U.S. Withdraws From Project With Russia on Civil Society

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MOSCOW -- The United States is withdrawing from a bilateral Russian-American working group on civil society, a three-year-old project that embodied the spirit of the "reset" between Washington and Moscow, in answer to Russia's recent crackdown on civil society groups.

The "civil society working group" was one of 20 groups convened in 2009 by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri A. Medvedev, as Washington made a concerted push to repair relations with the Kremlin and embark on a series of bilateral projects, including cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan, and the signing of a new nuclear treaty. However, relations between the two governments have come under increasing strain over the last year, as President Vladimir V. Putin returned to power accusing American officials of stirring up political dissent in Russia. Nonprofit groups have come under particular pressure, as lawmakers passed new laws severely restricting foreign financing, requiring them to register as "foreign agents," and expanding the definition of high treason to include assisting foreign organizations.

On Friday, Thomas Melia, the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said in a statement that the decision to withdraw from the civil society working group was made "in light of recent steps taken by the Russian government to impose restrictions on civil society."

Mr. Melia said the working group was a bilateral project "designed to foster the development of civil society," and that new restrictions imposed in recent months "called into serious question whether maintaining that mechanism was either useful or appropriate," according to a copy of the statement, provided by the American Embassy in Moscow.

The working group had not met in a plenary session for more than a year, amid disputes between the two sides about its scope and format.

The fraying of bilateralrelations escalated during political campaigns in both countries and accelerated with a recent legislative tit-for-tat. After Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a provision punishing Russian officials who are accused of human rights violations, Russia banned all adoptions of Russian children by American families and banned American financing of nonprofit organizations seen as politically active.

Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin's spokesman, said he regretted the American decision but played down its importance.

"It means nothing, actually," he said. "We deeply regret that that we've been deprived of one of the formats of dialogue, without compensating its absence with a new one. We are very sorry about that. It's negative for both Moscow and Washington."

But he said it did not pose a great loss, especially because Russia insists its domestic affairs should not be subject to international scrutiny.

"We cannot discuss our domestic affairs," he said. "We can share our views, exchange our opinions, but we can never discuss our domestic affairs." He added that the commission had not been meeting frequently. "We won't have any phantom pains after losing something indispensable," he said.

The commission -- like the reset policy itself -- had come under much criticism from Russian activists, many of whom complained that Washington had lessened its pressure over human rights because it was pursuing strategic goals, like Russian cooperation in Iran and Afghanistan.

"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, president of the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights, an advocacy group based in Moscow. The working group, he said, had become "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."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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