WASHINGTON, DC – The US Agency for International Development is to close its offices in Moscow after Russia demanded that Washington put a halt to the organization activities there, the US state department has said.
The move, announced on Tuesday, is a further blow to relations between the US and Russia, which had been improving until Vladimir Putin’s return as president.
Mr Putin’s Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that the US state department helped sponsor the protests that broke out last December over allegations of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections. Protesters have continued to target the president and his government.
Mr Putin has since forwarded a new law that could threaten the activities of non-governmental organisations receiving funding from foreign governments or organisations, forcing them to register as “foreign agents”. The Kremlin is deeply suspicious of democracy groups such as Golos, the election monitoring organisation that helped to publicise fraud in the December parliamentary poll.
Among the groups to be affected by the withdrawal of USAID from Russia are Golos, which has been majority funded by the American body, the human rights group Memorial and the National Democratic Institute, a senior US government official said.
Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, informed Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, of Moscow’s decision at the Apec summit in Vladivostok, according to the official. The decision will affect the 13 US diplomats who work for USAID and 60 Russian staff members, the official added.
The US state department said that even though 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”.
Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said that, if true, the decision by the Russian government to end USAID’s activities fitted the logic of Mr Putin’s regime, which was searching for an enemy.
“It is quite logical that all USAID’s efforts to work in Russia and promote democracy would be blocked and forbidden,” she said.
She added that the new law requiring Russian NGOs to register as foreign agents if they received foreign funding had indeed made USAID’s work in Russia detrimental to the development of civil society, while the country was now mature enough to develop independently.
“The new law threatens to turn NGOs into a ‘fifth column’ and, as such, it has become destructive for Russian NGOs to work with USAID,” she said.
A US administration official said the White House would nevertheless find ways to continue to support civil society. “The Russian government has decided it wants the activities of USAID to cease in Russia and that’s their decision and we have responded to that decision today.”
“Over the coming weeks and months the Obama administration will be looking for ways to advance our old foreign policy objectives using new means,” the official said.
To do so, Washington could consider creating a $50m fund to support Russian civil society – a proposal that was originally floated by the Obama administration last year.
“This is just the latest event in an undercurrent of serious tensions with Russia that will be hard to turn round, whoever wins the election,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “There is a fundamental disagreement over our democracy promotion activities. The Russian government feels very strongly that we are rooting against them and that will be very difficult to change.”
Victoria Nuland, state department spokeswoman, said USAID had spent $2.7bn in Russia over the past two decades. “We hope the Russian government now takes forward that work itself, particularly in environment and health, but we will continue to work on civil society issues and democracy issues,” she said.
Since Mr Obama came to power, USAID has focused increasingly on human rights and civil democracy in Russia; over half of its $50m Russian budget this year has gone to these issues.