U.S. quits joint panel with Russia on civil society

January 25, 2013

In the face of a Russian crackdown on civic groups, coupled with a growing list of anti-American gestures by the Kremlin, the United States has decided to close up shop on a joint panel that was designed to foster civil society in the two countries.

The panel, which was under the umbrella of the U.S-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, is neither effective nor appropriate, Thomas Melia, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in a statement Friday.

President Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the decision to withdraw is “regrettable.”

But the panel, called a working group, has accomplished almost nothing in the past 18 months, said Matthew Rojansky, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, because it is clear that Putin’s government has no interest in developing the hallmarks of a civil society.

“We take these things seriously,” Rojansky said, characterizing the American message. “And you have shown you don’t take them seriously.”

Russia's president cracks down on dissent.

At the same time, other working groups of the bilateral presidential commission, established in 2009, are continuing. And a new working group, on military technical cooperation, has been set up. It is the third panel, out of a total of 19 in the commission, devoted to security issues. That is emblematic, Rojansky said, of where the Kremlin’s priorities lie — and where cooperation with the United States is still feasible.

The American move to withdraw from the civil society panel comes, though, in an overall atmosphere of worsening relations between Moscow and Washington, including the recent expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development and a requirement that nonprofit electoral and human rights groups receiving money from abroad register as “foreign agents.”

In December, the United States enacted a law punishing corrupt Russian officials with financial and visa sanctions, and Russia retaliated with a ban on American adoptions of Russian children. Dropping the civil society group would seem to be a way to send a sharp notice without damaging American interests — because Russia has already made it impossible for the United States to do much in support of civil society here.

The working group was established nearly four years ago to foster “peer contacts” between civic organizations in each country, and efforts went beyond official channels. In June, for example, when Melia visited Russia for a meeting of the working group, he also met with a broad array of activist groups.

Since then, the Kremlin crackdown has made it increasingly difficult for civic groups to operate here, and they must keep foreign governments at arm’s length.

“The U.S. government is open to an honest and open dialogue on civil society and human rights issues with the government of Russia and with civil society,” Melia said in his statement. “We will continue voicing our concerns both publicly and privately about the new laws that restrict the work of civil society in government-to-government discussions.”

But he made it clear that Washington believed the working group had become pointless. The withdrawal was first reported by the newspaper Kommersant on its Web site Friday afternoon.

Some of the issues addressed by the panel, such as human trafficking and questions related to children, can be handled in other forums, Melia said. Rojansky said a working group on educational and cultural exchanges is “alive and well” and could take over some of the functions of the civil society panel.

Pavel Astakhov, who holds the post of children’s ombudsman and strongly backed the law barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans, said he was disappointed in the U.S. decision.

“Our work in that commission was highly efficient,” Astakhov told the Interfax news agency. “We exchanged experience in the search for [missing] children and assistance to orphans.”

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