Russia on Wednesday said it had given USAID until October 1 to halt its work as the US aid agency was meddling in domestic politics, a move that risks sparking a new diplomatic crisis with Washington.
The termination of the US Agency for International Development’s activities may also harm the operations of a string of NGOs that rely on its funding, including the vote monitor Golos that showed up irregularities in recent polls.
The unexpected move appears part of an increasing crackdown in Russia on civil society after President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term in May amid an outburst of street protests.
“The decision was taken mainly because the work of the agency’s officials far from always responded to the stated goals of development and humanitarian cooperation,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We are talking about attempts to influence political processes — including elections at different levels — through its distribution of grants,” it added.
USAID’s activities “must be halted from October 1,” it added, giving a short deadline that had not been revealed by the Americans when the decision was first made public in Washington on Tuesday.
Anxious Russian NGOs expressed fears for their future financing — more than half of USAID’s annual budget in Russia had been spent on democracy and civil society programmes as well as a substantial chunk on health projects.
“I am very sorry that the USAID office is closing,” said Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, Russia’s best-known campaigner for human rights and the preservation of historical memory across the country.
“It is impossible not to see here the continuation of the isolationist policy” of the Russian authorities, he added. Without giving further details, he described the material help of USAID as “significant”.
Lilia Shibanova, the director of Golos, described the halt in USAID’s operations as a “heavy blow”.
She told AFP that there was now serious concern for the funding of its monitoring of local elections on October 14, two weeks after the deadline for the closure of the USAID office.
“The problem is that as soon as Russian business starts giving funds to monitor elections it comes under pressure,” she said.
Viktor Kremenyuk, analyst with the USA-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that while the move was not an outright U-turn in foreign policy, it was a Kremlin “gesture aimed at worsening relations between Russia and the US.”
“Russia wants to say ‘we do not need your help, we can stand on our own feet’,” he said.
The foreign ministry statement said that Russian civil society was “quite mature” and the country — now itself a foreign donor — was in no need of “external leadership”.
The expulsion of USAID comes after Putin signed a law forcing NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. He has even compared organisations like Golos to the disciple Judas who betrayed Jesus.
A senior US administration official said that Washington regretted the decision, which according to a US government source also affects the future of 13 US staff in Moscow and 60 Russian staff.
“This is a difficult day for USAID,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
It is unclear whether some if any US funding of the organisations can continue but the official said that President Barack Obama’s administration of was committed to promoting civil society in Russia.
“Over the coming weeks and months the Obama administration will be looking at ways to advance our old foreign policy objectives using new means,” said the official.
The United States had first learned of the measure when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the APEC summit in Vladivostok earlier this month, the official said.
The departure of USAID echoes the 2007 clampdown on the activities of the British Council cultural agency which poisoned relations between Moscow and London. The US Peace Corps had also been asked to leave Russia in 2002.