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Kremlin to pull out of Russia-US nuke lockdown program

Russia's plan to end the Nunn-Lugar program, in which the US aided Russia in handling post-Soviet weaponry, is just part of Russia's shifting policy regarding international cooperation.

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Experts say the shifting policy toward international cooperation should be seen in connection with a changing domestic environment, in which it is becoming much harder for Russian civil society organizations to work with foreign counterparts or receive funding from abroad, particularly if their activities involve any friction with authorities. In June, the State Duma passed a law that will require any non-governmental organization that tries to "influence public opinion" and gets any amount of outside financing to self-identify as a "foreign agent." The Duma is currently debating amendments to the criminal code that will redefine "treason" to include almost any Russian who helps a foreign organization in any way seen by the Kremlin as harmful to Russian interests.

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"Our authorities are not so interested in solving social problems, but they are keen on reducing all possible foreign funding or influence," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's committee on international affairs.

"You have to see these developments as part-and-parcel with the legislative changes taking place. The technique here is first to try and discredit an organization publicly, and then to close it down," he adds.

Iosif Diskin, who heads the civil society committee of Russia's Public Chamber, a Kremlin-backed assembly of NGOs, says there is a long-term logic to what is happening, which includes a huge increase in governmental support for developing Russian civil society.

"Some of the cases are different, but I know that the Russian government has been negotiating with UNICEF since 2009 about changing the model of the relationship," he says. "Russia doesn't need financial support from UNICEF to work with children anymore, but we do need to maintain cooperation, especially in places like former Soviet Central Asia where we are nowadays sending Russian aid."

But he says he was surprised by the suddenness of USAID's withdrawal from Russia.

"We were cooperating with USAID, and were told just a few months ago that there was no problem," Mr. Diskin says.       

The bottom line, he says, is that Russian authorities are dividing non-political civil society – such as sports, cultural, and community groups – from those few that engage in "political activities" that bring them into friction with the state.

For the non-political ones, the Kremlin is tripling official funding next year to 3 billion rubles (about $100 million), he adds.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human rights campaigner and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights watchdog, says the Kremlin's main goal is to shut down independent activity and limit the funding options for all Russian civil society organizations to officially approved sources.

"Russia can't afford to finance all the projects that US foundations have helped, but that doesn't matter to our authorities," she says. "They're ready to leave humanitarian projects unfunded, if it helps achieve their purpose of silencing independent groups that get in their way."

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