WASHINGTON, December 20 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) - US groups financing politically active nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia are facing a potentially jarring shake-up of these programs amid Moscow’s escalating clampdown on such funding.
The question now is: What are they going to do about it?
At least two US taxpayer-funded organizations viewed with suspicion by the Russian government are considering running their Russia programs from outside the country.
But several Washington-based nonprofits that sponsor groups critical of the Kremlin were exceedingly reticent this week when asked how their Russia initiatives might be impacted by a wave of official actions in Moscow targeting foreign money.
These actions include Russia’s decision to halt the work of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in the country as of Oct. 1, as well as a bill to be considered in a third reading Friday by Russia’s lower house of parliament that would suspend Russian NGOs involved in political activity if they receive funding from the United States.
The NGO draft legislation is part of Russia’s reaction to the US Magnitsky Act, which punishes Russian officials deemed by Washington to be complicit in human rights abuses.
“We are studying the law,” Kathy Gest, a spokeswoman for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), said of the draft legislation when reached for comment this week by RIA Novosti.
Many Russians, including top officials, see foreign financing of Russia’s nonprofit sector as the West’s attempt to undermine the country’s political structure and engineer the type of revolution that overthrew governments in Georgia and Ukraine.
Western governments and many recipients of this grant money, meanwhile, say such funding bolsters political plurality in Russia and facilitates important checks on official corruption and abuses.
Both NDI and another US group, the International Republican Institute (IRI), are currently considering operating their Russia programs from abroad. NDI has already moved some of its Moscow staff to Lithuania, though it has said the move is temporary.
The head of the NDI’s Russia mission, Reid Nelson, told The Moscow Times last month that the group has been shifting its Russia strategy toward greater online engagement.
“The most you can reach at any seminar is about 30 people,” Nelson told the newspaper. “ … Online modules for election observer training have been accessed by 40,000 or 50,000 people.”
NDI is a partner of Golos, a Russian vote-monitoring group that has leveled numerous allegations of fraud in federal and regional elections in recent years, angering senior Russian officials.
The IRI, meanwhile, told RIA Novosti last week that it had been told by Russian officials that it must leave the country because it receives funding from USAID, which Russia has accused of meddling in its domestic politics.
IRI spokeswoman Lisa Gates told RIA Novosti that the organization, which says its mission includes “supporting engagement between citizens and political actors,” plans to continue its work “on Russia, but isn’t sure from where at this point.”
USAID has said that it has ended its Russia programs, but it remained unclear whether money it provides to organizations like IRI could still be used for programs aimed at Russia.
“The USAID mission in Russia closed on October 1, 2012, and our programs have ended,” spokeswoman Lisa Hibbert-Simpson said in emailed comments. She declined to elaborate.
Gates, the IRI spokeswoman, said only: “IRI will continue its work, our work is funded by USAID."
Washington-based nonprofits Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) did not respond to a request for comment this week on how their funding from USAID or the Russian draft legislation banning NGOs that receive US money might impact their Russia programs.
Freedom House did, however, issue a statement calling the bill a “repressive action by the Russian government” and a “sign of a weak and vulnerable government that fears peaceful expression of fundamental freedoms by its citizens.”
“The Russian government is flouting its international human rights commitments and its own constitution,” spokeswoman Susan Corke said in the statement.
Freedom House works with prominent Russian NGOs Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, whose leader, renowned rights activist and Kremlin critic Lyudmila Alexeyeva, would be forced to step down as the group’s head under the draft bill because she holds dual US-Russian citizenship.
The NED, which does not have a physical presence in Russia, provides grants to dozens of Russian NGOs active in areas such as election monitoring, public opinion polling, and media monitoring. It disbursed more than $4 million in grant money to Russian NGOs in 2011, according to its 2011 annual report.
People familiar with US financing for NGOs in countries with governments hostile to foreign influence say these initiatives can be run from offshore. The NED, for example, funded several programs aimed at North Korea in 2011, according to its website.
Such efforts can result in sticky diplomatic situations, however.
In 2005, for example, Lithuanian authorities detained a Belarus citizen working for a USAID contractor as he tried to cross into Belarus carrying $25,000, according to a leaked State Department cable published by Wikileaks.
The money was intended to be used for a USAID-funded project run by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based nonprofit, according to the cable.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has been described by Western officials as Europe’s “last dictator,” and the leaked cable cited a Lithuanian Foreign Ministry official as saying that his government was “keen to avoid giving the Lukashenko regime an excuse to make it harder for foreign governments and NGOs to operate in Belarus.”