As USAID stops work in Russia, activists wonder how they can continue operations


People walk past the US Embassy in Moscow, the headquarters of US Agency for International Development (USAID ) Russia’s mission. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
October 1, 2012

The U.S. Agency for International Development wrapped up its work here Monday, leaving many of the Russian activists it has supported during the past 20 years feeling a chill they thought had disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Memorial, a human rights society dedicated to preventing a return to the totalitarianism of that earlier era, was one of about 60 Russian organizations operating with USAID grants. It used some of that money to publish a book last month examining torture, kidnapping and execution in the restive Islamic region of Dagestan.

Founded by a small band of volunteers in 1989, Memorial grew rapidly in the warmth that followed the Cold War and the emergence of an independent Russia in 1991, when the new government welcomed American help.

But the climate is now less friendly. Some of Memorial’s members have died in their line of work.

Tatiana Kasatkina, Memorial’s executive director, said it is clear that the government expelled USAID because it does not like the organizations that are funded.

“Of course the state doesn’t like us,” she said. “Unfortunately, they don’t understand that we work for the state, but a democratic state.”

The grant recipients are looking for new sources of funding, and U.S. officials have been trying to find different vehicles to support them.

“Many people have asked me whether USAID departure will mean an end to our support for these important initiatives. It will not,” U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul wrote in his blog Monday.

Some of the organizations are defiant, while others worry they will have to stop their work.

President Vladimir Putin has singled out Golos, which has received USAID grants for 10 years, for particular displeasure because of its election oversight activities. It plans to monitor local and regional elections on Oct. 14, documenting violations on a map, training observers and offering legal help. Whether it will find money to keep working is unclear.

The U.S. State Department disclosed Sept. 18 that Russia had ordered USAID out by Monday after accusations by Russian officials that the United States was meddling in its internal affairs.

USAID has spent about $2.6 billion here, and this year’s budget was about $50 million, with $29 million of that directed toward projects promoting democracy and civil society and $18 million targeted toward people, mostly in health programs, officials said.

Natalia V. Vartapetova, who said she still feels regret over how she and her baby daughter were treated when she gave birth nearly 30 years ago, directs the Institute for Family Health, which has helped reduce the infant mortality rate in Russia by replacing Soviet-era medical practices with world-approved standards.

Vartapetova winces when she remembers how her newborn was immediately taken from her and kept in a nursery under the supervision of masked nurses wearing tall, cheflike caps. Breast-feeding was delayed. Night feedings were not permitted; a person was meant to sleep at night. Not only were fathers not permitted in the delivery room, but relatives were forbidden visits for a week. They would stand outside, waving to a distant figure in a window.

The institute said it has translated the latest medical literature, arranged exchanges between doctors here and in the United States, educated pregnant women and promoted simple practices. Russians were disabused of the idea that some breasts were not properly shaped for feeding. Money spent on gowns and masks in the nursery was diverted to provide sinks and sanitizer for previously overlooked hand washing.

Previously, the infant mortality rate in the first week of life was 3.7 per 1,000 live births. In areas where the institute worked, the rate averaged two per 1,000. And counseling helped reduce the rate of abortion, which was essentially the main method of birth control in the Soviet Union.

“Two-thirds of our funding was from USAID,” Vartapetova said. “And now, the quality of care in many parts of Russia is the same as in the U.S. It was a real partnership between Russians and Americans, which is why it was so successful.”

Somehow, she hopes, the American partners will find ways to stay involved.

“USAID can work elsewhere,” she said. “I’ll find another job. But what happens to my daughter and her friends when they are ready to give birth? It will be a pity if we go back 50 years.”

USAID also has funded programs for the disabled. Until relatively recently, the disabled were rarely seen in Russia, often housed in institutions or confined at home. The typical elevator was too narrow for a wheelchair. “You didn’t even see ramps at organizations for the disabled,” said Denise Roza, director of Perspektiva, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the disabled.

In one room, Karen Olson, a volunteer, Yekaterina Vygovskaya, a 34-year-old with cerebral palsy and Nikolai Khludov, a blind 32-year-old, are running through the details of a night of theater. Young people with disabilities, among them a 15-year-old with Down’s syndrome and another with a hearing impairment, have written plays that will be performed by professional actors.

In the next room, Misha Novikov, in a wheelchair, supervises job placement for the disabled. Inside her office, Roza juggles plans for conferences, training sessions, a film festival and a project to get disabled children into regular classrooms.

Now she has another challenge: how to pay the December rent.

The previous weekend, she had stayed up all night with her accountant, trying to figure out how to manage without USAID, which provided a third of the budget.

“It’s been so stressful,” she said, “thinking about what comes next.”

On Monday, Putin said charity from abroad was welcome, as long as it came from private citizens or private organizations and went to pensioners or people with disabilities.

He said Russia was increasing its funding for socially oriented nonprofit organizations. Former USAID recipients expect to see hardly any of that money.

It’s so depressing,” Kasatkina of Memorial said, referring to the new limitations on civil society groups that seem to be announced daily. “Sometimes when you listen to Ekho Moskvy in the morning, you feel so bad you don’t want to leave your apartment.”

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