The Obama administration has pulled out of a joint working group on civil society with Russia to protest the Kremlin’s crackdown on critics.
The Civil Society Working Group was a key component of the administration’s “reset” policy with Moscow, but Russian democracy advocates questioned its effectiveness.
“In practice, it has turned out that human rights and the rule of law and democracy have all but disappeared from the agenda in the U.S.-Russia dialogue,” said Yuri Dzhibladze (above), president of the Moscow- based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. The group became “a symbolic anatomy of the failure of the reset policy.”
“This particular working group has not been too helpful, and I’m glad it is gone,” he said. “We should not pretend that this has been a real mechanism for dialogue.”
The panel, which came under the umbrella of the U.S-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, was neither effective nor appropriate, said Thomas Melia (right), U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
He said the decision to withdraw from the working group was made “in light of recent steps taken by the Russian government to impose restrictions on civil society.”
“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 a 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.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law that requires foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as “foreign agents”, and the Kremlin ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The panel 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.”
The US move also follows a notable spike in anti-Americanism which, observers suggest, has been deliberately promoted by the regime. But some Russian analysts fear the Kremlin’s xenophobia will prove to be counter-productive.
“Conducting a harsh anti-American course, we won’t get anywhere because America has more levers of influence over the main centers of power like China, India, the European Union, Japan and even the countries of the post-Soviet space,” Alexei Arbatov, a prominent analyst at a state research institute, wrote in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper this week.
A close adviser to Putin today defended the clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs.
“We are effective enough to ensure a growing civil society, growing political engagement,” said Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, in an interview with the National Interest.
“Definitely we have those who are considered to be members of the opposition. Some of them are popular enough; some of them are not popular at all,” he said. “But, as a matter of fact, the dialogue between the Russian government and the opposition cannot be a subject of the bilateral relationship between Moscow and Washington, and in no way can be an issue of [state-to-state] discussion.”