An Interior Ministry member stands guard near the Moscow Grand Mosque before an opening ceremony in Moscow, Russia, September 23, 2015.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

One January morning in 1995, an article appeared in a Russian-language newspaper that contained an allegedly declassified fragment from a report by the Federal Counterintelligence Service (one of several Russian intelligence agencies that emerged from the KGB after the collapse of the Soviet Union). It asked (and I paraphrase), “What are these U.S. research organizations and foundations: the George Soros Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others that have opened up shop in Russia? Why are they here?”

I was working for the National Democratic Institute at the time. Those of us in the nonprofit community in Moscow fretted over what this “report” signified. Would security forces come bursting through the door at any minute to take our computers? We waited nervously for a time, but other than some derogatory remarks about foreign organizations from a clownish member of the Duma, and many letters to the editor from Russians praising these organizations, nothing came of it. At least nothing that we could detect. Now, two decades later, with just a stroke of a pen, Moscow is busy shutting down the operations of most foreign organizations or cutting the flow of donor funds. Over the last several years, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and foundations have left Russia.

A banner with a portrait of U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, November 23, 2005.
Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters

Meanwhile, throughout Eurasia, from Astana to Minsk, from Baku to Tashkent, governments have stigmatized public and private donors that support social justice. The efforts have made it nearly impossible for NGOs to function inside these countries and have greatly complicated the lives of those they help. The international norms that have shaped nonprofit work over the last several decades are under attack, creating a serious dilemma as donors decide whether and how to continue supporting civil society and human rights work overseas when it is technically illegal to do so.

When I served at the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2010 to 2014, there were almost routine discussions about how donors could best continue operating safely in increasingly risky environments. None of the options—stay, go, adapt—were terribly satisfying, and since then, the problem has grown exponentially.

But there is still potential for donors to support civil society and here are a few approaches that donors, especially nongovernmental foundations, working in Europe and Eurasia might consider. The first is elevating support for Ukraine. Stabilizing Ukraine could provide a critical buffer against an expansionist Russia and offer a counter example for development in the region. The second thing that donors could do is to create a viable program of support for activists or organizations that have been exiled or have chosen exile. Finally, donors that have seen their activities individually limited can better coordinate their operations.

A hand of a pro-Ukrainian activist is seen handcuffed to the fence outside the Russian embassy in Prague, February 25, 2015.
David W. Cerny / Reuters


In the Eurasia region, an independent, democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Ukraine can provide insurance against an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Organizations or individuals who have invested in Russia’s democratic and peaceful transition since the collapse of the Soviet Union could shift or increase their investments in Ukraine. Since its independence, Ukraine has certainly received support for democracy and human rights, but it has received far less funding, with far fewer donors, than Russia, especially from private philanthropy. If Russia successfully derails Ukraine’s development by prolonging the fight in Eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his movement to close civic space will be further emboldened. In particular, if donors who have left Russia ignore Ukraine, Putin may very well come to believe that his actions have few negative consequences.

Donors can play a role helping to make sure that the attitudes and needs of Ukrainians are well understood and that the government is listening and responding to citizens. That step is fundamental in preventing a slide back to the type of closed and corrupt government that triggered the Euromaidan protests in November 2013. The revolution was fundamentally about transparency and accountability. Donors can help advance the cause by continuing to focus on state-of-the-art anti-corruption efforts, especially investigative journalism and tracking of government commitments to initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, which puts a premium on participatory budgeting, making it difficult for the Ukrainian government to steal from state coffers as previous leaders had done. To make sure that public opinion is well understood, donors should invest in public opinion surveys and share the data with both civil society groups and the government.

A demonstrator wears a badge with a line from Ukraine's national anthem "Souls and bodies we'll lay down, all for our freedom," March 14, 2014.
Luke MacGregor / Reuters

It is also critical to counter the barrage of misinformation, disinformation, doubt, and propaganda that is emanating from Russia about Ukraine. Joint research and policy dialogues are also worthy of support. Russian and U.S. social scientists and policy experts are well connected—the product of specific donor initiatives over many years. But these collaborations never fully included Ukrainians. Today, donors ought to focus on correcting that oversight.

Ukraine is, of course, not simply experiencing a political transition. It is at war. Although the world is currently focused on Syrian refugees pouring into Europe, Ukraine should also be on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016; it has a large population of internally displaced people whose needs ought to be addressed.


Of course, supporting Ukraine does not directly help human rights activists or investigative journalists inside Russia or elsewhere in Eurasia. However, these journalists, activists, and academics are leaving Russia in large numbers to operate in the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, and Lithuania. They continue to seek funding for their work and have used crowdsourcing and nontraditional approaches to do so. There are still robust efforts to continue reporting on events inside closed societies.

Many donors may shy away from actively supporting those in exile. After all, people outside of the country can become deeply disconnected from local populations. But today, the Internet helps resolve that dilemma. As exiled Russian journalist Galina Timchenko recently explained to an audience in Prague, “I am sleeping in Riga, but the Internet allows [me] to be in Russia.” Simply put, an activist or a journalist does not necessarily need to live in his or her native country to change or help it.

Another area in which donors can redirect support is toward advocacy work that pushes governments to liberalize visa regimes when it comes to at-risk journalists and human rights defenders and enact legislation that would block their extradition. (Turkey for example, accused a well-known Azerbaijani journalist who had been critical of human rights abuses in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere of spying for Armenia and forcibly sent him back to Baku where he was arrested.) Some European governments, such as in Lithuania and Germany, are headed in the right direction and already making an effort to register nonprofits that have been targeted or shut down in their native countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 1, 2015.
Yuri Kochetkov / Reuters

Reaching activists who are still operating, perhaps illegally, within their native country is a trickier subject. But donors do need to support physical security training for human rights defenders whose work puts their lives on the line. Additionally, it is important to teach today’s younger generation about the dissident experience. Many young activists are apparently asking for lessons and tips from the older generation on how to withstand interrogation, for example.


Doubling down on support for Ukraine and supporting the exiled are just two ways donors can respond to the NGO crackdown in Russia, which is also spreading throughout Eurasia. These ideas may be relevant for other regions of the world that are undergoing the same changes. A third way is for donors to engage in dialogue with other donors. Many donors have already come together to talk generally about the dynamics of closing civic space.

In the fall of 2012, I participated in one such meeting, where donors gathered to discuss Russia’s restrictions on foreign funding. Since then, many have left Russia, stopped funding human rights, been threatened with being put on a “patriotic stop–list,” or all three. It would be a good idea to reengage more systematically on new possibilities, specifically for Eurasia.

A few organizations, such as the Prague Civil Society Centre, are already working together to invest in new efforts. Led by an energetic team, this organization is bringing together activists from across the region to address a range of issues—offline and online, with formal organizations as well as informal citizen initiatives—and filling a real need to engage in new modes of working.

In the end, given the dire situation in Eurasia, business as usual is no longer an option.

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  • SARAH E. MENDELSON is Senior Adviser and Co-Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2010 to 2014, she served as Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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