MOSCOW — Russia said it had given USAID until October 1 to halt its work as the US aid agency was meddling in domestic politics, a move that risks sparking a new diplomatic crisis with Washington.
The termination of the US Agency for International Development's activities may also harm the operations of a string of NGOs that rely on its funding, including the vote monitor Golos that showed up irregularities in recent polls.
Washington branded the move "regrettable" and denied the allegations of interference.
Moscow's unexpected move appears part of an increasing crackdown in Russia on civil society after President Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term in May amid an outburst of street protests.
"The decision was taken mainly because the work of the agency's officials far from always responded to the stated goals of development and humanitarian cooperation," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
"We are talking about attempts to influence political processes -- including elections at different levels -- through its distribution of grants," it added.
USAID's activities "must be halted from October 1", it added, giving a short deadline that had not been revealed by the Americans when the decision was first made public in Washington on Tuesday.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that "we completely reject the notion that our support for civil society, democracy, human rights in any way interferes with elections".
"We make no secret of the fact that when we are supporting free, fair, transparent elections that's what we want to see," she said, adding that access to democracy programmes was offered to all political parties.
"This is not about how you win; this is about how you manage campaigns, about how you work with civil society," she said.
Anxious Russian NGOs expressed fears for their future financing -- more than half of USAID's annual budget in Russia had been spent on democracy and civil society programmes as well as a substantial chunk on health projects.
"I am very sorry that the USAID office is closing," said Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, Russia's best-known campaigner for human rights and the preservation of historical memory across the country.
"It is impossible not to see here the continuation of the isolationist policy" of the Russian authorities, he added. Without giving further details, he described the material help of USAID as "significant".
Lilia Shibanova, the director of Golos, described the halt in USAID's operations as a "heavy blow".
She told AFP that there was now serious concern for the funding of the independent group's monitoring of local elections on October 14, two weeks after the deadline for the closure of the USAID office.
"The problem is that as soon as Russian business starts giving funds to monitor elections it comes under pressure," she said.
Yelena Panfilova, head of Transparency International in Russia, said USAID's departure would be a bitter blow for small organisations that rely on the US agency to pay costs such as office rent and telephone bills.
"They have a lot of programmes that are far from politics -- education, cultural exchanges, and assistance to children with disabilities. It is a pity they threw out the baby along with the bath water."
Washington said however that it would find a way to continue working with Russian civil society groups.
"Whether we do this directly to our assistance partners, whether we do it through international organizations, through foundations, we're going to continue to support the development of a strong civil society in Russia," State Department spokeswoman Nuland said.
Viktor Kremenyuk, analyst with the USA-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that with the move, "Russia wants to say 'we do not need your help, we can stand on our own feet'."
The foreign ministry statement said that Russian civil society was "quite mature" and the country -- now itself a foreign donor -- was in no need of "external leadership".
The expulsion of USAID comes after Putin signed a law forcing NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents". He has even compared organisations like Golos to the disciple Judas who betrayed Jesus.
A US government source said Moscow's decision affects the future of 13 US staff in Moscow and 60 Russian staff.
The United States had first learned of the measure when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the APEC summit in Vladivostok earlier this month, said a US official.
The departure of USAID echoes the 2007 clampdown on the activities of the British Council cultural agency, which poisoned relations between Moscow and London. The US Peace Corps was also asked to leave Russia in 2002.
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