In a major review of Western efforts to champion democracy in Russia, the Moscow Times finds us wanting:
Perhaps the best way to whip up hysteria in government circles these days is to mention U.S. taxpayers' dollars being spent to promote democracy in Russia. But the clamor that the money might be aimed at fomenting regime change appears to be groundless. A Moscow Times analysis of U.S. spending for the past four years found that Washington seems to have given up trying to effect democratization in any significant way, steadily cutting its spending to pennies of what would be needed to foster a change in government.
The democracy projects themselves look like nothing out of the ordinary: judge exchange programs, leadership lectures by local professors, finance classes for regional officials, and journalist training. Curiously, some of the voices protesting the loudest -- United Russia, Nashi and Youth Guard -- are among the beneficiaries of the U.S. money. Mindful of the sensitivity of the matter, many recipients were reluctant to talk about their participation in U.S.-funded programs for this report. Some downplayed the programs' importance, while others flatly denied any links to them.
Foreign funding is a hot-button issue ahead of parliamentary elections in December and the presidential vote in March. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said he will not tolerate the use of foreign money in politics, and in his state-of-the-nation address last month he referred to such funding as an attack on the country's sovereignty. Kremlin fears have been stoked by the role that foreign-funded groups played in ousting unpopular leaders in Ukraine and Georgia during national elections. No one really expects a change of regime -- foreign-financed or otherwise -- in Russia, where Putin and his policies are highly popular.
"U.S. money in Russia is not enough to unhorse Putin," said Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, who in the early 1990s briefly served as editor of the Russian edition of the Journal of Democracy, published by the U.S. Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy. He also worked with George Soros' Open Society Institute. Several countries, including Britain and Germany, support programs similar to those operated by U.S. money. But the United States is the favored target of Russian belligerence, in part due to its status as the sole global superpower and a former Cold War foe. Washington also spends more in Russia than the other countries.
In rare public remarks about U.S. funding, U.S. Ambassador William Burns insisted at a news conference last month that Americans were not trying to impose their values on Russia. "Our programs are not partisan. ... We do not support particular political parties or particular individuals," Burns said in reply to a question about whether Washington uses democracy issues to meddle in Russia's internal affairs. "Just as you said, those kind of financial contributions are not legal in our own society, and we don't do that here," he said on April 12. He also said the amount of money spent was small.
Such reassurances are unlikely to convince those who see the United States as meddling in Russia's backyard. After all, U.S. State Department officials took a similar stance in explaining the more than $65 million the United States spent on aid to organizations in Ukraine in the two years before the Orange Revolution. "Our money doesn't go to candidates; it goes to the process, the institutions that it takes to run a free and fair election," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told The Associated Press at the peak of the Orange Revolution in December 2004.
How Much Is Spent
Washington funnels most of its money for Russia through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which spent $84.27 million in 2006 and has earmarked $60.97 million for this year. Last year, $38 million of that amount went to programs aimed at strengthening democracy, while $28.18 million is to be spent on the programs this year. Interestingly, USAID added the line item "strengthening democracy" to its Russia budget for the first time last year. Before, democracy and governance were lumped together into one group.
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, who spoke on behalf of USAID for this report, could not say why the line item had been added. USAID officials in Washington were unable to offer an explanation immediately and asked for the question to be sent by e-mail. The money for "strengthening democracy" came from a rearrangement of existing USAID programs, not new funds, said the embassy spokeswoman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The USAID budget for Russia has been shrinking for years, from more than $98 million in 2004, but the share of expenditures directed toward democracy has grown steadily. Combined spending on democracy and governance has grown from 41 percent of the total budget in 2004 to 72 percent this year. Most of the money set aside for "strengthening democracy" goes toward judge exchange programs, teaching regional officials about finance, education for disabled youth and journalist training. Less than 15 percent pays for the more controversial programs: educating political activists and training election observers, the embassy spokeswoman said.
Building Political Parties
Perhaps one of the most contentious areas for Russian officials is a subsection titled "Strengthen Democratic Political Parties." USAID spent $3.9 million in 2006 and will spend $2 million this year to -- as the program description reads -- "enhance the organizational capacity of democratically oriented parties, encourage and intensify coalition-building efforts for the 2007-2008 elections and help teach youth in selected Russian regions to apply democratic principles and pursue civic initiatives."
Coalition building of opposition groups and the mobilization of young people for civic initiatives, including street protests, helped lead to the toppling of governments in Ukraine and Georgia. Seminars offered under this program are often led by university professors who live in the regions where they are held. Members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party participated in seminars in nine regions aimed at improving communication between bureaucrats and society last year, said the National Democratic Institute, a principal USAID partner that organized the seminars. "We train groups that want training," said Nelson Ledsky, who manages the organization's democratic development programs in the former Soviet Union. He said members of liberal parties Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, also attended the seminars. He said his annual budget for Russia programs amounted to $1 million and emphasized that no political group or NGO received any of the money. United Russia officials declined repeated requests for comment on members' participation in the U.S.-funded programs.
Opposition groups sought to minimize the importance of the seminars. "They are useless for us. Also, in the current political environment in Russia, we are trying to avoid being put in a situation where we could be associated with American money," Yabloko deputy head Sergei Mitrokhin said. He said party members did not attend any U.S.-sponsored seminars last year, although the party worked with the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, another USAID partner, in the 1990s. Members of Yabloko's youth wing, however, did attend several seminars. A senior SPS official, Boris Nadezhdin, recalled participating in several events organized by the two organizations last year. "These were not training sessions. They all looked more like conferences where representatives of different parties spoke and discussed various political topics," he said. He added: "Holding these kind of events could in no way be called the sponsoring of the political parties or public groups that were present there."
Youth Activists Sign Up
Youth activists from both pro-Kremlin and opposition groups came together last year to attend training seminars focused on advocacy and leadership, said the organizer, the International Republican Institute. Contacted for comment, pro-Kremlin groups Nashi and Young Guard initially denied that their members had participated. "They simply could not have done so because we have training projects of our own that are just as good," said Nashi spokeswoman Anastasia Suslova. But during a follow-up interview, she conceded that some members might have attended on their own. "You know, our commissars and activists are free people and can go wherever they like," Suslova said.
Young Guard's coordinator for political training programs, Nadezhda Orlova, sought to cast Young Guard members who had attended in a bad light, suggesting they were career opportunists who had joined Young Guard simply to get into the seminars. "As for myself, I would find it reprehensible to participate in U.S.-financed training sessions after we have accused The Other Russia of taking money from Washington and turning into American puppets," she said. The Other Russia is an opposition coalition led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Asked whether she had any proof that The Other Russia or other opposition groups had obtained money from U.S. sources, Orlova said she did not and acknowledged that she had used a U.S. government grant to study public relations for a year at the University of North Carolina in 2004. The Other Russia has denied receiving foreign money for its Dissenters' Marches and other activities.
Maria Gaidar, leader of the Da! opposition youth group, said several members of her group had attended seminars in the regions last year for lectures on electoral and civil law by local professors. "Dull stuff. Lecturers from the Russian universities were telling participants what civil society is," said Ilya Yashin, leader of Yabloko's youth group, whose members attended the same seminars. Pavlovsky said, however, that the seminars were "undoubtedly indoctrinating" and led by "representatives of the Moscow oppositional liberal elite." "They irritate representatives of other parties, who see them as unfair and unpatriotic competition," said Pavlovsky, head of the Foundation for Effective Politics, a think tank. Critics also have claimed that the seminars use American textbooks to teach the opposition how to organize street protests. Yashin rejected this, saying, "We know the situation on the ground better than any Western expert." Pavlovsky said the United States was attempting to destabilize Russia by "corrupting" democratic institutes, something he called "a game" that could be played with little money. In addition, he said, "everyone knows" that unaccounted cash flows to some Russian groups on top of the sums made public. He could not name any group. The U.S. Embassy spokeswoman denied that any cash transfers were made other than the documented grants.
A third major partner listed in USAID's program to "Strengthen Russian Democratic Parties" is Project Harmony, a U.S. NGO registered in Russia. Leonid Klyuyev, the representative office's spokesman and a senior project consultant, said this reference was unfortunate because Project Harmony's activities did not involve politics and were not associated with political parties. "Project Harmony exercises strong control to ensure that there are no politics in our programs: We prohibit funding of political parties, political activity, and the subsidizing of public officials as well as their participation in all activities," Klyuyev said.
USAID sponsors two projects with the organization: a $1.8 million exchange program to send midlevel professionals to the United States and a $1.25 million program that focuses on the education of youth and encourages them to tackle social issues. The project only touches on government with a role-playing game in which young people act as lawmakers and draft fictional legislation to resolve social problems. Regional lawmakers and legal experts participate in the activities.
With the upcoming elections, Russian officials are increasingly wary about another subsection in the USAID budget titled "Promote and Support Credible Elections Processes," which received $1,655,000 in 2006 and is to get $1,605,000 this year.
The State Duma took aim at this program when it unanimously approved a resolution on April 13 that said: "Under the guise of helping to conduct free and fair elections for the State Duma in December 2007 and the president of the Russian Federation in March 2008, U.S. taxpayers' money is being used to fund numerous training courses, surveys, seminars and other events that propagandize ... and distort the situation."
A large chunck of the U.S. money -- $600,000 -- is being used by an NGO co-founded by the Central Elections Commission to train 997 election observers from United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party, SPS, the Communist Party and the Patriots of Russia. Other founders of the NGO, the Russian Foundation for Free and Fair Elections, are the Russian Academy of Sciences and Moscow State Law Academy. "My position is that foreign financial support is appropriate when it does not touch on internal politics and is not obtrusive," said the NGO's head, Andrei Przhezdomsky, a member of the Public Chamber. Election observers are also being trained by the Golos Association, which is operating on a three-year grant of $2.3 million that it received in 2004. "American money spent to educate public monitors for elections is a direct investment in democracy in Russia," said Golos executive director Lilia Shibanova. Golos is training election observers in 40 regions, mostly among students at law schools. "These trainings are never held without us first inviting representatives from regional election commissions," Shibanova said. She said Golos seminars always draw "the rapt attention" of regional Federal Security Service officials. But the officials "quickly lose interest in us" after they learn the details of the program, she said.
Among the other spending for democracy programs are:
• $3.8 million over three years for the U.S.-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law to evaluate domestic legal initiatives for government agencies. The center received 40 requests last year, said Daria Miloslavskaya, program director at the center's Moscow office.
• $3.6 million over four years to educate regional Finance Ministry officials through the Center for Fiscal Policy. "We do a purely technical job, nothing political," said Natalya Skribunova, a spokeswoman for the center.
• $2.3 million over five years for a network of NGOs promoting access to education for disabled youth.
• $1.4 million over two years for the Foundation for Information Policy Development to conduct seminars for regional journalists and officials in conjunction with regional administrations.
• $400,000 over 18 months for the Russian branch of Transparency International to monitor the use of administrative resources during elections.
Dozens of private U.S. foundations and endowments also support civil initiatives and public groups, but their share of the total amount of money distributed in Russia has steadily diminished as the country achieved economic stability in recent years. The only other U.S. government-funded group that works in Russia is the National Endowment for Democracy, which offered grants worth a meager $2.5 million to 51 Russian NGOs last year.
Both USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy have been linked to opposition groups that helped topple governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Serbia, as well as to the opposition in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Officials from the two U.S. organizations have acknowledged providing funds to Otpor, a Serbian youth movement that spearheaded protests that led to the overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The International Republican Institute also offered seminars to Otpor members on nonviolent resistance.
In Georgia and Ukraine, the USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy supported Western-leaning opposition groups that eventually succeeded in overthrowing entrenched governments there. Izvestia and many nonmainstream foreign publications reported that the private New York-based Soros Foundation also funded those groups. While retaining a strong visible presence in Georgia and Ukraine, philanthropist George Soros closed his foundation here amid a dispute over the lease on its Moscow office building in 2003. His group still offers grants to NGOs.