The Russian government announced the end of USAID activities in a blunt statement Tuesday. The reverberations continue. The Russian foreign Ministry held a follow up press conference Thursday to explain. Spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said that USAID-funded NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, had crossed certain “red lines.”
“Any civil society which respects itself, at some point starts to understand that it is not possible to live only on the grants which come from abroad,” Lukashevich said. “There are other sources of financing, including inner sources of course, which help NGOs to exist and solve tasks. I don’t see anything dramatic here.”
NGOs are often the favored means of western governments to help develop “transitional” countries, such as those in Eastern Europe. They work in areas like democracy-building, environmental protection and public health. Often staffed by educated young people, Western policy-makers say they allow local people to build local institutions. At Moscow’s Komersant FM, commentator Konstantin von Eggert said that in Russia, the government views them as dangerous because they are beyond state control.
“Putin sees Western-funded NGOs as direct agents of regime change in Russia,” Von Eggert said. “These entities of course don’t have any other sources of financing, because Russian businesses and Russian charitable foundations will never give them money because by monitoring elections they play against the Putin regime. So they have to rely on Western funding.”
In its statement Tuesday, the Russian foreign ministry accused the US government of exerting influence, through grants, on Russian politics and elections. One Russian NGO frequently accused of furthering foreign interests is Golos, Russian for “voice.” It has a $3 million USAID project to help monitor elections. Project manager Ksenia Sokolova said that journalists and political parties will still be free to monitor elections, but Golos will not be able to help train and coordinate in the same way.
“Golos was like the main trainer, the main organization which provided materials, expertise, knowledge and trainers to educate observers,” Sokolova said. “It’s just another step to close NGOs who are trying to tell the truth.”
Almost all of the funding came from USAID she said, funding which is impossible to find from Russian sources. Sokolova also rejected accusations by the Russian government that Golos and other NGOs are following orders from foreign governments.
“The process of financing starts with our application,” she said. “We say, ‘Guys, we Russian people want to do something good for Russian people, we don’t have Russian money. Can you please support some democratic initiative in Russia. Can you give us money?’”
Other NGOs that have nothing to do with democratic institutions will also close up. USAID funds 100 percent of the budget of the Russian Health Care Foundation. Its $10 million budget goes to help improve tuberculosis treatment. Director Dmitry Goliaev is grim about the future after October 1, 2012.
“Nothing will happen,” Goliaev said. “The project will be closed.”
Russia has a high rate of tuberculosis. Goliaev’s NGO is trying to improve the efficiency of treatment that will help slow the spread of new cases. He said that Russia also spends the most money in the world on tuberculosis treatment per patient, without results.
“Efficiency is very poor,” Goliaev said. “That’s why our task to prepare scheme[s], to prepare technology, to prepare program[s], is less costly and more efficient.”
Critics charge the Russian government with deepening the country’s isolation and turning back the development of its democratic institutions. But the government may score points by kicking out Western projects on the grounds that Russia can do the job just fine on its own.