Putin Outs the NGOs

How to Fight Russia's Civil Society Crackdown

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

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