Putin Critics Urge Fresh US Support for NGOs in Russia

WASHINGTON, June 13 (RIA Novosti) – Independent pollsters and election monitors face growing hurdles in Russia, and the United States should find new ways to support them and other nongovernmental organizations there, critics of President Vladimir Putin told a US Senate panel here Thursday.

Testifying at a Senate hearing, five well-known Putin critics argued the Russian leader is rolling back basic freedoms to consolidate his hold on power after being surprised by large-scale opposition protests and asserted that this trend runs counter to the interests both of Americans and Russians.

“America’s concern for the state of Russian democracy is sometimes portrayed as an intrusion into another country’s affairs,” Stephen Sestanovich, an academic and former US ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, said in prepared testimony for the Senate panel.

“The truth is different. Our concern reflects a strong commitment to partnership between the two countries,” Sestanovich said.

His comments were echoed by other panelists, including Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and current opposition figure, conservative think-tank researchers Ariel Cohen and Leon Aron, and Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International.

Sestanovich called on Congress to consider establishing a new US-Russia Civil Society Fund that would draw on financing from a now-defunct US-Russian Investment Fund and be used to support the development of civil society in Russia and other former Soviet countries.

The Senate hearing was advertised in advance as an examination of “the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia,” and the five witnesses, well-known and vocal critics of Putin, offered strikingly uniform testimony on the state of affairs in Russia today.

Sestanovich described a new Russian law requiring any nongovernmental organization (NGO) that receives funding from outside Russia and operates inside Russia to register as a “foreign agent” as a “crude attack on civil society” that puts Russia at odds with European values.

The Kremlin contends that contrary to being “independent,” as they are described in the West, some NGOs are in fact dependent on funds from the United States and other governments and operate as vehicles to promote the political interests of the foreign countries that finance them.

Answering questions from senators, Sestanovich said public opinion polling organizations and independent election monitoring groups – NGOs that are “particularly at the interface between civil society and politics” – were in an especially precarious situation under the new Russian law.

“The Russian government has tried to create the idea that these are political activities and that any groups involved in these activities are political actors,” he said.

Thursday’s hearing came after the Levada Center, a respected independent Russian public opinion research organization, said it would forego financial support from abroad in order to avoid registering as a “foreign agent” under the new Russian law.

Sestanovich suggested that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private US nonprofit that says it promotes democracy around the world and that includes Sestanovich as one of its board members, would be a good group to manage the US-Russia Civil Society Fund he proposed creating.

“Would the Russian government dislike that reality? Yeah, no question about it,” he said. “But the Russian government is on weak ground.”


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