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Russian Democracy Groups Face Tough Times After USAID Ouster

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Russia has given the United States Agency for International Development until October 1, 2012 to close its operations and leave the country. Human rights groups in Russia say the Kremlin order will hurt their work.

The expulsion order comes with an accusation from the Kremlin that USAID has been trying to influence Russian politics.

Russia's Foreign Ministry says it had been concerned that USAID has been working to influence various elections, in addition to funding civil society institutions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained that foreign countries, mainly the United States, have been encouraging and funding the massive protests he has faced since Russian parliamentary elections last December. Washington denies funding protests or favoring one political party over another.

Lilia Shibanova is executive director of Golos, the only independent election-monitoring agency in Russia. Her organization is one of many to receive funds from USAID and may have to close its doors in a matter of weeks.

She says the departure of USAID is a strong blow to non-commercial sectors of Russia, since its a huge support of human rights organizations, environmental-protection centers, resource centers and in general many civil projects.

Shibanova also says the timing of the expulsion shows the Kremlin does not want anyone monitoring its activities.

She says the October first deadline for ceasing operation raises doubts, because on October 14th there will be large regional elections. She says her group believes the USAID expulsion is directly related to monitoring elections through GOLOS.

A leading human right’s group, Memorial, receives funds from USAID and may also be forced to close as a result of the order.

During the 1990s, USAID focused on helping Russia move from a state-controlled economy to a free-market system.

During the past decade, the amount of aid decreased, but it increasingly went to human-rights groups and to strengthening civil society in Russia. In 1995, USAID spent about $257 million here compared with about $50 million this year.

A State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday despite the Kremlin order the United States will remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.

In the few months since Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency for a third term, the country has seen a significant crackdown on dissent. Mr. Putin’s opponents say he runs the country through a tightly controlled political system and corruption; charges the Kremlin denies.

Article by Jessica Golloher, VOA News