Russia Demands U.S. Stop Support of Russian Civil Society Groups

Russia has ordered the United States to end its financial support for a wide range of pro-democracy, public health, and other civil society programs by October 1, the New York Times reports.

Announced last week, the decision will bring to a close two decades of work in Russia by the United States Agency for International Development while eliminating some $50 million a year in USAID support for civil society organizations and programs in the country. Nearly a year ago, the White House proposed the creation of a $50 million fund — essentially, an endowment for a private foundation established under Russian law — for Russian civil society groups, and a senior administration official told the Times that, in light of the decision, work on the project would be accelerated.

In recent months, the Kremlin has brought increasing pressure to bear on nongovernmental organizations and political dissent by requiring any organization that receives aid from abroad to register as "a foreign agent," while boosting penalties for libel and slander — a move designed to intimidate critics of the government. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American-financed programs played a crucial role in Russia's recovery by helping to build its capital markets and financial systems and funding an array of health programs, including efforts to combat tuberculosis and the spread of HIV. But as the Russian economy was buoyed by an influx of oil and gas revenues, USAID shifted more than half its portfolio to homegrown democracy and human rights groups, including Golos, an independent election monitoring group.

Golos deputy director Grigory A. Melkonyants told the Times it would take at least a year to find financing to replace USAID funding. "[The Kremlin sees] us as the source of criticism, and they are trying to halt that source," said Melkonyants. "Many people are already scared to talk about the problems that exist today. The press is already frightened. Now they are trying to shut up civil organizations."

Ellen Barry. "Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups." New York Times 09/18/2012.