Kremlin shutters Bush-Putin economic foundation, Baywatch star still feted

Kremlin shutters Bush-Putin economic foundation, Baywatch star still feted
By Jason Corcoran December 8, 2015

A joint US-Russian economic foundation created by President Vladimir Putin and then President George Bush in 2006 has been banned in yet another blow to relations between the Kremlin and Washington.

While Hollywood's lure still holds strong in Russia, as seen by the warm welcome Pamela Anderson simultaneously received in the Kremlin, cooperation at the broader cultural and institutional level is taking a battering. 

The board of directors of the US Russia Foundation (USRF) expressed in a statement on December 6 "its profound sorrow and alarm that some Russian authorities are escalating a misguided campaign to isolate Russian society and institutions from normal interactions with their counterparts abroad".

The body was set up following a meeting of the American and Russian presidents nine years ago in St Petersburg, at which they agreed on its mission of promoting long-term economic development in Russia and strengthening ties between the US and Russia.

Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office stated on December 4 that the activities of USRF "pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation and the state's security". 

"Nothing could be further from the truth, as any serious examination of USRF activities will make clear," the USRF said in a statement on its website. "The board of the USRF expresses its best wishes to our many friends and partner organizations in Russia for their continued efforts to build a normal society inside their country."

USRF chief Mark Pomar was denied entry into Russia early this year and then was banned on December 4 until 2025. The foundation, which said it never received any explanation for Pomar's expulsion, said its programmes have promoted the growth of entrepreneurship and partnership between US and Russian universities.

Russia has ratcheted up pressure on civil society groups since Putin returned to the post of president in 2012, adopting a law allowing authorities to brand groups engaging in broadly-defined "political activity" and that receive funding from abroad as "foreign agents".

The US-based National Endowment for Democracy was the first organisation to get axed under that Russian law, when Moscow proclaimed the group "undesirable" this summer.

The move against the USRF also comes a year after Russia shut down the largest student-exchange program with the US - the Future Leaders Exchange Program, or FLEX.

More than 100 groups, ranging from some of Russia's leading rights groups to small regional organisations, have been branded foreign agents in a move reminiscent of the Soviet crackdown on dissidents.

"We see this move by the Russian government as another deliberate step to further isolate the Russian people from the world," John Tefft, US ambassador, said of the move to close the USRF.

The closures also coincided with other more immediately visible signs of tensions in the US-Russian relationship. The US Embassy in Moscow began on September 30 to raise and fortify its perimeter wall just as Russian warplanes started banning Syria and after Putin and US President Barack Obama had failed to see eye-to-eye at the United Nations.

Earlier that month, the Russian government shut down the US Embassy's American Center in Moscow after 22 years in operation. It has since been rehoused inside the embassy's walls.

Meanwhile, the appeal of Americana and Hollywood remains strong, apparently in the Kremlin too. Former Baywatch star and current international animal rights ambassador Pamela Anderson appeared in the centre of Russian power on December 6 to an effusive welcome from Sergey Ivanov, Putin's usually dour chief of staff.

In photos of their meeting, the clearly charmed Ivanov, a former KGB man, is seen smirking like a schoolboy at the actress who told him all about measures to conserve Amur tigers and Far Eastern snow leopards.