With the U.S. Agency for International Development halting its operations in Russia at the Kremlin’s behest, the administration of President Barack Obama is vowing to find new ways to support civil society in Russia.
But exactly how Washington might finance such efforts in Russia without USAID on the ground—and whether the political will is even still strong enough to continue such funding—remains to be seen, analysts say.
“The money spent on Russia was on the decline anyway, and for a lot of people Russia is just not a priority country anymore,” according to a source who has overseen foreign grants to nongovernmental organizations in Russia.
Several Washington-based nonprofit organizations provide grants they say are to promote civil society in Russia through the National Endowment for Democracy, which receives funding from the U.S. Congress and is seen by many Russian officials as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.
The U.S. government could decide to shift the $52 million earmarked for USAID activities in Russia next year to the budget allocated to the NED or to a similar body, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“It’s not a lot of money, but still there will be a feeding frenzy among implementers” of these grants, the source said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland indicated a third-party organization could be an option.
“We have at least 20 missions around the world where we support civil society without having an AID mission, per se,” Nuland told a news conference. “…Whether we do this directly to our assistance partners, whether we do it through international organizations, through foundations, we are going to continue to support the development of a strong civil society in Russia.”
In expelling USAID, the Russian government accused the agency of meddling in elections. The allegation, denied by the State Department, clearly pointed to the USAID-funded election watchdog Golos, country’s main non-governmental election monitor.
“The signal from Kremlin is clear,” said Daniel Vajdic, a Russia analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC “In today’s political context in Russia, with the antigovernment protests, efforts to give money to independent civil society groups are unwanted.”
A reallocation of USAID funds to Russian civil society groups amid this atmosphere will require a delicate balancing act, said Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
If Washington simply turns a third-party group into a “de facto USAID mission,” then “Russia will see through that pretty quickly and just boot them out of the country,” Rojansky said.
Washington will have to ensure that activities it finances in Russia are palatable enough to Russian officials so as not to provoke a new round of crackdowns on foreign civil society funding, Rojansky said.
One possible vehicle for determining how this financing could be disbursed, Rojansky added, would be the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, established in 2009, which facilitates high-level talks on a broad range of issues.
The Obama administration is pushing for the creation of a new $50 million fund to support civil society groups in Russia, though Michael McFaul—the architect of Obama’s Russia policy and the current U.S. ambassador to Russia—said earlier this year that the bill was being held up in Congress.
In any case, none of the questions surrounding future U.S. financing of Russian NGOs will be resolved until after the U.S. presidential election in November.
After the election, tension is likely to emerge between officials inspired by USAID’s expulsion to double down on foreign assistance to Russia and those eager to slash funding for development in the former Soviet Union, he added.
In the end, Russia’s repeated rebukes of the United States for efforts Washington says are aimed only at supporting democracy and civil society may exhaust the Americans, the source involved in distributing U.S. foreign aid said.
“It’s like asking a pretty girl out on a date over and over again,” he said. “And she just keeps saying no.”