Institute to Delve Into U.S. Democracy

A Russian foundation devoted to democracy and human rights is setting up shop in the United States.

The Moscow-based Institute of Democracy and Cooperation officially registered its New York branch on Dec. 31, several weeks after registering a branch in Paris, the chairman of the foundation said Friday.

Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and member of the Public Chamber, said his foundation's U.S. office would organize expert discussions about elections and human rights issues -- while helping improve Western perceptions of Russia.

"The improvement of Russia's image abroad is, of course, an important goal," Kucherena said by telephone.

The foundation appears to be the latest attempt to influence foreign opinion about Russia through so-called "soft power" tactics. Another such project is Russia Today, a 24-hour English-language news station funded by the Kremlin.

In October, President Vladimir Putin told European leaders that he wanted to set up a think tank for freedom and democracy in Brussels or another European capital.

The goal, he said, was to counter the activity of Western nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia. Moscow has accused Western NGOs of meddling in Russia's internal affairs and helping oust Moscow-friendly governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

But Kucherena denied that his foundation was a Kremlin project.

"There were no instructions from the president," Kucherena said. "He expressed his opinion, but I would stress that this is a civil organization, an association of NGOs and citizens."

The Institute of Democracy and Cooperation is funded by private donations from Russian businessmen and receives no money from the government, Kucherena said.

He denied that it was meant to be a Russian version of Freedom House, the U.S.-based democracy watchdog that released a report last year declaring Russia "not free" and ranking it near the bottom of a list of 195 countries.

"I have no desire to copy the behavior of organizations like Freedom House," Kucherena said. "We have completely different tasks. ... Freedom House has only one goal: to publish data, which was assembled using methodologies that nobody understands, in order to draw attention to themselves."

Phone calls to the New York and Washington offices of Freedom House were not answered Friday.

Western experts would be willing to attend events hosted by the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation as long as they were well organized and featured quality speakers, said Rose Gottemoeller, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Certainly, people will not want to attend if they are perceived as being simply propaganda events," she said.

But even if the foundation organizes valuable events, Gottemoeller said, it may have trouble getting noticed in New York, which already has numerous think tanks and NGOs competing for media attention.

"They have to be aware that they're going be in for some very steep competition, and they'll be a newcomer in that market, so it will be hard to break in," she said.

The foundation has plans to expand. It may eventually set up branches elsewhere in Europe and the CIS, Kucherena said, although he declined to give details.

It is currently looking for office space and hiring staff for its New York and Paris branches, he said.

Gottemoeller said it made sense for Russia to invest its newfound oil wealth in soft-power projects, which have long been used by Europe and the United States and typically include foreign-aid programs, cultural foundations and student exchanges.

"Russia historically has not been great on the soft-power front and, instead, has liked to throw its military weight around," she said. "It makes sense for any country to have a full panoply of capabilities -- a full toolbox, so to speak, to advance its own interests. That's just common sense."