American agency for international development has until 1 October to shut its office in Moscow
Miriam Elder in Moscow and Chris McGreal in Washingtn guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 18 September 2012 16.43 EDT
The government has given the US agency for international development (USAid) until 1 October to shut its office in Moscow. “While USAid’s physical presence in Russia will come to an end, we remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia,” state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The move appeared to be the latest salvo in the Kremlin’s efforts to squeeze a protest movement largely borne of civil society efforts to highlight growing government abuses. In addition to funding health and environment projects, USAid mainly focuses on supporting groups that promote democracy and human rights in Russia.
“We regret this decision by the Russian government,” a senior Obama administration official said. “We lament the fact that we will not be able to do the work that we’ve been proud to do. It’s a difficult day.”
Putin, who returned to the presidency in May amid an unprecedented protest movement against him, has reserved particular scorn for Golos, an election monitoring organisation that receives the bulk of its budget from USAid. The group highlighted voting violations during a contested parliamentary election in December, helping bring tens of thousands into the streets as reports and videos of fraud went viral on YouTube and social networks.
The administration official remained defiant about US funding of civil society in Russia, saying the order to close the agency “doesn’t mean we’ve changed our policy of supporting the kinds of actors USAid has supported”.
“Over the coming weeks and months, the Obama administration will look at ways to advance our old policy objectives with new means,” the official said.
The situation could become reminiscent of the drawn out struggle experienced by the British Council, which was forced to shut all its offices outside Moscow in 2007 as relations plunged in the wake of the murder in London of dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
About 60% of USAid’s $50m budget for 2012 went to groups that promote democracy and human rights – a sharp increase from the Bush era. The agency first opened in Moscow in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Among the nearly 57 organisations that receive USAid funding in Russia are human rights NGO Memorial and anti-corruption group Transparency International.
Those groups have already been squeezed. The Russian parliament passed a new law this summer that required all non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding to brand themselves “foreign agents” on all publications and websites and to undergo extra financial checks.
Although rumours that the Kremlin was pressuring USAid had long swirled, the government’s means of informing Washington appeared sudden. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, first informed Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, of the planned move during a meeting at an economic summit in Vladivostok earlier this month. The foreign ministry sent official notice on 12 September.
USAid’s 13 diplomats will likely have to leave the country. The fate of the 60 locals that work for the office remains unclear.
Officials in Washington see the Russian move as part of the continuing war of attrition by Moscow against groups clamouring for greater democracy. They say it has been clear for some time that the Russian government has been irritated by USAid’s support for an array of pro-democracy organisations, civic society groups and human rights activists.
Putin has drawn on Cold War stereotypes and conspiracy theories on US involvement in the Arab Spring uprisings to blame the US for encouraging Russia’s own opposition movement. Relations have plunged to further lows over Moscow’s defiant stance against pressuring the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.