely in a context such as this, Panfilova remains hopeful. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We’re not stupid.”