#07 transition
Štěpánka Busuleanu

The Long Path to a Civil Society – The Example of Russia

So far twenty years of transformation have brought neither democracy nor a vital civil society to Russia. On the one hand, disappointment at the limited development - despite massive support - of civil society in the Western sense in Russia is growing ever stronger. On the other, positive influences on an individual level for activists who received support are clearly visible. How appropriate are Western expectations of Russian society? This article will consider the long path to civil society in Russia as an interplay between the West's development strategies and domestic development in Russia.[1]

The breakup of civil society in the 90s

Most Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were founded right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the Jelzin Era (1991-1999) thanks to massive external support. The most important Western sponsors came from the USA, Germany, Great Britain and Norway. Additionally international organisations (the EU, the UN, the World Bank) along with political and private foundations played an important role in supporting civil society in Russia. Initially structures were created to provide technical support in particular (the founding of NGOs and NGO resource centres together with training for activities).[2]

This led to the creation of many NGOs not just in the centre, but throughout Russia's regions. Their influence on the democratic process, however, must be assessed as limited. Many NGOs applied for an received Western funds though they were unable to exert a real influence on society. Additionally the wider public often took little notice or utterly dismissed organisations dedicated to contentious issues.

An activist from a provincial town who was 20-years-old at the time describes the reasons for founding an NGO in the local NGO scene of the 90s: "In our city there were a lot of gatherings at the time. Many social organizations emerged, but if I am to be honest, (...) not one of them interested me. (...), either I did not like the people involved or what they created. (...) a lot really depended on the personality of the leader. And what sort of person was the very first to step forward as a leader at the time? A person who wanted to promote himself, set himself apart, to achieve something."[3] She notes that personal contacts and leadership ambition played much greater roles than shared values in the founding of new organisations. In another segment she views the impact of her own efforts -- to create a museum in memory of Stalinist repression - - very matter of factly:

"And regardless of how much effort we put in, it was like an unploughed field - work, work, work. We led a lot of tours focused on working through our past history. Issued masses of publications. Nonetheless I still have the feeling that the city still does not know about our history (...) or perhaps does not want to know about it."[4]

The "NGO-ization" of civil society

The efforts of external donors who tried to help build up civil society in Russia in the 90s were often critically referred to as "NGO-ization". This in part alludes to the professionalization of the work of NGOs, but also refers to the increasing bureaucratisation and consolidation of the hierarchical structures in NGOs. The increasing alienation of Western-oriented organisations from the needs and interests of local society was often criticised.[5] The NGOs acted like "firms" at times who not only competed for Western grants, but had also become dependant on them.

In an interview, one activist introduced the problem as follows: "Our Russian society is somehow specific. I think there are differences with regard to work practices in the third sector and in civil society. Here NGOs that are essentially professional because people earn money there are defined as civil society. In contrast we have very few volunteer associations."[6]

Her statement makes a very clear distinction between the term civil society and the third sector. The third sector apparently comprises organisations that work professionally and are paid to do so. This is in direct contrast to the ideal of civil society based on voluntary dedication. It led to the misrepresentation of professional NGOs with paid employees as civil society. And while how work was done in the sector essentially met the expectations of Western donors, the actual values behind it were internalised much more slowly than was claimed in the official progress reports to donors: "It is clear that everyone writes the same phrases about how much everything [the activities of the NGOs, SB] contributes to the development of civil society. On the one hand, these phrases wander from one application to the next, of course. And honestly -- they were written especially for the foundations. On the other hand, it is also really important. These people [Russian Western foundation scholarship recipients, SB] work somewhere, write their publications (...) and they have already received different information, learned something, a new point of view has arisen. And civil society is formed though such tiny steps."[7]

Limits to civil society after Putin's assumption of office

The political framework conditions for NGOs have changed since Putin took office. This meant the end of the "heyday" for civil society organisations, which had been growing rampantly. Despite Putin's positive rhetoric regarding civil society, the government targeted critical organisations. A repressive NGO law was passed in 2006 and attacks on independent organisations and individual activists were reported. At the same time the state made an effort to create a "quasi civil society" that could be governed centrally and was loyal to the government. It was supported by state funds and was to be coordinated by the so-called Public Chamber.[8]

This also led to the marginalisation of Western donor organisations who had to rethink their strategies. The initial wide-spread focus on NGOs and the promotion of their structures was replaced by a wider definition of social participation and the direct support of individual people. Programmes were created to promote voluntary engagement outside of an organisation and support higher education along with scholarship programmes to aid individuals.[9] From the activists' point of view, such programmes were powerful motivators because they opened up new perspectives and brought international recognition for their efforts.

These new support strategies allowed alternative life plans to develop that differed from the old "Soviet" practices. For the young people who had participated in the educational programmes supported by the West, it was often difficult or even impossible to continue to work professionally in the university structures they now viewed as out of date. This is how one activist described the situation: "When I came into contact with the sphere where people practiced science interestingly [according to Western standards, SB], I saw life plans that drew me in. And back then XX and his team got a large grant from the Ford Foundation -- to explore the ethno-political situation, then there was a grant to study higher education in Siberia and other Central Asian countries. And he invited me to participate. He founded a non-profit organisation because -- this new model of scientific work, it didn't suit the old forms at all."[10]

When the new NGO law went into effect in 2006, Western foundations were forced to either come to terms with state power or give up their efforts in Russia. Under this sort of pressure from the regime, many dispensed to some degree with politically active programmes. Often so-called GONGOsi, like the "Naschi" youth movement example shows, were not just supported by the regime, but also by Western foundations.[12] At the same time governmental support for the loyal organisations that focused on social, non-political projects grew.

The disappointment many Western donor institutions felt about the powerlessness of civil society in Russia, which was barely capable of creating stable structures, speeded up the withdrawal of many Western foundations from Russia. This inevitably led to a sense of insecurity among NGO employees who had believed in democratic values up to that point and were being paid exclusively through Western funds. One activist confirmed this clear trend: "That is a field of activity where the future is unpredictable. It's clear: if there is a grant -- there is also money; without a grant there is no money. This means that it could get difficult. Now the majority of foreign foundations who ensured good financing have simply up and left Russia."[13]

Civil society today – conclusions

There is a clear division visible in civil society as it is organised today: the GONGOs loyal to the regime and financed by the state as opposed to the independent and critical civil society structures. Activists therefore often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, between principles to which they want to remain true, and a survival strategy. They have to weigh their options: whether or not to engage with the machinery of the state and apply for state funds for their work if Western funds are not sufficient, or exit the field entirely for existential reasons. "We never tried to get a grant from the Public Chamber," reports one activist, "someone once accurately noted that the Public Chamber was like a ministry of civil society - but that civil society cannot have a ministry. (...) I think that the people who entered the organisation after me wanted to submit an application there, but I don't think anything ever came of it." [14]

In the last years of Medvedev's presidency, civil society has been able to draw a quick breath of relief when modernisation and liberalisation was announced and small concessions were made to civil society (such as a relaxation of the NGO law and the President's founding of the Human Rights Council). Nevertheless the central course has hardly changed, as the tone of propaganda against "Western spies" during the 2011/2012 election campaign clearly shows. Western donors will certainly not return under the conditions present today. In the near future civil society in Russia will presumably stay as weak and atomised as it has been to date.[15]

Dissatisfaction with the decline of values in a society in which each individual only cares for him- or herself is becoming increasingly apparent though. One activist illustrates how citizens deal with the regime and look for free spaces of their own: "Society has not understood that freedom is more important for people than all their other needs. (...) And in this situation, I do not see a way that Russia could travel along the classical democratic path like other European countries. We have become an authoritarian state, though not a totalitarian one thank God. And I will protest inside with all my power against the endangerment of freedom. (...) But although I have always been interested in the history of revolution, I have not become a revolutionary myself."[16]

The current protests against the corrupt elections and the elite now in power could be a signal for the development of a social class that is prepared to fight for democratic values. Young, educated people with good professions and liberal values (which they in part acquired thanks to Western programmes) number in particular among the demonstrators who are no longer willing to accept the status quo under Putin. At the moment though it would be too early to predict the (re?-) birth of a strong and vital civil society in Russia.


[1] This article is based on the author's doctoral dissertation research as part of the "External Democratisation and Civil Society in Post-Socialist Europe" doctoral programme. All quotes have been taken from narrative-biographical interviews with Russian activists who recieved Western support. The interviews were held from 2009-2010.

[2] For additional information see: Henderson, S., L. (2003). Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia. Western Support for Grass-roots Organizations. Ithaca/London. Cornell University Press.

[3] Interview no. 15, p 3.

[4] Interview no. 15, p 5.

[5] Refer to: Richter, J. (2002). Promoting Civil Society? Democracy Assistance and Russian Women's Organizations. In: Problems of Post-Communism 49(1). pp 30-41. Hemment, J. (2004). The Riddle of the Third Sector: Civil Society, International Aid, and NGOs in Russia. In: Anthropological Quarterly 77(2). pp 215-241.

[6] Interview no. 34, p 29.

[7] Interview no. 34, p 29.

[8] For additional information see: Michaleva, G. (2011). Das politische Potential der Zivilgesellschaft in Russland während der Präsidentschaft von Wladimir Putin und Dmitri Medwedew. Arbeitspapiere und Materialien (116). Bremen. Forschungsstelle Osteuropa. p 13ff.

[9] For information on the funding of individuals, see for example programmes from the Ford Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation along with initiaties from the organisations: the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Konrad Adenaur Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

[10] Interview no. 43, p 3.

[11] Governmental-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations

[12] Michaleva, G. (2011). Das politische Potential der Zivilgesellschaft in Russland während der Präsidentschaft von Wladimir Putin und Dmitri Medwedew. Arbeitspapiere und Materialien (116). Bremen. Forschungsstelle Osteuropa. p 13. [13] Interview no. 43, pp 4-5.

[14] Interview no. 14, p 20.

[15] cf. Lipman, M. & N. Petrov (2010). Obshestvo I grazhdanie v 2008-2010gg. Working Papers. Carnegie Moscow Center.

[16] Interview Nr. 41, p 12.

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