The general assumption among civil society activists in the West is that the Kremlin’s decision to kick USAID out of Russia is a body blow to the country’s non-governmental sector. But Garry Kasparov and other prominent opposition figures in Russia contend that USAID’s departure will hurt Putin more than help him.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced September 18 that USAID must cease operations in Russia by the end of the month. In a video clip posted on the ministry’s website, Foreign Ministry representative, Alexander Lukashevich, justified the move by alleging that USAID was aiming to “influence the [Russian] political process.” Russian officials have summarily dismissed US diplomatic efforts to extend the October 1 closure deadline for USAID.
Civil society activists worry that the USAID move marks the opening salvo in broad a Russian government offensive against non-governmental organizations in the country.
Yet unlike democratization activists in the West, Russian opposition figures aren’t so alarmed by the USAID news. Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, where he was making a series of public appearances, Kasparov asserted September 19 that Putin had made a serious miscalculation.
Kasparov claimed that USAID did a poor job of tracking most of the grants it distributed in Russia. This helped Russian bureaucrats, via the establishment of “shell” non-profit organizations, siphon off a significant percentage of the $50 million distributed annually by USAID in Russia. He went on to maintain that well-established NGOs in Russia, including Golos, the election-monitoring group, and the Memorial human rights organization, would be able to find ways to maintain their current level of operations. The constituency likely to be most hurt by USAID’s departure will be bureaucrats in the regions because they will have no alternative means of keeping the existing revenue stream flowing, he said.
When asked if Putin may have shot himself in the foot by kicking USAID out of Russia, Kasparov smiled and said: “Exactly.”