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Putin is waiting to see whether Trump will fund pro-democracy programs

- March 20, 2017
Traditional Russian wooden dolls depicting President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed for sale at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg on Feb. 20, 2017. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

How will the Trump administration relate to Russia? Many inquiring minds want to know. Much of the news media has focused on whether President Trump will eliminate U.S. economic sanctions on Russia. But here’s something else that could have a big effect on U.S.-Russia relations: Will Trump modify U.S. democracy programs?

The origins of U.S. democracy programs

Since the 1980s, several U.S. government agencies have been dedicated to helping build democracy around the world, by delivering financial and technical support for government institutions, political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The U.S. agencies in question include the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) within the State Department; and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its associated groups, including the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Before these groups came on the scene, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ran these kinds of efforts.

These programs are highly controversial.

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Supporters contend that these groups often keep democratic hope alive in states with authoritarian governments. But some academic critics and foreign government leaders argue that these agencies back political parties and NGOs that champion neoliberal economic policies and U.S. national security interests. Other critics assert that sometimes agencies like USAID and the NED support organizations and actors that have sought to overthrow — sometimes violently — existing governments, such as in Bolivia, Georgia, Ukraine and Venezuela.

That’s certainly what many foreign governments fear. Since the success of some of the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, several governments have tried to stop U.S. democracy assistance programs in their countries. In 2003, the Belarusan government prohibited foreign funding for political organizations in the country; it continues to pass legislation in that vein, such as prohibiting NGOs from holding funds in foreign banks. In 2010, Venezuela — after accusing several NGOs of taking U.S. funding to overthrow the Chávez government — also passed legislation criminalizing foreign funding for political parties and politically oriented NGOs. And in 2013, Bolivia expelled USAID from the country.

Putin doesn’t like U.S. democracy programs, either

You can count Russian President Vladimir Putin as an opponent of U.S. democracy programs that fund civil society groups, especially within Russia.

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And the Duma has taken action. In 2006, it passed laws criminalizing NGOs that threaten Russian “national sovereignty” and its “unique character.” In 2012, it passed laws declaring that NGOs that receive foreign funding are “foreign agents,” a term that was last used during the days of the Soviet Union.

Amnesty International has reported that 148 groups have received this designation over the past four years. As a result, these groups have faced heightened intimidation from the Russian government, as well as tarnished reputations. They also remain subject to stricter registration requirements and have found the acquisition of foreign funding much more difficult. Some groups have even shut down.

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Not long after the passage of this legislation, the government also expelled USAID from the country. And in 2015, Putin banned the NED from the country and prohibited NGOs from receiving any funding from the group.

The United States has continued democracy programs despite local prohibitions.

Nevertheless, USAID and the NED have continued to fund organizations, even where that’s against the local country’s laws. In Venezuela, for example, the United States has openly continued funding civil society organizations, even listing that in its annual budgets, albeit without naming recipients.

USAID and the NED are undoubtedly keeping their plans in the country secret. However, the NED and its leaders continue to openly counter Russian ideological efforts throughout Eurasia. For instance, when NED President Carl Gershman testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2016, he said that one of the NED’s five main focuses includes pushing back against “an information offensive by Russia and other authoritarian regimes.”

Through various actions, Putin has made it clear how much he despises these programs and sees them as interfering with Russian sovereignty. Russia Today, for instance, regularly runs critiques of these efforts. So will he raise this issue with the Trump administration?

Trump could scale back U.S. democracy programs in Russia.

But how will Trump respond?

Trump’s budget plans to cut funding for the State Department and USAID. He has said that he will strengthen U.S. ties with Russia. As part of his “America First” agenda, will he eliminate U.S. democracy programs?

That’s very difficult to predict. Both Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have a history of praise and involvement with Russia. Tillerson, for instance, tried to start several oil ventures in Russia, which were eventually blocked by U.S. economic sanctions. But the democracy and development community within the U.S. government will certainly push to continue its efforts in Russia and the broader Eurasia region.

The most important decision in U.S.-Russia relations remains, of course, whether to continue sanctions. But watch this as well: Will U.S. democracy-promoting organizations be allowed to continue working with civil society groups in Russia and its neighbors? If not, that will be a clear signal of changed relations between the two powers.

Timothy M. Gill is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University, and his research examines U.S. democracy promotion efforts in Venezuela.