MacArthur Foundation Leaves Russia Amid NGO ‘Witch Hunt’

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Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

The MacArthur Foundation, a U.S. non-profit organization known for awarding “genius grants” to exceptionally creative people, is closing its Moscow office after almost a quarter century after Russian lawmakers branded it a threat to the country.

The Chicago-based fund said that it was forced to end its presence in Russia after the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, included it on a “patriotic stop-list” of groups recommended for designation as “undesirable” by the government. The action followed a series of laws targeting foreign-funded non-government organizations.

The measures “make it clear that the Russian government regards MacArthur’s continued presence as unwelcome,” the foundation’s president Julia Stasch said in a website statement on Wednesday. “Contrary to the premise underlying the Federation Council’s vote, our activities in Russia, at all times, have been to further charitable purposes and benefit Russian citizens and society.”

As Russia struggles with its first recession in six years, the Kremlin is accelerating a clampdown on civil society that began after nationwide political protests against Vladimir Putin in 2011 and 2012, the biggest since he was first elected president in 2000. The Kremlin has accused the U.S. and Europe of using NGOs to fund uprisings in former Soviet allies, including Ukraine.

Hostility, Fear

Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 elections, the state has required groups that accept financing from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and subjected them to harsher regulation. The Federation Council voted on July 8 to send its blacklist of 12 foreign NGOs to Russia’s prosecutor general, the Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry, asking them to label as “undesirable” the organizations that include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy.

In May, a law came into effect that allows prosecutors to deem foreign NGOs as “undesirable” if they “threaten Russia’s constitutional order, defense potential or security.” Such organizations lose rights to publish media materials, organize rallies and use local bank accounts.

The MacArthur Foundation’s departure “shows that we have hit the target because this organization, without waiting for any official decisions by the Russian authorities, has decided to close and did not even try to defend its reputation as a non-politicized structure,” Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, said on Wednesday, according to the Interfax news service.

The stop list is “an important part of the witch hunt against critics of the government by creating a climate of hostility, fear and suspicion,” Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s Russia program director, said on the group’s website.

Since 1992, the MacArthur Foundation has distributed more than $173 million in grants in Russia to promote higher education, human rights and limit proliferation of weapons, it said. The foundation provides 20 to 30 people worldwide with “genius grants” each year under its MacArthur Fellows program.

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