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The first Russian think tank based in the United States has yet to officially open its doors. But it's already generating a lot of controversy.
Critics say the Russian Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (RIDC) is little more than a new propaganda tool for the Kremlin as it sharpens its attacks on the West. But the head of the institute's New York branch says he and his colleagues intend to study U.S. democracy -- not criticize it.
Andranik Migranyan bristles at the suggestion that the new think tank is seen as Kremlin tool meant to respond in kind to the harsh critiques often heard from Western NGOs like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.
The political scientist says scrutinizing U.S. conduct at Guantanamo Bay or the Bush administration's public-surveillance program are not on RIDC's agenda. Instead, the organization's main goal is to study the United States for potential solutions to common problems back in Russia.
"We have very serious problems today concerning these problems of immigration, integration, and adaptation," Migranyan said at a recent press conference in Washington. "Russia is becoming more multinational, multiethnic, multireligious, and we have serious problems in this area. This country [the United States] has a long-lasting history on all these issues. And we would like to know how these problems are discussed here, how they are solved here -- as well as institutional problems, and problems [with values]. What do those things mean?"
There's no disputing that during most of Russian President Vladimir Putin's eight-year rule, which ended earlier this month, U.S. rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House -- not to mention the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report -- have frequently criticized the Russian government for a variety of sins against democracy.
Such groups have noted a steep decline in Russia's civil liberties under Putin, pointing to the forced closure of independent media outlets, the jailing of political opposition figures, and tight state control of campaigns and elections.
Russia often seeks to discredit the findings of such Western rights groups. But with the formation of RIDC and other initiatives like Russia Today, a government-funded English-language news channel begun in 2005, the Kremlin appears to be moving from a defensive posture to an offensive one.
Yet Migranyan said the idea for the institute was not a tit-for-tat response to Western criticism, describing it instead as the brainchild of a number of Russian political thinkers who are interested in the concept of democracy and in making sure Russia's own thoughts on the subject are heard.
"In Russia, from [former] President Putin to President [Dmitry] Medvedev to the rest of academics to the mainstream, or at least majority, they accept the idea of liberal democracy," he said. "They value institutions and values, they understand that this gives efficiency to the economy, efficiency to political system[s]. But at the same time, the idea of sovereign democracy means that you can't just impose it."
Migranyan, who has held several advisory posts with the State Duma and Federation Council, describes himself as an avid student -- if not a fan -- of American political affairs. Unabashedly in the Kremlin's camp, he is quick to criticize opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov and Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov.
The launch of RIDC was announced with fanfare at the start of 2008. Its operations, however, remain somewhat vague. The institute has yet to create a website, for example, and a Paris branch, reportedly already open, has shown little sign of life. Migranyan says he has already signed leases on office space for the New York office and is waiting for a U.S. bank to approve the institute's status as a nonprofit charity.
While he waits, he says he's holding meetings with potential U.S. partners -- think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Institute; Russian studies centers like the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard; and academic institutions like the University of California at Berkeley.
Questions remain about RIDC's funding. Many observers have alleged that the group receives handsome support from the Kremlin. But Migranyan says that while the Kremlin approved the group's creation, financial support comes from "different business structures and donors who are interested in America" -- and not the government.
Still, a fellow speaker at Migranyan's press conference -- while not acknowledging Kremlin funding -- saw nothing wrong with accepting government support. Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow, lashed out a questioner from the National Endowment for Democracy for what he characterized as a double standard on the question of government funds.
"The last time I [checked] the National Endowment for Democracy was funded by the U.S. government," Lozansky said. "I don't know, probably you get some private funds, too, but most of the money comes from the government. The same with the National Democratic Institute, the same with National Republican Institute."
Lozansky, who was stripped of his academic position in the 1970s for publicly criticizing Soviet policy, appeared convinced his country was on the right track -- and that naysayers should find another country to inspect.
"It may take Russia 50 or 100 years to achieve total democracy, but it will get there," he said. "Let them do their own thing."