Russia is putting a stop to the United States aid agency operating in the country after a two-decade presence in Moscow, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday, a decision seen by critics as a swipe at American support for Russian civil society groups that have criticized the government.
Though State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday shied away from speaking for the Russians, she said the reasons seemed to be tied to “their sense that they don’t need this anymore.”
The United States has spent about $2.7 billion on its U.S. Agency for International Development program in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, with about $50 million budgeted for this fiscal year, Nuland said.
Its programs have included tackling tuberculosis, helping disadvantaged youths and aiding election watchdogs and human rights groups, work that has been viewed with suspicion by President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. got an official notice of the Russian decision last week, Nuland told reporters.
“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,” Nuland said Tuesday.
The decision to halt USAID activities in Russia comes at a time when the Russian government has stoked suspicion of foreign groups. In July, Russian lawmakers passed a bill that requires groups that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a step critics said was meant to tar activists so they wouldn’t accept foreign money. The free-speech group Freedom House, headquartered in the U.S., said the Russian move could be “a demoralizing and devastating blow to an increasingly embattled Russian civil society.”
“This decision sets a dangerous precedent and suggests that U.S. support for civil society ends when repressive governments apply pressure,” Freedom House President David J. Kramer said in a statement.
The Kremlin is “looking elsewhere for culprits and thinks it’s rooted in the American funding,” Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of the election monitoring group Golos, told the Associated Press. Golos is among the groups that have received USAID funding.
Though the State Department did not criticize the decision in its statements, the ouster was seen as a setback for U.S. efforts to engage with Russia. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the decision was “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.”
USAID has been criticized as a political tool by countries leery of the United States. A leftist alliance of Latin American countries that includes Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia issued a resolution this summer urging their members to expel USAID, saying its actions interfered with their sovereignty.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles