In Which I Become A Liberast: Criticism Of Russia’s Expulsion Of USAID

The latest US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel focuses on whether Russia was correct to expel USAID on the grounds that it interfered in domestic Russian politics to an acceptable degree. Here is my contribution:

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“, 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.”

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