MOSCOW — Russia explained its decision to end the U.S. Agency for International Development's two decades of work in Russia by saying Wednesday that the agency was using its money to influence elections – a claim the U.S. denied.
The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that Russia has demanded USAID leave the country, a culmination of years of resentment over what Moscow sees as American interference aimed at undermining President Vladimir Putin's hold on power.
"We are talking about attempts through the issuing of grants to affect the course of political processes, including elections on various levels, and institutions of civil society," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Nearly 60 percent of the aid agency's $50 million annual budget this year has been allocated for the promotion of democracy and civil society in Russia. Some of this money has gone to support Russia's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, which fielded thousands of observers in last winter's elections and compiled reports of widespread vote fraud in support of Putin's party.
Putin had accused Western governments of trying to influence the December parliamentary vote through their grant recipients, and a state-owned television channel directly denounced Golos, showing suitcases full of dollars that the group supposedly had received. After those elections set off an unprecedented wave of protests, Putin accused the demonstrators of being in the pay of Washington.
The U.S. State Department denied that it was trying to affect the outcome of elections.
"We completely reject the notion that our support for civil society, democracy, human rights in any way interferes with elections, whether in Russia or anywhere else in the world," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. "We do these programs all over the world. We are even-handed as to access to the resources for political parties."
Grigory Melkonyants, the deputy director of Golos, said the expulsion of USAID was a logical extension of a Kremlin crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the presidency in May.
"All of this is part of a series of moves aimed at toughening policy toward protests, the Internet, NGOs and freedom of speech," he said. "The people who make these decisions intend to crack down on dissent and criticism in a way that is as harsh as possible. It is frightening even to think about what may happen tomorrow."
Among the new laws passed this summer is one that requires non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined political activity to register as "foreign agents," which is intended to destroy their credibility among Russians.
But few sources of funding are available within Russia for organizations whose work, even if not directly political, can be seen as providing a check on the government. The Moscow office of Transparency International and two of Russia's oldest and most respected human rights organizations, Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, are among those that have come to depend on foreign money. It is unclear how these groups will survive.
Arseny Roginsky, who heads Memorial, said his group will revert to its Soviet practice of relying on volunteers.
More than a third of USAID funding, however, has gone toward programs in health and the environment, which generally had been welcomed by the Russian government.
The Foreign Ministry has imposed an Oct. 1 deadline for the aid agency to end its activities in Russia, but U.S. officials say they will wind down programs in an orderly fashion. They also have made clear they are scrambling to find new ways of getting money to the Russian organizations that have received USAID funds, potentially setting up a further showdown with the Kremlin.
"With regard to our support for civil society, for democracy, for human rights, for rule of law, we will continue to work with those Russians in civil society who want to work with us," Nuland said. "We do that in many parts of the world where we don't have AID missions. And we are looking now at precisely how we'll work this through, but we are committed to stay on the side of those who want to see a more democratic, more just Russia."
Matthew Lee in Washington contributed reporting.