The provocations of the MacArthur Foundation

“Russian democracy is in danger!” This is how the liberal community reacted to the new law on non-commercial organizations (NCO), approved by the State Duma in December 2006. Even American congressmen got excited and demanded that the Russian government either take it apart or insert radical changes, in the preparation stage of the bill, since they claimed it was incompatible with Russia’s membership in the community of Western democracies.

The discussion attracted attention to the activity of multiple Western foundations with representations on Russian territory. These foundations in particular, side by side with several governmental structures, such as the State department of the USA, are the main financial sources for Russian NCOs.

The programs which finance the foundations touch on a great variety of different spheres of activity: culture, science, the development of civil society and the protection of rights and freedom. It would seem that one ought to thank people who are gratuitously helping to build democracy in Russia. But before giving thanks, it may be worth examining whether some of these foundations, in their desire to help, are crossing a certain boundary separating compassion from interference in the affairs of another state.

One can take the example of the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation which has been active in Russia for 14 years. During this time it has spent over 100 million dollars on various programs within the country, (of course, with assets of over 5 billion dollars, this is not such a huge sum, but nevertheless). Who receives these generous grants from the MacArthur Foundation?

Amongst continuous grant recipients appears, for example, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, chaired by Aleksei Simonov. There is nothing surprising here: in foundation circles this is customary. Large and rich foundations sponsor small ones, specialized on concrete tasks and these assimilate the budget or, in politically correct terms, administer the grants.

The specialization of the the Glasnost Defense Foundation arouses a certain degree of surprise. Why protect a relic from the Gorbachev era, which even in the late 1980s was perceived as an unfinished freedom of speech and now seems like a complete anachronism? But the MacArthur Foundation, for reasons known only to its management, regularly shares out generous sums of money to this organization in particular. Between 1998 and 2000, according to data published by the Glasnost Defense Foundation, it received 262 thousand US dollars from the MacArthur Foundation just for issuing a weekly online bulletin. It must be noted that in the MacArthur Foundation accounts, a completely different sum is recorded for this period: 360 thousand dollars. But the difference is in the accounting, which is not the most important question that arises from a detailed examination of the joint activities of the MacArthur Foundation and the Glasnost Defense Foundation.

The sponsors of the Glasnost Defense Foundation are mostly large foreign charitable organizations. In different years, the foundation has received money from the Ford Foundation, the Soros Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. However the Ford Foundation has not given grants to the Glasnost Defense Foundation for several years and the Soros Foundation has ceased all activity in Russia. Several other grant givers have stopped sponsoring the Glasnost Defense Foundation, not least because the activity of this organization is becoming more and more political. Employees of the Glasnost Defense Foundation do not consider it necessary to hide the fact that they categorize journalists into theirs and others’. They consistently defend the rights of the former but do not consider those of the latter.

Some publications produce allergic reactions in the Foundation. Employees of the online newspaper have complained about the violation of their rights to the Glasnost Defense Foundation multiple times. But Aleksei Simonov’s management either simply ignores these complaints or snarls at the bothersome journalists in the tone of a tram boor: he says, and who exactly are you? This is no exaggeration. This is how the Glasnost Defense Foundation responded to an open letter from in which the foundation was asked to take measures in connection with the violation of journalistic rights at the conference entitled Drugaya Rossiya (the Other Russia):

“It happens that some people understand independence as the right to smudge with shit everything they touch, then they feign haughty and righteous bewilderment and appeal to the law; for which reason we are scorned for not defending or supporting them. Let us explain: because it stinks. We shrink from defending Pravda, who stink of provocation from a mile off.”

Let us remember that the issue was about the fact that at the Other Russia conference, journalists who were disagreeable to the organizers were thrown out of the conference hall using physical force and some, during the conference itself, had their previously issued accreditations nullifiedin a rude manner. This concerns not only journalists. Correspondents from the online publication Vzglyad and the newspaper Vedomosti also suffered. It is these journalists who Aleksei Simonov refuses to defend. As he sees is, those journalists that he (or the sponsors of the MacArthur Foundation) for some reason does not like, stink.

This is not the first time that has come across a selective approach to journalists from the Glasnost Defense Foundation. After the foundation ignored a complaint from employees, against the organizers of the Round Table of the Yabloko party in October 2005, turned to the management of the MacArthur Foundation asking how they related to the fact that the activity of the Glasnost Defense Foundation was distinctively biased. We long awaited an official response from the management of the foundation, but we never received one. In an unofficial talk with a correspondent, representatives of the MacArthur foundation assured us that the activity of Aleksei Simonov’s organization suited them perfectly.

Sponsors always determine the politics of the foundation that they support to some extent. This is understandable: a grant is never given just like that, but always for something in particular. Furthermore, the grant giver always exerts control not only over the expenses covered by its means, but also over the activity of the recipient of the grant. If the activity of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which has long been known as “the Defense Foundation from Glasnost” in the lobbies of the Journalists’ Union, suits its main sponsor perfectly, this can mean only one thing: the recommendations of the MacArthur Foundation determine the political bias of the defenders of rights from Aleksei Simonov’s organization.

These recommendations are well-known; it is no secret that professional democrats from Western intellectual and financial centers view liberal opposition of the existing authority as their close ally. It is enough to take a look at the Glasnost Defense Foundation’s digests to understand that it is the rights of journalists from the opposition that concern Mr Simonov and his colleagues most of all. And there would be nothing so terrible in this if the rights defenders from the Glasnost Defense Foundation did not ignore cases of illegality and tyranny so demonstratively, affecting those journalists that allow themselves to make critical statements concerning the liberal opposition. But the Glasnost Defense Foundation has long been involved not in the protection of freedom of speech, but in a rather dirty political war and this is taking place with the consent of its main sponsor, the MacArthur Foundation.

So it turns out that a foreign charitable organization, by means of its grant recipients from the Glasnost Defense Foundation, is actively influencing the political process in Russia. Calling things by their name, the MacArthur Foundation is unceremoniously interfering in the affairs of the sovereign state.

It is a shame, of course, for the professional rights defenders from Aleksei Simonov’s department. One wants to believe that in the depths of their souls they remain honest people and good journalists, who cannot be indifferent to their colleagues’ problems, even if the latter hold different political views. Of course, they cannot fail to understand that the pursuit for Western grants has turned them from sincere fighters for the freedom of speech into defenders of the right to immoral behavior, serving the interests of those who pay them generously. But such a transformation can hardly bring them moral satisfaction.

Probably it is for this reason that the managers of the Glasnost Defense Foundation react so irritably to criticism directed at them and instead of constructively answering the correctly posed questions, fall as low as to resort to overused clichés from Soviet propaganda. For example, the expression “stink of provocation from a mile off” used with such relish by Mr Simonov in his reply to, was highly popular in articles written by journalists in the late depression. This was to be expected from the General Secretary of Russia’s Union of Journalists Igor Yakovenko, who for nine years worked as the head of the ideological department of the Dzherzhinsky Regional Commissariat of the Soviet Union Communist Party in Moscow, but coming from the son of the famous poet Konstantin Simonov, such relapses of new Soviet language sound quite unnatural. On the other hand, it has long been noticed that nature often takes a break where the children of talented people is concerned…

The sponsors of the MacArthur Foundation should pay Mr Simonov extra for the exclusively stressful and thankless work he does. After all, it is not as easy as it may seem to be a defender of the right to immoral behavior.

Translated by Leila Wilmers

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Author`s name Alex Naumov