Russian NGOs yesterday expressed dismay and fears for their future financing after the US announced that its aid agency USAID was being forced out of the country by the government.
Several Russian NGOs working in civil society or election monitoring receive the lion’s share of their funding from USAID and their reliance on Western funding has made them repeated targets of Kremlin criticism.
“I am very sorry that the USAID office is closing,” said Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial — Russia’s best-known rights group which campaigns 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.”
“I think that this is linked to the independent monitoring of elections,” said Lilia Shibanova, the director of independent election monitor Golos, which showed up a litany of irregularities in December’s parliamentary polls.
“This is a very hard blow for Golos. We certainly did not expect this,” she said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
Following the decision, Russia accused the US yesterday of using its aid mission to try to influence Russian politics and the outcome of elections.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had also been worried by the work of USAID in regions including the North Caucasus, where an Islamist insurgency rages.
“It’s about attempts to influence political processes, including elections of various types, and institutions of civil society though the distribution of grants,” it said.
The expulsion comes amid an increasing crackdown in Russia on civil society after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term in May amid an outburst of street protests.
A law has been passed forcing NGOs who receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” while Putin on one occasion compared organizations like Golos to the disciple Judas who betrayed Jesus.
A senior US administration official said that Washington regretted the decision by the Russian government, which according to a US government source also affects the future of 13 US staff in Moscow and 60 Russian staff.
“We lament the fact that we will not be able to do the work that we are very proud that we have been doing. This is a difficult day for USAID,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
It is unclear whether some if any US funding of the organizations can continue, but the official said that the administration of US President Barack Obama was committed to promoting civil society in Russia.