The U.S. is asking Russia to permit a “dignified” end to activities by aid agency USAID next year, U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, said after the Russian authorities reiterated an Oct. 1 closing deadline.
“We are in negotiations with the Russian government about the timing,” McFaul said in an interview today at an investment forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “We would like to do this in an orderly and dignified way. We think it will take at least a year and by next summer we’ll be able to phase out all of our grants and all of our employees.”
President Vladimir Putin, who is cracking down on the opposition and nongovernmental groups after facing the biggest protests since he came to power in 2000, has repeatedly accused the U.S. of seeking to interfere in his country’s politics. Russia ordered USAID to cease all activities by Oct. 1, criticizing it for sponsoring civil-society groups and seeking to influence elections.
“We are sticking to our position that the decision taken by a sovereign state must be fully implemented,” Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman at the Russian Foreign Ministry, said yesterday. “We will insist that all activities of the agency must cease on Russian territory by Oct. 1.”
In a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested an extension of the deadline until May, the Moscow-based Kommersant newspaper reported yesterday.
USAID, previously known as the U.S. Agency for International Development, has financed NGOs in Russia including Golos, a vote-monitoring group, and Memorial, a human-rights organization. Such aid has been in doubt since Russia’s passage of legislation requiring groups that receive aid from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and submit to tighter restrictions.
The agency, which had an annual budget of $50 million in Russia, provides more than half of Golos’s budget, according to Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of the vote-monitoring group.
Russia’s decision means that 13 U.S. diplomats on the USAID staff will have to leave the country and the jobs of 60 Russian nationals who work for the agency will be affected, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic communications.
The U.S. will find other ways to continue financing Russian NGOs, according to Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department. “We are committed to stay on the side of those who want to see a more democratic, more just Russia,” she said two days ago.
Russia in 2008 forced the British Council, a U.K. government cultural body, to close all offices outside Moscow after the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB called in local staff for questioning.
Then-President Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, later said the body was engaged in espionage. Russia also tightened controls over NGOs financed by the West after U.S.-backed opposition leaders came to power in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004.