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

The latest 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.”


  1. Dear Anatoly,

    A truly contrarian view.

    I don’t agree. At the end of the day Russian society (and that must include organisations like Golos) must take responsibility for itself. That means that groups within Russia which genuinely want to improve Russia must look inside Russian society for their sources of strength. What that means is that they must seek domestic funding. To the extent that an organisation like Golos serves a useful purpose it damages its own credibility by getting its funding from abroad.

    There is more than enough money now in Russia to fund agencies like Golos. The amounts involved are small. I don’t believe it is impossible to find them in Russia. One reason groups like Golos do not seek funds in Russia is because the availability of US funds takes away the incentive to seek them. With that source of funding gone groups like Golos will now have to look for funds in Russia to survive and I have no doubt they will successfully do so. That will be better from every point of view. If nothing else it will oblige such groups to engage with their own society rather than address themselves continuously to foreign paymasters.

    As for Russia becoming another Belarus or Egypt I don’t think there is any chance of it. If preventing it depends on externally funded agencies like Golos then Russia is in serious trouble and $45 million from the US (allegedly the total annual USAID budget) isn’t going to be enough to prevent it. Actually I don’t believe it is.

    Lastly, and as a somewhat mischievous aside, the one thing that 1950s Italy, Mubarak’s Egypt and contemporary Uganda (but obviously not Belarus) have in common apart from corrupted elections is that they have all been friends of the USA.

  2. But is USAID a democratic institution free of political bias that favours US foreign policy?


    Here are some facts about USAID.

    – In 2002 USAID director and regional head of the CIA in the Balkans David Black with his MI6 counterpart Anthony Monckton arranged a sniper assassination hit on then Yugoslavian President Vojislav Kostunica called Operation Bandit.

    – Current Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili managed a USAID subcontractor NGO The Liberty Institute in Georgia before coming to power and USAID was instrumental in securing a United Arab Emirate pipeline in Georgia.

    If you wants a barometer of the US involvement in the affairs of a Russian orientated country just look at Serbia.

  3. slavixtube says:

    Here is a good article you should read Anatoly.
    ‘Russia must close NED, other US fronts for money laundering’

  4. slavixtube says:

    Since you are writing on this subject you might as well do some research on the subject.
    Here is some quality reading for you:
    ‘Как вербуют агентов влияния ‘

  5. Wow, some whackadoodle stuff upthread. Just a note in passing: “Kurir” is not a reliable source, and neither is de-construct — one is a tabloid that famously mixes real news with fantasy, and the other is a crazy-ass Serb nationalist site.

    Anyway, a word on USAID. USAID was founded in 1961 by President Kennedy, and very quickly became famous as a front for US spies. During the Vietnam period, in particular many — maybe most — USAID “employees” and “contractors” in Southeast Asia were really CIA. By the early 1970s this was an open secret, and people all over the world assumed (often correctly) that USAID guys were really agents.

    However, by 1977 or so this was leading to some really bad results. One, because everyone knew about it, USAID was no longer a very effective cover. Two, the CIA connections were making it impossible for USAID to actually do real foreign aid work — nobody would take them seriously. And three, legitimate USAID workers were starting to get stalked, wiretapped, blackmailed, threatened, kidnapped, and in a few cases even killed.

    So President Carter — remember him? — wrote an executive order saying that the CIA and other intelligence agencies had to back the fuck off. Basically, they’re not allowed to use USAID as cover without direct intervention and approval from the highest level: President, SecState, or National Security Advisor. (Jimmy Carter was always doing sensible, liberal, good-government stuff like that. It’s one reason he’s still despised and hated today.)

    This is not to say that it never, ever happens. But it’s really rare. I’ve been in and out of the USAID world for over a decade now, and in all that time I’ve seen one guy — out of hundreds — who I thought smelled funny. (To be fair, that was in Serbia. But if he was CIA, he wasn’t Prime Minister-killing type CIA. More like funneling money to OTPOR and similar opposition groups type CIA.)

    So I think it’s extremely unlikely that there were actual “foreign agents” in USAID Moscow. Not only would it be violating US law, but it would also be fucking stupid. I could totally see the Bush administration being that kind of stupid — but Obama and Clinton? Seems unlikely.

    BTW, USAID is most certainly a tool of US foreign policy; it doesn’t even claim to be an unbiased aid agency. Bush 43 put them under the control of State, because USAID had a habit of doing stuff that annoyed State — like, State would be trying to make friends with the President-for-Life of Carjackistan, while USAID would be giving training to opposition groups. Or, on the other hand, State would be trying to put pressure on the President and USAID would open a new clinic and let him get a photo-op cutting the ribbon. A lot of former Peace Corps types end up in USAID, so the mentality is very different from State’s.

    Doug M.

    • That is interesting Doug, thank you for your informed perspective.

      Out of curiosity, what is your perspective on Russia shoving USAID out of the door? Is it somewhat analogous to what I write in this article (from a perspective that is devoid of any personal experiences with them unlike yours)?

      • Hi Anatoly,

        I think it made perfect sense from Putin’s POV. AFAICT, he wants elections that are just fair enough for him and United Russia to win. So there’s no reason to have more than a modest number of election monitors and such.

        As to the stuff like journalist training and support for human rights NGOs, that was likely to be annoying to Putin and his people even if it was “objective” in the sense of training everyone and having no political agenda. If nothing else, there’d be a lot of self-selection in the clientele; you wouldn’t get a lot of pro-government types signing up for these types of programs.

        From Putin’s POV, the major negative would be annoying the US administration — which may be why he did this a couple of months before the US presidential election, when neither Clinton nor Obama would have any interested in making it an issue.

        (Although I suspect they wouldn’t anyway. Obama’s not all that interested in USAID. Much less so than Bush 43, interestingly enough. And there’s never been a lot of popular support for USAID. Attacking foreign aid agencies for giving our taxpayers money to ungrateful foreigners has been a popular sport in the US for a long, long time — even though this is idiotic, because USAID can actually be a fairly cost-effective tool of power politics.)

        Finally, I speculate that Putin might have been sending a signal to friendly countries around the region. USAID has a big footprint in Ukraine and is also present in Belarus. They spend a lot of money in Armenia and Mongolia as well. So there might have been a foreign policy message, too: throw these guys out if they’re troublesome, I did it and nothing bad happened.

        Doug M.

        • Oh, and: Anatoly, can you send me an e-mail sometime? Your old e-mail addy no longer works, and you haven’t put a new one up on the site anywhere.

          Doug M.

  6. Ken Macaulay says:

    Completely disagree with you on this, Anatoly.

    Much of what these various organisations do is to provide legitimacy to various ‘opposition’ activities, some of which they help create, others which they amplify on a massive scale, & others which they distort from their original purpose into pro-western vehicles.

    A look at the NED’s Russia page at first glance seems to be supporting a quite enormous array of worthy causes.

    Looking at it a little deeper, you find almost all of it relates to :- promotion of “Democratic Rights and Liberties’; training & support of activists; monitoring of the Duma & Russian politics; investigating the background of Russian political figures; monitoring human rights abuses; collection and dissemination of information on ‘human rights abuses’; de-Stalinization campaigns; & a lot of support to various activists groups in the Caucasus.

    A few examples:
    Perm City Public Charitable Organization “Center for the Support of Democratic Youth Initiative” (Youth “Memorial”)
    To educate youth about the ideals of de-Stalinization in Perm, Perm Krai, and the Volga Federal District. Youth Memorial will hold six educational seminars on anti-totalitarianism and historical memory, develop an educational DVD, and redesign its website (, which will provide both a history of Stalin-era repression and information on Youth Memorial’s planned activities. Youth Memorial will also hold a summer camp for seminar participants with non-Endowment funds.

    People in Need
    To continue assisting Russian human rights organizations by strengthening their advocacy capacity. PIN will further develop the expertise of alumni from last year’s project by bringing four of the best participants to take part in the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague in March 2011. PIN will also organize a five-day training program on video advocacy for 12 activists from leading Russian human rights NGOs…

    Norwegian Helsinki Committee
    To establish the Natalia Estemirova Documentation Center, which will function as a central repository for information documenting human rights violations in the North Caucasus. The Center will collect, catalogue, and disseminate information received from its eight official partners and other sources working on human rights issues in the North Caucasus and throughout Russia. Endowment funds will be used to support the Center’s information collection and dissemination activities.

    The NED & USAID are the tip of the iceberg…

    Some of the other major organisations that are involved in funding the various ‘activist’ organisations promoting ‘Democracy & Human Rights’, either directly in Russia or directly connected to organisations that are doing so, are:-
    The International Republican Institute (IRI), the Soros Foundation, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the International Crisis Group, The Brookings Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, as well as a large array of dodgy Northern European cold-war era think-tanks & oligarch funded vehicles.

    These ‘activists’ tend to float freely between these various organisations, where, in very much the same fashion as the Western Russia correspondants club, each others ’cause’ or story gets amplified as it passes down the line – cut & paste with a little embellishment along the way.

    But the key link & cornerstone of their ‘legitimacy’ is USAID & the NED.

    The funding behind these various organisations is pretty much the same crowd behind the recent Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership legislation, which should say everything you need to know about their agenda, as well as their sincerity in promoting ‘human rights & democracy’:

    National Endowment Board of Directors

    The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    The Brookings Institute

    Council on Foreign Relations Board of Directors

    The Soros Foundation
    Run by hedge-fund manager George Soros with an estimated US$25 billion in assets & open only to the super rich, convicted inside trader Soros’s defence in the insider trading case essentially came down to how could such an established champion of ‘human rights’ be guilty – it was obviously a mistake & the laws weren’t clear enough. That time it didn’t work, but numerous cases & investigations have been squashed for this reason. He is a contender for the world’s largest short seller in stocks & currencies and is likely the worlds largest mover of ‘unregulated capital’ – or what is more generally known as money laundering for those who don’t have an enormous army of lawyers, lobbyists, high level government & financial connections. (right wing site but has some solid info)

    The Land Destroyer blogspot is also well worth checking out on the subject.

    Tony Cartalucci & Eric Draitser tend to be in the conspiracy end of things, but they do some extremely impressive research into the financing behind these various organisations:

    Wall Street Vs. Russia
    Wall Street’s poorly hidden, poorly coordinated agenda in Russia. Who is behind it?
    by Tony Cartalucci

    Russian “Punkers” Get 2 Years Jail for US State Department Stunt
    “Pussy Riot’s” support campaign is spearheaded by Oksana Chelysheva of the US State Department-funded “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society,” a clearing house for Chechen terrorist propaganda.

    Also should be noted that Alex Goldfarb, head of Boris Berezovsky’s Civil Liberties Fund & author of Litvinenko’s famous deathbed confession:-
    “set up Pussy Riot’s legal fund in the United States soon after their arrest in March. He raised about $20,000 in a PayPal account, and has now passed on the fund to a California-based charity, the Voice Project, which will continue collecting funds on Pussy Riot’s behalf.

    Pass it down the line, & embellish along the way…

    • Good links.

      I knew about NED funded programs that Matt Rodina did a post on his blog after I posted a link to Russia NED funding page on a previous article but I did not check out other organisations.

      Did not know that Goldfarb set up a US Pussy Riot legal fund in the US. Very interesting.

    • “they amplify on a massive scale”

      Quick exercise for the student.

      1) Find USAID’s budget for Russia for FY 2011. (hint: it’s online and easily searchable.)

      2) You’ll find that it’s divided among a lot of categories. You could go through the categories and say “this is going to the opposition, maybe this is, probably this too”. But that would get complicated. Let’s keep it simple: we’ll take out a few categories, and you can have everything else.

      So, subtract the following categories:

      — health (in Russia, that’s mostly been AIDS work with gays and drug addicts… and let me add that USAID was one of the first organizations to note that Russia was not having an AIDS epidemic outside of a few high-risk groups)

      — agriculture (small)

      — infrastructure (small)

      — environmental

      — counter-narcotics

      — private sector competitiveness (mostly working with business groups and exporters)

      — disaster readiness

      Everything else, you can have — it’s all going to opposition groups!

      3) Now take the remaining budget. How big is it? Divide it by the population of Russia. How much per Russian citizen is it? (Hint: if you’re guessing “a dollar or so”? you’re much, much too high.)

      USAID Russia wasn’t in the top 20 countries for USAID spending. In fact, it barely broke the top 50. Russia got about 1/25th as much USAID money per capita as Tanzania, or about 1/10th as much per capita as Ethiopia.

      Doug M.

    • It’s very weak sauce. One e-mail noting that USAID gives money to Miami Cuban asshole groups. This is unavoidable; it’s a tax that must be paid to certain shibboleths of US politics. (It’s probably even worse right now, with Republican Cuban whackaloon Ileana Ros-Lehtinen running the House committee that oversees USAID funding.) The other is an e-mail with a Florida guy telling the Stratfor guy that, hey, the USAID guy killed in Jordan was CIA.

      The thing about wikileaks is, it follows Sturgeons Law like everything else.

      Doug M.