Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups
By David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry, NY Times, September 18, 2012
MOSCOW—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 here, in an aggressive step by the Kremlin to halt what it views as American meddling in its internal affairs.
The Kremlin’s provocative decision to end two decades of work in post-Soviet Russia by the United States Agency for International Development—with little warning ahead of an Oct. 1 deadline—was announced on Tuesday by the State Department in Washington. The move stands to cut off aid that currently totals about $50 million a year.
American officials, who were informed of the decision earlier this month, quickly pledged to maneuver around the Kremlin. The Obama administration last October proposed the creation of a new $50 million fund— essentially an endowment for a private foundation established under Russian law—for Russian civil society groups, and one senior administration official said work on that project would speed up.
The Kremlin has taken a number of actions in recent months to bring pressure on nongovernmental groups and clamp down on political dissent, including a new law requiring any organization receiving aid from abroad to register with the justice manager as “acting as a foreign agent.” Russia also increased the penalties for libel and slander.
Russia is not alone in its resentment of United States-led democracy building efforts. Those have become a sore point for a number of countries in recent years, including allies like Egypt and Pakistan, which have objected to outside groups telling them how to run their affairs. The aid agency’s cold war history of providing a front for American intelligence agencies is still fresh in the memories of foreign officials, many of whom have never fully dropped their suspicions.
The abruptness of Russia’s announcements represents a sour new turn in relations between the countries, which have been touch-and-go since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in May. While Mr. Putin has rebuffed overtures from President Obama for international action on Syria, he has also praised him as “a very honest man” who could possibly conclude a missile defense deal in coming years.
Mr. Putin also undoubtedly would prefer to deal with the devil he knows rather than the one he does not—the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, whom Mr. Putin has criticized for characterizing Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical foe.
Reaction was swift in Washington to what was widely perceived as an affront, with Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, urging the White House to condemn the Kremlin. “The Russian government’s decision to end all U.S.A.I.D. activities in the country is an insult to the United States and a finger in the eye of the Obama administration, which has consistently trumpeted the alleged success of its so-called reset policy toward Moscow,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.
But the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, suggested that if Russia did not want American assistance, the money could be better spent elsewhere. “It’s their sovereign decision to make,” she said. “There are many countries around the world who would like to have more AID funding and help.”
Mr. Putin, facing large-scale dissent at home for the first time, has said unrest is being stoked by the State Department, working covertly through nonprofit organizations.
In recent years, Russia has bridled at the foreign aid flowing across its borders, in part because it views itself as a world power, a member of the Group of 8, and therefore more appropriately positioned to dole out assistance than to receive it.
Underscoring this view, Russia said on Tuesday that it was forgiving nearly all of North Korea’s accumulated foreign debt, which Russian officials have valued at roughly $11 billion, dating back to the closer relationship between them during the Soviet era.
The forgiveness step, which has been in the works for many months, would help clear the way for Russia to make new investments in North Korea—a development that runs counter to American-led efforts to economically ostracize the North over its expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons.