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Russia

Anger, concern in Russia after USAID expulsion

Since Russia has told the US foreign aid organization USAID to leave the country, reactions have focused on the underlying motives for the expulsion and the consequences it will have on Russian civil society.

The expulsion of USAID by the Russian Foreign Ministry was a step that worried local non-governmental organizations working to strengthen Russia's civil society.

The head of Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, an NGO that monitors the status of human rights in Russia, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, said she was not aware of any negative consequences that the USAID program had on Russia.

"The money [Moscow Helsinki Watch Group] received from USAID did have an impact on the situation of human rights in Russia," Alexeyeva said. "It helped citizens whose rights had been violated, either by the government or one of its employees."

Russia: "Attempts to exert influence"

Lyudmila Alexeyevna, head of the Helsinki Watch Group

Alexeyeva: USAID money helped citizens whose rights were violated

The official notice for USAID to end its operations was sent by the Russian Foreign Ministry on September 12. In it, officials said its decision was based on its view that the work of USAID "does not always correspond to [its] stated goals of bilateral humanitarian cooperation."

A spokesperson of the ministry said Russia saw the USAID program's work as "attempts to exert influence, via the distribution of grants, upon political processes, including elections of various levels and institutions of civil society."

According to the ministry, the move did not come abruptly. The expulsion came only after the ministry voiced its concerns about USAID activities in connection with the North Caucasus and after the organization was repeatedly notified of the ministry's position.

Calculated move ahead of elections?

For many political observers, shutting down of USAID activities coincides with the upcoming regional elections slated for mid-October. One of the organization's beneficiaries was the Russian NGO Golos, an election monitoring group that had pointed out numerous incidences of vote manipulation and polling irregularities during the presidential election in December 2011. Some observers said they saw the latest move of the Russian government as a way to muzzle the watchdog group since it relied heavily on funding from USAID.

Golos members at work in their office (Photo ITAR-TASS/ Alexandra Krasnova)

Funded by USAID, Golos has been active since 2000

"If the authorities believe that this is a way to stop the activities of Golos, they are mistaken," Golos head Lilia Shibanova said. "That would only be possible by changing the law and putting up an iron curtain again."

Shibanova, however, admitted that these were now trying times for Golos, "Everything that we work for is now under threat of being shut down."

Golos is one of 57 organizations that have been receiving funding from USAID. More than half of the USAID's 2012 budget of $50 million (38.6 million euros) went to groups promoting human rights and democracy.

Grim outlook for local organizations

Another one of the organizations likely to be affected by a sudden lack of funds is the human rights center Memorial. Its head, Oleg Orlov, said after the closure of USAID his organization would be short half of its funding, reserved for programs within the North Caucasus region.

"What I find most appalling is the position of the Russian Foreign Ministry, claiming that USAID had tried to influence political developments through the distribution of funds," he said, adding that applying reverse logic would mean that "the manipulation of elections and state terrorism in North Caucasus represent the politics of our country and nothing should be done against it."

The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Taken on 26.05.2003. (BRL464-080803)
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The Russian Foreign Ministry said USAID did not stick to its charter

But it's not only the politically active organizations that will experience financial cuts; other areas of funding included the health sector, where money went to organizations fighting against tuberculosis and AIDS.

"Closing the Russian branch of USAID is a blow for social programs in the education and health sectors, which both used to receive funding from this organization," said Pavel Chikhov, head of the human rights organization Agora, adding that it was an "unfriendly act" on the part of the Russian government.

In Washington, the State Department had already announced that even with the withdrawal of USAID from Russia, US diplomats would "look forward to continuing cooperation with Russian non-governmental organizations."

Wariness among Russia's international partners

With the deadline set for USAID to close its mission in Russia by October 1, the situation in Moscow remains tense for international organizations. After USAID's exit, recently tightened laws will continue to directly affect cooperation between Russian NGOs and international organizations.

The Moscow bureau chief of the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Wolfgang John, said the new Russian legislation makes work for the foundation considerably more difficult.

"Direct cooperation with local NGOs will no longer be possible," he said. "None of the organizations we know is willing to have themselves be discredited as 'foreign agents' to fulfill the latest legal requirement that allows them to accept funds from foreign donors."

Which direction these latest developments will take, many believe depends on the upcoming regional elections and whether or not they are accompanied by political protests.

According to John, the new laws could simply be kept on the books as "a threat in the background, without really being applied," should the political situation in Russia stabilize. It might even be possible for the law to be applied selectively, depending on which country an organization comes from.

"The departure of USAID will not cause a political tremor - the amount of funding hasn't been large enough," John said. "But what will stay is an insecurity among the actors of the Russian civil society."

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