Russia’s ruling party lashed out on Friday at allegations by Washington that it had taken advantage “over the years” of programs run by a U.S. development aid mission closed down by Moscow earlier this week over claims of political meddling.
“United Russia has always carefully adhered to the requirements of Russian law on the financing of political parties,” leading party official Alexei Chesnakov said. “This statement appears to be an unfounded and emotional reaction.”
Russia said on Tuesday that USAID, which funds pro-democracy and human rights groups that have irked the Kremlin, would have to close its offices in the country by October 1. President Vladimir Putin, who headed United Russia until late last year, said on Thursday that the mission had been meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
But U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told journalists in Washington on Thursday that “United Russia has participated in some of the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute’s programs over the years.”
“We are waiting to see concrete documentary evidence as to in what quality and in what programs she believes the United Russia party participated,” Chesnakov said in an official United Russia statement.
USAID, which operates in more than 100 countries, has operated in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its array of social programs has targeted pressing public health issues like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
But the bulk of the agency's annual $50-million has gone to human rights and civic organizations, including the election watchdog Golos, which monitors electoral violations.
Putin has frequently accused the United States of backing the unprecedented protests against his rule that broke out after the disputed December 2011 parliamentary polls and has also compared organizations such as Golos to “Judas.”
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.”
The decision to close the USAID mission was slammed by Russian rights activists.
“This is just part of an obvious general tendency to limit the activities of civil society,” Svetlana Gannushkina, a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council, told RIA Novosti on Wednesday. “My initial reaction was ‘who’s next?’”
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.
A leading anti-Putin protest leader, Boris Nemtsov, said later on Friday that he had documents in his possession that "proved" United Russia had made use of USAID funds on at least eight occasions.
"But I can't show you copies of these documents, because the people who gave them to me asked me not," he told RIA Novosti. "They would be killed, if I did."
He said the documents had been supplied by people "inside Russia."