- By Josh Rogin
A pro-democracy group funded by U.S. taxpayers, the International Republican Institute (IRI), has decided to pull its staff out of Russia due to the harsh conditions created by Russia’s new laws restricting the operations of NGOs, The Cable has learned.
The move is just the latest sign of the Kremlin’s decreasing tolerance of what it sees as foreign meddling, and comes roughly a year after demonstrators took to the streets of Moscow by the tens of thousands to demonstrate against Vladimir Putin‘s rule.
"They have to pull out, given the conditions," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, said in an interview on the sidelines of the IISS Manama Dialogue. "The Russians said that any organization that operates with U.S. funding is subject to all kinds of restrictions."
McCain said that Russian President Putin’s behavior in recent months was not rational. Last week, Putin lashed out at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying her claims that Putin wanted to "re-Sovietize" eastern and central Europe was "rubbish."
"I think Putin is behaving in a somewhat erratic fashion in a variety of ways," McCain said. He added that the new law passed by Congress to level sanctions on Russian human rights violators would anger Putin even further and engender some retaliation. The bill was named after Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after allegedly being tortured by Russian officials.
"Believe me, after the president signs the Magnitsky bill, Putin’s going to go ballistic. He’ll go crazy," McCain said.
IRI President Lorne Craner informed the IRI leadership of the decision to pull out of Russia at a board meeting in Washington Wednesday afternoon. The new NGO laws could allow Russians working with foreign-funded NGOs to be accused of treason, and requires international NGOs to register their employees as "foreign agents."
IRI will now work on civil society in Russia from a new location in Europe, and is discussing settling its Russia operations in Warsaw, Poland.
"With the passage of the new NGO law and Russia’s commitment to enforcing them, it makes it completely untenable for IRI to be on the ground," board member Randy Scheunemann told The Cable. "Russia now joins other completely closed dictatorships like Belarus, where democracy training can only be done in third countries."
IRI’s sister organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, pulled most of its staff out of Russia and moved them to Lithuania last month. Some local staff were laid off and a few remain in Moscow. Their final home location for Russia operations is also not yet decided.
The moves follow Russia’s decision to expel USAID and pull out of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was meant to secure Russian nuclear materials.
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| The Cable |
John Hudson is a staff writer for Foreign Policy where he chases down stories from Foggy Bottom to the White House, the Pentagon to Embassy Row. Between 2009 and 2012, John covered politics and global affairs for The Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August War between Russia and Georgia for Salon.com and other news outlets. Over the years, he's dug up resignation-causing FEC documents; unmasked world-famous Internet trolls; exposed bizarre Photoshopping by government media; and revealed a secret Iranian military facility. John's weakness is cold craft beer from his birthplace of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He's appeared on MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, and other broadcast outlets.| The Cable |