Rather than accede to the Kremlin’s request, said the Washington-based Freedom House, the administration should have pushed back, thereby forcing President Vladimir Putin to expel USAID publicly.
“Just weeks after Secretary Clinton sent a letter to two prominent Russian human rights organizations lauding their work and confirming U.S. support for them, this decision can be spun no other way: caving in to a repressive government,” Freedom House president David Kramer said in a statement. “We urge the Obama administration to revisit this decision immediately.”
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich on Wednesday accused USAID of using its grants “to affect the course of the political process,” and said the agency was being asked to close its offices by October 1.
The State Department denied the allegation. “We completely reject the notion that our support for civil society, democracy, human rights in any way interferes with elections, whether in Russia or anywhere else in the world,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a press briefing.
Nuland confirmed on Thursday that Putin’s own party, United Russia, has benefited from U.S. programs offered through the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.
She could not say precisely what programs United Russia had taken part in, but said programs there in recent years focused on areas including “youth leadership training, civil society, women’s political participation, advocacy on issues like healthcare, and [working] with civil society activists in the regions who are looking for help in pushing out their messages.”
According to Nuland, USAID programs in Russia have been worth about $2.7 billion “since the end of the Soviet Union,” about one-third of which has been used for civil society and democracy promotion.
The rest has gone towards helping government programs including those combating AIDS and tuberculosis, helping orphans and the disabled, fighting trafficking and supporting wildlife protection, she said.
In its brief official response to the Russian decision, the administration said it was “extremely proud of what USAID has accomplished in Russia over the past two decades, and we will work with our partners and staff to responsibly end or transition USAID’s programs.”
“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 and look forward to continuing our cooperation with Russian non-governmental organizations,” it added.
Freedom House was unimpressed with the response.
“For USAID to up and leave Russia simply because Vladimir Putin asked us to do so is a betrayal of our decades-long support not only for grassroots human rights defenders, civil society, and development of the rule of law in Russia but also for assistance in areas like improving public health and the environment,” Kramer said.
“This decision sets a dangerous precedent and suggests that U.S. support for civil society ends when repressive governments apply pressure.”
Nuland dismissed the notion that the Russian move would affect President Obama’s so-called “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations.
“This is always a sovereign nation’s decision, whether they want to have our assistance,” she told reporters. “That said, as you know, when we talk about the ‘reset,’ we talk primarily about global and regional foreign policy issues on which we work together.”
The Russian move is part of a broader toughening of the Kremlin’s stance following mass protests linked to Putin’s return to the presidency last March. Putin has several times accused the U.S. of being behind the demonstrations.
In June the State Duma, dominated by his ruling United Russia party, approved a bill banning unsanctioned political rallies.
The following month, the legislature passed a bill obliging non-governmental organizations that receive funds from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and declare their foreign links.
The Russian human rights group Memorial at the time said the move recalled Soviet-era practices.
“After adopting legally illiterate and extremely dangerous political changes to the legislation on rallies, the State Duma in emergency mode has introduced changes to the law on non-profit organizations,” it said.
“The speed at which this has been done is startling – it is as if the enemy is already at the gates of the capital and only changes to this law can save the Motherland.”
Memorial says it gets about half of its funding from USAID.