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Russia says USAID ousted for meddling in elections

Expelling USAID fits into the Kremlin's goals of fortifying Russia against outside influences and searching for enemies within, says one researcher.

September 20, 2012|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Russia's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that the U.S. Agency for International Development was being barred from operating in the country beginning Oct. 1 because it had meddled in elections.

The statement followed a State Department announcement the day before that USAID had been ordered out after operating in Russia for two decades.

The U.S. agency had strayed from "the declared goals of assisting the development of bilateral humanitarian cooperation," Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement posted on the ministry's website. "We are talking about attempts via distributing grants to influence political processes, including elections of various levels and civil society institutions."

The government of President Vladimir Putin had previously accused Western governments of trying to influence the parliamentary elections in December and subsequent protests calling into question the results of that balloting and Putin's own election in March.

One of the first victims of this week's order will be Golos, an independent Russian organization whose monitors reported massive violations during the elections. The group was one of the key recipients of USAID grants.

The head of Golos expressed grave concern Wednesday that the organization's work will be seriously impeded and said the group will urgently look for alternative funding.

"According to recently adopted legislation, our organization, which has been receiving foreign aid, will be proclaimed 'a foreign agent' as of Nov. 10, or rather a foreign spy," Lilia Shibanova, Golos' executive director, said in an interview. "That was not enough for the Kremlin, and they decided to cut off our funding right on the eve of several thousand regional and local elections," scheduled for Oct. 14.

Shibanova said that observing elections, placing monitors across a vast country and training an army of volunteers is a costly business. The Kremlin could be trying to prevent Golos and other organizations from monitoring the elections next month.

"I am confident of two things though, namely that we will find a way to survive and that Putin will fail to close up the country the way he wants," Shibanova said.

The decision to expel USAID from Russia fits neatly into the Kremlin's goals of fortifying Russia against outside influences and searching for enemies within, said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with Moscow Carnegie Center.

"For 12 years of his reign, Putin has been rhetorically expressing his disapproval of the democracy promotion conducted in Russia by various Western and U.S. foundations," Shevtsova said. "Now in the new conditions of political turbulence at home he is trying to close the country by finally adopting his long-nursed doctrine of absolute and complete political sovereignty with the key motto: 'Don't meddle!'"

Shevtsova said the decision could play into the hands of President Obama's domestic critics by adding "a heap of arguments to the Republicans who have been talking about the failure of the reset in the Russian-U.S. relationship all along."

But Vyacheslav Nikonov, first deputy of the International Relations Committee in parliament's lower house, said the decision probably had little to do with the U.S. elections and must have been based on some new information that might have overfilled the Kremlin's "cup of patience."

"Any country will hardly tolerate foreign meddling in its internal political affairs," Nikonov said in an interview. "With various American foundations sponsoring projects which tried to assert that kind of influence in Russia, you can say that it is often hard to draw a distinct line between actions to promote democracy and designs at regime change."

U.S.-Russian relations were already strained by legislation before both houses of the U.S. Congress that was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody. The bill would impose sanctions on Russian officials who violate human rights.

Nikonov didn't think the relations would worsen with the USAID expulsion controversy.

Shevtsova also sought to minimize the loss of help from USAID and similar organizations.

"In the new conditions, the soonest adoption of the Magnitsky list [of Russian officials who would face sanctions] will be far more useful and efficient than the continuing promotion of democracy," she said.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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