Russia says U.S. aid mission sought to sway elections

September 20, 2012

(Reuters) – Moscow accused the United States on Wednesday of using its aid mission in Russia to meddle in politics and influence elections, a charge likely to push relations between the former Cold War foes to a new low after Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a blunt statement explaining Moscow’s decision, announced by Washington on Tuesday, to give the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) until October 1 to cease operations in Russia.

Kremlin critics said the move was intended to cut funding to organizations Putin sees as a threat following his return as president in May after four years as prime minister, and called it part of a crackdown on dissent.

“It’s about attempts to influence political processes, including elections of various types, and institutions of civil society though the distribution of grants,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in statement.

He said Moscow had also been worried about USAID’s work in regions including the North Caucasus, where Russia faces an Islamist insurgency that activists say is stoked by rights abuses and tough police tactics.

USAID has worked for two decades in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, spending more than $2.6 billion on program intended to combat disease, protect the environment, strengthen civil society and modernize the economy.

But persistent tension between Moscow and Washington over U.S. democracy-building abroad has been aggravated by peaceful political change in ex-Soviet republics, upheavals in the Arab world and Putin’s long rule.

Putin, a former KGB spy in power since 2000, has repeatedly warned the West and particularly the United States not to meddle in Russian politics. He once likened opponents to “jackals” skulking around embassies and living on foreign handouts.

“Putin feels and has always felt that a free, independent civil society is his enemy, a foe of imitation democracy,” said Oleg Orlov, chairman of the human rights group Memorial, which gets a little less than half its funding from USAID.

“Putin takes us as a threat to the system he has built in the country,” he told Reuters.

The United States has criticized Russia’s elections and its record on upholding the rule of law, but has dismissed accusations that its funding of human rights and pro-democracy organizations is intended to influence domestic politics.

The move against USAID increases friction in a relationship that improved after President Barack Obama moved to “reset” ties in 2009 but is strained by disputes over issues ranging from the crisis in Syria to U.S. missile defense plans.

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