18:05 GMT +3 hours24 November 2014
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Russia Rights Activists Decry USAID Closure

Politics
(updated 18:28 28.10.2014)
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Leading Russian rights activists slammed on Wednesday Moscow’s decision to force a U.S. development aid mission to wind up its operations in the country by the start of next month.

Leading Russian rights activists slammed on Wednesday Moscow’s decision to force a U.S. development aid mission to wind up its operations in the country by the start of next month.

Russia said on Tuesday the U.S. agency for international development (U.S.Aid), which funds pro-democracy and human rights groups that have irked the Kremlin, would have to close its offices by October 1. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Wednesday the U.S. government agency was using its resources to “affect the course” of elections.

“This is a very bad signal,” said Lilia Shibanova, head of the Golos independent election monitoring group, which receives the majority of its funding from U.S.Aid. “They have done a lot for Russian society, for the support of rights organizations, and for the support of independent journalism in Russia.”

Shibanova also said she suspected the move was intended to prevent Golos monitoring the October 14 regional polls, a litmus test for the ability of the protest movement against the twelve-year-rule of President Vladimir Putin to transform the energy of mass street rallies into electoral success.

The move comes shortly after the introduction of a controversial new law forcing NGOs who engage in politics and receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents.”

Putin has frequently accused Washington of backing the unprecedented protests against his rule that broke out after the disputed December 2012 parliamentary polls and has also compared organizations such as Golos to “Judas.”

Lev Ponomaryov, head of the “For Human Rights” organization, said the ousting of U.S.Aid could see the “expulsion” of all similar foreign aid organizations from Russia.

He also said the move would mean that “human rights workers will be unable to carry out their obligations to the thousands of people whose rights are being violated.”

U.S.Aid has been operating in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has funded a range of organizations, including medical NGOs fighting HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. But around 60 percent of the aid agency's $50 million annual budget this year went to rights and democracy groups.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday that U.S.Aid had spent “about $2.7 billion overall” on various programs in Russia in the last twenty years.

“This is just part of an obvious general tendency to limit the activities of civil society,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, a former member of the Kremlin’s rights council. “My initial reaction was ‘who’s next?’”

“I never received any money from U.S.Aid, but I often discussed with them what spheres were in need of improvement in Russia. I will lose this contact now,” she added.

Gannushkina also said rights groups were unable to obtain funding from Russian businesses, as they were “afraid” of the possible consequences of involvement with pro-democracy organizations.