The decision was hardly a surprise: according to Russian officials, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was informed at the end of June. Moreover, it comes against the background of President Putin’s increasingly tough line against the extra-parliamentary opposition and its perceived foreign (mainly US) backers. Last winter Putin accused Clinton of "sending a signal” to opposition groups to take to the streets, implying that the post-election protests were orchestrated from Washington. Indeed, soon after his re-election, Putin introduced new regulations for Russian NGOs receiving funds from foreign sources – along with moves to clamp down on the protesters.
Predictably, the US Department of State, Western media and NGOs funded by USAID have all protested the decision to force out the US agency and denied that the agency had political objectives. USAID has, in fact, spent more than US$2.6 billion in Russia over the last 20 years on causes such as HIV prevention, help for the disabled and anti-corruption programmes; hence it could be argued that the Russian government is shooting itself in the foot. At the same time, Russia’s independent election monitoring organization Golos, which receives funds from USAID and which led the allegations of fraud during last year’s parliamentary elections, has clearly been active in a politically sensitive area. It cannot be ruled out that the Russian authorities prefer to hold the 14 October local and regional elections without having to deal with Golos.
Be that as it may, it seems odd that with its balanced budget and still expanding economy, oil-rich Russia should continue to receive aid from its main Western rival, which – to make the situation even odder – now happens to be "fiscally overstretched”. For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry commented, as part of its justification for winding down USAID operations, that Russia is now "quite mature and does not need 'external leadership' " from the likes of the US agency.
• Has the Russian government acted wisely by discontinuing this not insignificant source of external funding for a range of worthy causes?
• Or is the closure of USAID programmes in Russia yet another manifestation of Putin’s Cold War-style paranoia?
• Or, given that US officials and mainstream media view Russia as a hostile autocracy – Mitt Romney has described Moscow as "America’s enemy number one” – is Putin’s clampdown on foreign-financed NGOs justified?
The Introduction for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell, Expert Discussion Panel Editor (New York University, Prague)
Experts Panel Contributions
Editor, WAN-IFRA-GIPP Magazine
Speaking in symbolic terms, the USAID should thank Pussy Riot for their demise in Russia. When an obviously trivial event worthy of two days of headlines in sensationalist press is turning into a world-wide anti-Putin propaganda campaign – involving mainstream media, US State Department related NGOs like Amnesty International and State Department itself – then even those not easily given to Cold War paranoia begin to suspect a conspiracy is afoot. So some kind of retribution was to be expected.
Let’s go back a little to the wave of protests that started in December 2011. We have all witnessed an increase in aggressiveness of anti-Putin campaigning among the same actors. Describing the protests by hundred thousands Muscovites as "popular rebellion” or depicting as a "national leader” marginal politician such as Boris Nemtsov who in the last decade never won a single electoral contest certainly adds credibility to the idea that it was a major concerted effort to topple Putin. (The only other logical explanation is sheer idiocy and detachment from reality of the journalists, activists, diplomats and legislators.)
Incidentally, this campaign also explains the recent raft of "repressive” measures by the regime. In other words, an indiscriminate attack invited indiscriminate retaliation.
Going even further down into recent history, we shall recall that beginning from 2000, the anti-Putin propaganda campaigns in the West never ceased. Many of them could be easily traced to what Ed Lozansky has once defined as the "KGB” (Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Berezovsky), that is disenfranchised oligarchs eager to take revenge. In this light one can only wonder why retaliation by the government followed only this year. So in addition to Pussy Riot, USAID has the anti-Putin "KGB” to thank for their ousting from Russia.
Having said this, I believe that USAID did have a useful role to play in Russia, particularly in the 1990s.
Beginning of 1996 I myself served as the director of the Media Development Program (MDP), a USAID-funded three-year project with a budget of $10.5 million to develop regional media. Conceptually, it was the most meaningful project among many other US and European government and private media assistance initiatives of the time. Those primarily offered training for journalists, e.g. in covering elections. That was a completely futile exercise because election coverage was in reality determined by the interests of the media outlets’ open and hidden sponsors rather than by lack of journalistic professionalism or presence of thereof.
On the other hand, we offered assistance in business development – that is, introducing skills of market oriented media management into an environment where no previous experience of this kind existed.
Bureaucratically, USAID’s MDP was much worse than average. As chief of the staff of seven experts, I had to indirectly report to USAID DC and directly to six US and Russia-based bodies. We had more bosses with different agendas than we had workers. Small wonder that the first MDP director reportedly escaped to the US and sent a letter of resignation from the depth of America without leaving a return address. The second one committed suicide. I led the project to a successful completion mainly due to my exceptionally stable psyche.
In terms of efficiency, the MDP was somewhat above average: about one out of three visiting US media management consultants who worked on the project were really good. In other words they catered to real needs of specific companies in concrete circumstances. Others preached textbook skills applicable only in an ideal economic and political environment.
Nevertheless, those few good guys will be enshrined in the history of the independent regional media in Russia as their founding fathers and mothers. Russian professionals, who worked with them and whose companies subsequently developed into market leaders, to this day have very fond memories and a lot of gratitude towards them. In those days I coined the phrase "Visiting Americans are greater Russian patriots than many Russians because they have no intention to loot this country”.
Let me name some members of this Golden Cohort: Shelly Markoff, Rob Coalson, Bill Dunkerley, Jeff Magness, Ann Olson, and of course Mark Koenig, our USAID Moscow supervisor. Some names may have escaped my memory but I remember the people.
So, in all fairness I think USAID should be given more time to pack up and get a warm farewell party rather than a kick in the backside. This would also be much better PR for Russia.
I have no connection to USAID, or indeed to any American NGO operating in Russia or anywhere else. I do not pretend to have much of a clue as to what extent the Kremlin's claims that it interferes in Russian politics to an unacceptable degree are true or not, and likewise for US denials of these allegations.
To a large extent I have to agree with Nicolai Petro, writing in the NYT's Room for Debate, that foreign democracy assistance has "outlived its usefulness in Russia." As he points out in his article "Local Groups Must Not Rely on the US"
[see the reprint of Petro’s article below], the Russian government's own funding of NGO's now dwarfs US contributions, and contrary to popular belief, this includes Kremlin-critical organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee of Soldier’s Mothers.
Furthermore, Russia is now an increasingly rich and middle-class society, so in most cases, a cutoff in foreign aid should not be a critical issue to the continued operation of the recipient NGO. If anything, shifting to exclusively domestic funding - as Golos once considered doing - would altogether free them from the potential stigma of being labelled "jackals scavenging for funds at foreign embassies", as Putin described the non-systemic opposition in one his less charitable moments.
Yet with all that said, I doubt that banning USAID is a good move. Speaking of Golos in particular, which has been singled out for using USAID funds, it typically refrained from taking concrete political stands during the last election season and instead focused on the technical standards of the elections and data compilation
from its own and other election observers. This is a good thing, because like it or not, there were severe falsifications in those elections, to the sum total of about 4%-5%
in the Presidential elections, and up to 10%
in the Duma elections. That the former figure however was much lower than the latter may in fact be partly attributed to the efforts of organizations like Golos, which helped increase the prominence of observers and increased demands for clean elections.
This is undoubtedly a good thing for Russian democracy, keeping it from slipping away into complete illegitimacy like in Belarus or Mubarak's Egypt. It is also a good thing even for Putin himself, even if many of his acolytes don't realize it; he is genuinely popular, and a truly fair and overwhelming victory (i.e., the c.59% he should have gotten) is surely far superior to a dirtier but only marginally more overwhelming victory (i.e., the 63.6% he actually got).
Should Golos or USAID be blamed for lifting the lid on an electoral system that looks like something from 1950's Italy or Uganda today
If it's true that USAID tried to interfere in Russian politics, or even "ordered" the protests (which to be honest sounds rather far-fetched to me), that still doesn't mean banning it is a good idea. If its aim is to subvert the Russian political system, then surely it would make more sense to just increase scrutiny of its activities? If undermining the Russian political system is part of America's goals there, then they can just use other NGO's... and if Russia bans them too, then there will always be the spies in its Moscow Embassy. What is to do then - take a leaf from North Korea?
Even if the Kremlin's cynical (realistic? paranoid? - I don't know, I suppose it depends on your political sympathies) view of USAID's activities are correct, it would still behove it to listen to Michael Corleone's advice: "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."
Professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island
While the focus of media attention has been on the groups that receive foreign funding, it ought to be on whether such funding is still necessary. The evidence suggests that foreign democracy assistance has never been all that effective, and has probably outlived its usefulness in Russia.
Even as human rights nongovernmental organizations received most of the funding (U.S. Agency for International Development spending on democracy and governance programs grew from 41 percent of its Russian budget in 2004 to 72 percent in 2007), there is scant evidence that this promotes a viable civil society. Analysts have observed
that the typical N.G.O. rarely survives beyond the initial grant period, and throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, direct foreign assistance had led to weaker ties between civic institutions and society and greater dependence on foreign support.
In 2006 the Russian government moved to change this dynamic. That year it held the first national grant competition for N.G.O. projects and distributed $15 million. By 2011 more than $350 million annually was being disbursed for N.G.O. projects in fields as varied as the environment, historical and cultural preservation, welfare assistance, and human rights. This amount now dwarfs total U.S. government assistance to Russia
Criticism of the government’s efforts has been widespread, but generally off the mark. In a careful review
of N.G.O. studies, Debra Javeline and Sarah Lindemann-Komarova show that there is little evidence of co-optation by the government – even anti-government N.G.O.s, like the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee of Soldier’s Mothers, can receive funding. They also found little substance to claims that the government limits what recipients can do with the money or that new legislation has intensified difficulties for N.G.O.s. Indeed, only 2.9 percent of N.G.O. leaders say that pressure from the government is the primary problem for their organization.
Another common claim is that foreign governments must support civil society because Russians will not do so. This too is misleading. In 2010 private charity totalled over $3 billion in Russia, with the largest percentage (over 15 percent) going to environmental projects. But while more than half the population gave financial help to non-relatives, only 3 percent
did so through government organizations or N.G.O.s.
One major obstacle is the feeling that such organizations already get plenty of money from abroad. But should an organization’s fortunes change, people are quick to respond. Last year, when the election monitoring organization Golos came under attack for accepting foreign funding, it turned into a financial boon for the organization. Individual donations rose so dramatically that the organization said
it was contemplating giving up foreign funding entirely.
This is exactly what should happen. Civil society can flourish only if it is domestically oriented, locally funded and motivated by patriotic sentiments. Dependence on foreign funding undermines each of these objectives. Even worse, it isolates democracy advocates from their most important constituency, the citizens to whom they should be appealing for support.
That is why the shift from foreign to domestic assistance is a positive development. It removes an unnecessary irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, and shifts the political debate from the narrow context of what the United States should do to promote democracy in Russia, to where it properly belongs — to the Russians themselves.
Political analyst with the Voice of Russia radio station
When Russian authorities asked the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to stop its operations in Russia from October 1, discontent was limited to a small number of politically active NGOs.
This lack of protest should not be mistaken for a negative attitude to foreign aid. With or without Putin, Russia will long remain a rich country with many poor people living in it. There will always be room for charity or well-targeted development aid from abroad, and Russians cherish the opportunities foreign aid opens.
They are also prepared to defend them. For example, when five to 10 years ago the Russian government talked about imposing tighter controls on international adoptions, popular discontent was much more serious than over the decision on USAID. "Why is the government trying to be patriotic at citizens' expense?" was the dominant question in the press and in casual conversations.
So, why wasn't there a protest rally over the USAID decision? Because, much to my regret, the Russian foreign ministry was expressing the feelings of many Russians when it said that "by distributing its grants, USAID made attempts to influence political processes, including elections at various levels and some institutions of civil society." It does not mean Russia does not value humanitarian assistance or is not thankful for the aid USAID provided in the difficult times ¬- mostly in the Nineties. But times have changed, and USAID has become interested in different things, and humanitarian assistance makes up a much smaller part of its expenses.
And here Putin's wish to keep the Russian political scene clear of foreign influences (a legal requirement) coincides with the mood in society. Most Russians are happy to see foreigners helping the disadvantaged or investing in Russia's economic development. But Russians are not happy to see foreigners decide Russia's future by pulling the strings of politics - even if that is done under the slogans of support for "fair elections".
And USAID has become more interested in politics since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. The American U.S. State Department's spokeswoman Victoria Nuland admitted USAID had planned to spend at least $ 50 million on developing "civil society" in Russia ¬ in addition to many other programs helping this evergreen sector, which is becoming ever more politicized.
Phrases about the idyllically apolitical nature of "investments in democracy" contradict the combative tone of some of these "investors" who sometimes appear willing to force democracy on Russia in the aggressive way Bolsheviks imposed their "socialism". David Kramer, president of Freedom House, an American NGO which is USAID's partner in many projects, suggested Obama should just tell USAID to stay and continue making Russians free against their own free will.
"Instead of pushing back and forcing Putin to publicly kick out USAID, the Obama administration has capitulated peremptorily," Kramer wrote in The Washington Post. Kramer wants the Russian bureau of USAID, an American government structure, to be lenient and compliant when orders come from Washington but not to take "no" for an answer when the "no" comes from Moscow.
The consequences were easy to predict: Kramer in fact predicted them, talking about a "forced" kick from the Russian authorities. The effect of such a kick would be an international scandal; an unpleasant affair normally to be avoided among civilized nations. Unfortunately, in relations with "Putin's Russia" scandals appear to be welcome. The tactic of some western NGOs and "government organizations" behind them is to provoke scandal in Russia ¬- not to avoid them.
"Unfortunately, many western-financed NGOs are concentrated on high-profile political cases or on fighting Putin by all means, leaving aside such problems as the plight of Russian refugees from the former Soviet republics or attempts to rehabilitate the Nazis who happened to fight the Soviet Union in, say, Estonia or Latvia," says Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.
Of course, the departure of USAID will be bemoaned by those NGOs in Russia which received generous donations for their attempts to prove elections were falsified and human rights breached.
"USAID for many years gave grants to our organization, they provided the bulk of the money we used to organize observing missions at elections," Lilia Shibanova, head of the Golos human rights' association, told RIA Novosti news agency. "There are very few funds in the world which finance the monitoring of elections."
Critics of Golos note that it monitored the latest parliamentary elections in Russia with a "presumption of guilt" on the side of the authorities, saying in advance they would tamper with the election results in favour of United Russia. Optimistic bias on the side of government media on election days is usually balanced by the "pessimistic bias" of western-financed organisations. Russia remains far from its goal ¬ transparent elections that would not be questioned by rival groups.
The State Department and USAID said they would continue to finance Russia's civil society, ¬ come what may. There is little doubt that they will fulfil their plans so the closure of USAID's office in Moscow is largely symbolic ¬- and it is not a good signal. USAID's Nineties audience, people in need, shrank as the agency concentrated solely on "civil society" ¬ as it understood it. And the audience of the pro-American Russian civil society is ludicrously small. Hence the lack of protest and attention in general.
Former Editor-in-Chief, Moscow News
My first direct - very modest - contact with USAID was in 1995 or thereabouts. I was given a hefty document, a USAID-sponsored program for the conversion of the Russian military-industrial complex. As you see, it happened quite a while ago, yet I still remember vividly my eyebrows rising pretty painfully as I read the document. You see, if that program were to be carried out in full, Russia's military-industrial complex would be history.
Well, I needed the money, so I did the translation - and can now repent at leisure, having contributed my mite to the dismantling of Russia's defense industry. This industry was indeed virtually destroyed and is only now painfully coming back to life. I remember that a considerable section of that document had a bearing on missiles and space in general - a fact that invariably comes to my mind whenever a Russian sputnik or intercontinental ballistic missile loses its way or goes bang or just succumbs to gravity and drops to Mother Earth. A pretty regular occurrence these days, you know. Nearly each launching provides the spectacle of fireworks with which the Russian space industry salutes NASA.
Need I say that I do not at all impute this sad state of affairs to USAID exclusively or even primarily. That would be silly. Our domestic heroes – the oligarchs and their political tools – contributed mightily to the decline and fall. Still, those years are an indelible part of new Russia's history – the days when, if I wanted to hear a nice Midwestern accent, all I had to do was dial a number – practically any number – at Russia's ministry for the economy. The days when Gaidar and Chubais' careers were at their zenith.
So in my personal view anyone insisting that USAID is a charitable agency innocently bent on good works is either talking through his or her hat or is doing a spot of advertising or propaganda for that agency. It is a no-nonsense organization with a definite agenda – to strengthen US influence throughout the world and, whenever the chance arises, to weaken its potential enemy. And Russia, if we are to believe Mitt Romney, is not just an enemy of the United States but its enemy No.1.
USAID plays a vital part in the promotion of democracy project which, in my view, any self-respecting nation should regard in much the same light as promotion of communism throughout the world in the not too distant past. When all is said and done, it is simply brazen interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Say, the activities of the Golos NGO are most vividly personified to me in the picture of a young man heading that organization repeating, on camera, 90 times (someone actually counted it) one and the same phrase - "You are Surkov's propaganda!" - to some journalists who were unfortunate enough to visit Golos offices and ask some ordinary journalistic questions about its activities. The guy was clearly involved in propaganda activities himself and not too eager to share its secrets.
On the financial side, the situation appears to me to be simply ridiculous. On the eve of the 2008 global crisis Russia's Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin sank a hefty chunk of Russia's hard-earned petrodollars into the likes of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, US companies which subsequently went belly up in the crisis. Why could not those millions, or was it billions, of rubles have been spent on the noble issues that the American taxpayer was paying for, through USAID? It's a subject on which I can be as personal as I please. Why couldn't Kudrin increase my old age pension - a monthly sum so measly that I'd be ashamed to name it? Why didn't he invest in Russia's health service - maybe I would now be able to get back my failing eyesight?
These are all useless queries, but, believe it or not, they are germane to the USAID issue. This USAID business was started when Russia was in ruins, not just financially or industrially but morally, too. Now, there is enough in the Russian treasury's kitty to provide for the wants of Russian citizens without relying on USAID - and it should have been closed a long time ago.
Among other things, its closure will do a great deal to improve the environment. The air will be cleaner without the promotion of democracy shenanigan. It stinks.
President, American University in Moscow,
Professor of World Politics, Moscow State University
Do you remember Ronald Reagan’s famous line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help”? Naturally Ronny had in mind the US government helping its own citizens, but the way I see it, it’s no different from the same government imposing its help on the Russians. If there is any difference, it is clearly for the worse, for why would US government officials know what is good for the Russians if, according to one of America’s most popular presidents, they don't know what is good for Americans?
Ronny was only joking, of course – we know what great sense of humor he had. However, aware of the inefficiency of any bureaucracy, American included, one can safely assume that the joke held a good deal of the truth, too. USAID must have funded some really good programs and not all of the $2.6 bn has been wasted. However, it would be interesting to review not just the grant recipients’ intentions but the results of this huge investment as well. Somehow I have a feeling that they would not be too impressive.
Still, if America could afford spending all this money on really humanitarian, environmental, health, and similar programs, I am sure it could continue doing so with no interference from the Kremlin. It transpires, however, that USAID got heavily involved in political affairs and was in consequence quite unsurprisingly shown the door.
The American taxpayer can only be too pleased about this decision. Suppose a public opinion poll were conducted in the States on some such question as: "Taking into account the current state of our economy, do you still want to spend US taxpayers’ money on monitoring Russian elections or other democracy promotion projects?"
Any doubts about the response? An overwhelming majority of the respondents would eagerly opt for keeping the money for needy Americans, for the uninsured, for those whose homes are up for foreclosures, etc.
It is pretty odd that the nation with the astronomical national debt running well over 100% GDP pushes its help down the throat of a country with a balanced budget – practically – and a national debt below 10% GDP.
Well, people are not stupid; they know that USAID is not just there to save the children. It is an instrument of US foreign policy. At present this policy is firmly aimed at portraying Putin as a bad guy. Hence the huge funding for those who can show up his dictatorial image, such as, for example the NGO "Golos.” It is supposed to demonstrate the horribly dishonest character of Russian elections. Indeed, these elections surely have some problems, but is there any country where they are squeaky clean? Don’t we constantly hear from pundits and the media
that the current US presidential contest is the "meanest,” "nastiest,” "most poisonous” and "dirtiest campaign in history?” And, if you believe the New York Times, as bad as this election may seem, it is "hardly original in its biliousness.”
Did Mitt Romney get the Republican Party nomination because he had better ideas on how to solve America’s huge economic or security problems? Or did that happen because he had a lot more money to carpet-bomb the media with dirt on his opponents?
So, is that what we are supposed to teach the Russians about clean and honest elections using money borrowed from communist China? According to Hillary Clinton the answer is a big "Yes” so the Russian grant recipients should not panic, as the Secretary of State has openly pledged to find some other, innovative ways to fund "democracy promoters.” Some say it will be done through the National Democratic Institute (NDI) which will get the money from USAID and then transfer them to the Russian NGOs. It remains to be seen how long the Kremlin will tolerate this "innovation” and whether the new White House administration will adopt a more pragmatic and realistic approach to Russia, one that will better serve America’s domestic and foreign policy interests.
Patrick Armstrong Analysis,
USAID is an NGO, NGOs are good. USAID promotes democracy, democracy is good. Putin is kicking it out of Russia, Putin is bad. Throw in something about Syria or Georgia (well, perhaps not Georgia, after the prison revelations
) and you’re done. Simple story, writes itself. Journalism 101.
But let’s go a little deeper than the surface browsing practised by the Western MSM. USAID is funded by the US State Department and as the proverb has it: "he who pays the piper calls the tune”. (Russians have the exact equivalent of this English proverb "Кто платит, тот и заказывает музыку”). What tune might that be?
So, the tune that is being paid for seems rather obvious: Putin’s election and that of his supporting party is illegitimate; he is creating new "prisoners of conscience”; honest Russians, on their own initiative, are protesting this.
But United Russia’s electoral results were those predicted by many opinion polls over some time, actually a whisker worse: (William of Ockham would suggest that if you are fixing election results, you do not fix them so that your support party does worse). Putin’s victory accorded with numerous opinion polls. Which is very strong prima facie evidence of their legitimacy. (Unless one throws out all opinion polling in Russia in which case the perennial Number Two – the Communists – with a backup from Zhirinovskiy’s party – actually won. Which would be less to Washington’s taste. But who’s being logical here?)
So, what then is the "democracy” that USAID, this not very non-governmental organisation, is pushing? It appears to be one without Putin. Whether Washington likes it or not, Putin is supported by many more Russians than practically any Western leader is by his population. Washington evidently does not like it; but it’s not really "democracy” to try and undermine him, is it? It’s more "the spread of American values” or, perhaps, American interests, isn’t it?
It will be interesting to watch what happens to the Russian opposition. I expect the Communists and super-nationalists to continue – I believe them to be Russian-rooted and Russian-funded. But what will become of Navalniy, Kasparov, Kasyanov and all the other oppositionists so beloved of Western capitals? Will they actually prove to have any Russian funding and support?
I believe the Russians are right on their imitation of the US FARA Act
. I believe that, in a "democratic” country (that word again), citizens have a right to know whose money is trying to influence their opinions. The absence of USAID’s money may clarify the situation in Russia.
Truth and Beauty
The only real mystery here is why it has taken 12 years since Mr Putin’s reaffirmation of Russian statehood for USAID to be expelled, and what this timing says about the state of relations between the two countries. American encouragement of Saakashvilli’s murderous attack on South Ossetia, and their funding of the failed Orange Revolution in an attempt to isolate Russia put an end to any expectation of alliance – what we are witnessing is a sharp competition to define geopolitical zones of influence, with Russia using all means at her disposal to advance what she perceives as her own interests.
The multi-pronged US response involves public diplomacy, but also overt and covert attempts to guide the Russian domestic political process in a direction favourable to the interest of Washington, in large part via support for the "Westernising” pro-Atlantic faction via the press, NGOs, opposition groups of various feathers, as well as funding of Kremlin opponents such as Navalny. It is hardly surprising that as a sovereign state, Russia should reject such interference – as most certainly would the US, were the roles reversed.
While some USAID programs in Russia have been unarguably useful, in particular in the public health sphere, USAID involvement in Russia is an anachronism. Russia is no longer the deeply impoverished and traumatised country we knew in the 1990s, and herself now provides increasing volumes of humanitarian aid and debt relief to the most impoverished countries. It is slightly absurd that Moscow should still be the recipient of assistance from a Western power usually viewed as a strategic competitor. The amounts of money in question are trivial, and Russia could easily enough continue to fund those programs adjudged to be useful – in particular in the field of contagious diseases.
The issue, of course, is not one of humanitarian aid, but rather, of "democracy promotion” – essentially a fig-leaf for US soft-power, and the attempt to bring about regime change in countries the governments of which do not support US policy initiatives. Oddly, Washington governmental and para-governmental agencies, a heady brew of foundations, think tanks and lobby groups, are vociferous in calling for US-friendly political change in Russia, then profess indignation when accused of meddling in the Russian political process. Mr Putin has made it abundantly clear that foreign meddling in Russian domestic affairs will no longer be tolerated, and yes, the recent initiatives go in the stated direction.
Relations between the two countries have been afflicted by an American Ambassador whose mission was apparently formulated as " to liaise with all strata of Russian society” – a noble if perhaps monumental task, but in any event, not the role of an ambassador – who is ordinarily tasked with facilitating communication and with maintaining relations between governments, not between societies. Americans would be rightfully outraged were the Russian ambassador in Washington to hold open house for the Occupy movement, or to vociferously to comment upon the egregious attempts to manipulate US elections via the imposition of restrictions on the types acceptable voter I.D. These are indeed serious problems, but frankly, problems best addressed by America, not by Russia. If only they could understand that the reciprocal holds equally true. The basic concept of "none of our business” is apparently one the US power elite struggles to grasp.