There's No Iron in Putin's Curtain

The Cold War is back. Russia's moves to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development and effectively strip U.S.-funded Radio Liberty of its broadcast license are just the latest manifestations of a harsh reality: In today's Moscow, any connection with the U.S. practically guarantees bureaucratic problems.

There's not yet any real iron, though, in President Vladimir Putin's anti-American curtain. The Kremlin's hostile moves have only a symbolic significance in a world where finance is global and the Internet is freely accessible.

On Sept. 19, Russia's Foreign Ministry ordered USAID to shut down in Russia by Oct. 1, saying that its work failed to further its stated purpose of “developing bilateral humanitarian cooperation.” As a ministry spokesman put it: “We are talking about attempts to affect political processes, including elections."

From 2004 to 2010, USAID spent $601 million in Russia on programs in fields varying from reproductive health to disaster prevention. Only $20 million of that went to non-U.S. organizations for the purpose of developing “government and civil society.” This relatively small area of USAID's operations has become a big nuisance for Putin's regime.

One of the grant recipients, an organization called Golos (Russian for "voice"), used the money to construct a nationwide map of electoral irregularities during the December 2011 parliamentary election. On election day, unidentified hackers attacked the website running the map, so Golos moved its data to the Google cloud. Golos became the most authoritative source on the shenanigans that led to a landslide victory for the pro-Putin United Russia party, which now enjoys a majority in Parliament. The rigged election gave rise to mass protests that emboldened Russia's feeble political opposition.

Golos went on to document more evidence of fraud in the March elections that brought Putin back to the presidency. Its map of transgressions became a permanent project, following all kinds of procedural breaches in elections at all levels. Golos was preparing to update the map with the results of local elections to be held Oct. 14, but that is now unlikely to happen.

“We will not find a new source of money that soon,” Golos head Lilia Shibanova told the news website She said she believes that the expulsion of USAID had everything to do with her project: “Just to stop Golos observing elections they had to kill all the vast support USAID provides, including that of Russian government programs.”

Even Putin's party, United Russia, benefited from USAID funding over the years, according to U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. United Russia issued vehement denials, but former member Sergei Markov admitted that the Public Chamber, an assembly of public figures and activists loyal to Putin, had held round-table discussions with USAID funding. As Markov told the news site, the fact that he  “might have eaten a few lunches paid for by USAID" did not make him a foreign agent.

If lunching on USAID's tab does not make one a CIA agent, spending its money on election-monitoring websites apparently does, at least in the eyes of the Putin administration and its propaganda machine. Shutting down USAID “is an excellent decision by the Russian government. And Washington’s immediate and virulent reaction only confirms that Russia is right on target,” wrote pundit Veronika Krasheninnikova on the website of the government-funded, English-language TV channel Russia Today. She went on to point out that USAID Russia head Charles North had graduated from the National War College with a degree in national security strategy. “Russia must take care of its own civil society,” Krasheninnikova concluded.

The projects funded by USAID might not go away quite as fast as Russian officials hope. Columnist Dmitry Kamyshev, writing on the website, noted that if the U.S. government wanted to keep funding the same Russian projects, it could do so through intermediaries. “Obviously, the Kremlin could cut off those channels if it really wanted to,” he wrote. “But in the modern world the only way to do this is by pulling down a financial 'iron curtain' that would be difficult to reconcile with the reality of a global economy and the principles of the World Trade Organization, which Russia has just joined with great difficulty.”

Consider, for example, Radio Liberty. Officially, it is getting the boot from Russia, but its Russian audience will not lose access to its content.

Liberty broadcast in the AM frequency range in Russia for a little over 20 years after being allowed to do so by Russia's first president. It will cease to do so on Nov. 10, thanks to a law that forbids foreigners to own more than 48 percent of a broadcaster. Rather than try to set up an eligible Russian entity, Liberty has chosen to give up the broadcasting license and concentrate on improving its website and Internet radio service. Liberty has brought in a new Moscow bureau chief, Masha Gessen, a fiercely anti-Putin journalist who wrote a book about the Russian president titled “The Man Without a Face.” She is expected to oversee Liberty's transformation into a modern multimedia service.

By the end of this year, Golos, too, is highly likely to resume its election-watching activities. This will leave Putin's regime with a tough choice: Admit defeat, or double down with stringent internet censorship and the kind of “financial iron curtain” that Kamyshev described. Given the ferocity of anti-Western rhetoric in Moscow these days, the latter scenario is not unthinkable.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)



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