WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After Russia recently ousted the U.S. government’s aid agency from Moscow, some American pro-democracy groups are feeling pressured to leave, reducing Russian exposure to programs long viewed with suspicion by the Kremlin.
The International Republican Institute said the Russian government told it to leave Russia, while the National Democratic Institute said it has moved some of its staff from Russia to Lithuania while it considers its options.
Both U.S.-based groups have promoted democracy and human rights around the world since they were established in the 1980s, conducting activities such as monitoring elections and helping to develop political parties.
They have worked in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but the Kremlin sees some of their efforts as foreign meddling. Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of “political engineering” around the world.
Loosely affiliated with the U.S. political parties, both the IRI and NDI receive some funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which the Kremlin forced to cease operations in Russia on October 1.
“We are closing our office, but we are not ending our program,” Lisa Gates, an IRI spokeswoman, said this week.
“Russian officials informed IRI that since our program was funded by U.S. AID, it had to leave the country like U.S. AID did,” Gates said.
She said the IRI will continue to work in Russia, “but at this point we’re not sure from which location.” The IRI already runs some programs from different countries; for example, its Belarus program is run from Lithuania.
The National Democratic Institute said in a statement that “in light of the recent departure of U.S. AID and other developments in Russia, NDI is currently assessing ways it can most effectively continue to fulfil its mission.”
“Some of our (Russia) staff is in Lithuania temporarily as we sort out our options,” said Kathy Gest, a spokeswoman for NDI.
A third Washington-based group, IREX, which has run civil society programs in Russia that were funded by U.S. AID, said on its website that its Russia project was now closed, but did not give the date of closure. A spokesperson did not return calls requesting comment.
It was unclear what other U.S.-funded non-governmental organizations may still be operating in Russia.
U.S. AID had a 2012 budget in Russia of almost $50 million, more than half of which was spent on human rights and democracy work. Some of this also went to Russian organizations.
The IRI and NDI have long been the targets of Kremlin ire. When the current U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul, took his new job in Russia earlier this year, Russian state television charged he had a mission to stir up revolution, citing his work for the NDI back in 1992.
Putin took office in May for a third presidential term after winning nearly two thirds of the vote in an election international monitors say was skewed in his favour. The Kremlin has accused the United States of encouraging the opposition in Russia, including protests before his re-election.
Recently Putin has pushed through new laws to raise fines for protesters, stiffen punishments for defamation and put new controls on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, requiring many to register as “foreign agents.”
But the decision to get rid of U.S. AID was part of Putin’s efforts to eliminate “unequal” arrangements that were set up after the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, in which the United States was providing aid to Russia, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
The U.S. assistance “made a lot of sense in those days but looks unequal 20 years later,” Trenin said. “U.S. AID was also doing many other things that had nothing to do with politics, and unfortunately these things will be discontinued,” he added.
A U.S. AID fact sheet noted that the agency’s programs had assisted with public health and fighting diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in Russia, as well as promoting an “open and innovative society.”
As for the Carnegie Moscow Centre, which is part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, its funding comes from private U.S. sources, not the U.S. government, Trenin said.
He said the Carnegie Moscow Centre had not been pressured to leave, despite its work including a recent report that said Putin’s government had lost legitimacy in parts of Russian society and resorted to “targeted repression” of its critics.
Editing by Leslie Adler