A pro-democracy group funded by U.S. taxpayers, the International Republican Institute (IRI), has decided to pull its staff out of Russia due to the harsh conditions created by Russia's new laws restricting the operations of NGOs, The Cable has learned.
The move is just the latest sign of the Kremlin's decreasing tolerance of what it sees as foreign meddling, and comes roughly a year after demonstrators took to the streets of Moscow by the tens of thousands to demonstrate against Vladimir Putin's rule.
"They have to pull out, given the conditions," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, said in an interview on the sidelines of the IISS Manama Dialogue. "The Russians said that any organization that operates with U.S. funding is subject to all kinds of restrictions."
McCain said that Russian President Putin's behavior in recent months was not rational. Last week, Putin lashed out at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying her claims that Putin wanted to "re-Sovietize" eastern and central Europe was "rubbish."
"I think Putin is behaving in a somewhat erratic fashion in a variety of ways," McCain said. He added that the new law passed by Congress to level sanctions on Russian human rights violators would anger Putin even further and engender some retaliation. The bill was named after Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after allegedly being tortured by Russian officials.
"Believe me, after the president signs the Magnitsky bill, Putin's going to go ballistic. He'll go crazy," McCain said.
IRI President Lorne Craner informed the IRI leadership of the decision to pull out of Russia at a board meeting in Washington Wednesday afternoon. The new NGO laws could allow Russians working with foreign-funded NGOs to be accused of treason, and requires international NGOs to register their employees as "foreign agents."
IRI will now work on civil society in Russia from a new location in Europe, and is discussing settling its Russia operations in Warsaw, Poland.
"With the passage of the new NGO law and Russia's commitment to enforcing them, it makes it completely untenable for IRI to be on the ground," board member Randy Scheunemann told The Cable. "Russia now joins other completely closed dictatorships like Belarus, where democracy training can only be done in third countries."
IRI's sister organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, pulled most of its staff out of Russia and moved them to Lithuania last month. Some local staff were laid off and a few remain in Moscow. Their final home location for Russia operations is also not yet decided.
The moves follow Russia's decision to expel USAID and pull out of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was meant to secure Russian nuclear materials.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.