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April 25, 2016

Does Russian Civil Society exist today?

Fundamental rights have been limited, step by step, ever since Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. A systematic policy of repression of rights has been observable since at least 2003, but this roll back on rights took a principal turn after the Moscow protests of 2011-2012. Putin changed Russia from an increasingly autocratic state without a special ideology, to a state that once again demands ideological loyalty from its citizens.

Fundamental rights have been limited, step by step, ever since Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. A systematic policy of repression of rights has been observable since at least 2003, but this roll back on rights took a principal turn after the Moscow protests of 2011-2012. Putin changed Russia from an increasingly autocratic state without a special ideology, to a state that once again demands ideological loyalty from its citizens.

To many observers independent civil society in Russia scarcely even exists any more. Small and weak fragments remain, but they do not have any significant support from Russian society. They are marginalized, and their values seems not to be shared by the vast majority of the Russian people.

Must we though assume this attempt to ingrain democratic values into Russian society in the last 25 years a failure? Are we back at point zero or even below of it? Or is there something left, maybe even under the surface, which may give us hope?

Following Putin’s election to the presidency in 2000, the Kremlin immediately began to subjugate all parts of the Russian public sphere. Previously, actions in those spheres had not been independent in the proper sense of the word, but they were, at least, controlled by different centers of power. Civil society actors became an object of the same campaign by the Kremlin.

In the eyes of the Kremlin, NGOs supported by western donors already played a decisive role in the regime change in Ukraine in the winter of 2004/2005 (and even earlier in Serbia and Georgia). This strengthened within the political elite the already virulent concept that every opposition within the country in fact has foreign roots. That view, combined with the fear that something similar to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine could happen in Russia, led the Russian authorities to tighten control. A new law on NGOs sent a signal to society and government authorities on all levels: NGOs are under suspicion as a potential threat for state security.

The modernization discourse under interim President Dmitry Medvedev evoked some hope of a turn to a more democratic approach. The disappointment of Russian society over necessary but missing change was one of the principle reasons for the biggest protest of Putin’s reign in December 2011 against voter fraud.

Russia’s short democratic awakening in the winter of 2011-2012 took both the Kremlin and the opposition completely by surprise. Putin had to come up with a new, convincing narrative that would legitimize his third presidency. After a short fight-or-flight response, the Kremlin decided to punch back hard in the spring of 2012. The concept of an ‘overwhelming majority’ and the promotion of ‘traditional values’ have been attempts to create such a narrative.

Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” and Russia’s annexation of Crimea altered things fundamentally. Moscow treated Ukraine’s revolution as a direct threat to its own power, and reacted with a preventive ideological counter-revolution within Russia.

This counter-revolution was primarily directed against all remaining islands of independent societal actors like NGOs, but also the last parts of the free press, the internet, independent scholars and the small number of oppositional politicians. The anti-Western course in foreign policy, culminating with the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, did in fact lead to a patriotic consolidation within Russia, and further marginalized different opinions. On March  18, 2014, in his address to the Federal Assembly to mark the annexation of the Crimea, president Putin talked about a ‘fifth column’ or groups of ‘national traitors’, including independent NGOs, active inside Russia.

By far the most significant of a whole series of new repressive laws for NGOs are the so-called foreign agent’s bill and the law on ’undesirable foreign NGO’s’. The ‘foreign agent’s bill’ impose a new definition of politics, one that is, ironically, not more limiting but rather more comprehensive. Everything is now politics and, as a result, the state prosecutors have found politics in everything: sociology is now politics; environmental initiatives are politics; legal scholars and practicing lawyers exerting influence on the practice of law and the dispensation of justice is politics; providing advice to the local government is politics; monitoring legal violations by the state is politics. To ‘conduct political activity’ is forbidden, and if an NGO gets foreign funding and does not register as an entity “functioning as a foreign agent’, this too is a violation of the law.

The label ‘foreign agent’ discredits the NGOs in the public space and insults them. Almost no NGO deliberately registered as a ‘foreign agent’ with the Ministry of Justice as demanded by the law. In mid-2014, an amendment to the bill gave the Ministry the right to include NGOs into the register without their consent. Since then more than 120 NGOs have been deemed ‘foreign agents’ by the ministry.

The NGOs reacted differently to this move. Only a few of them abide by the law and mark all public appearances with the required label ‘made by a foreign agent’. Most NGOs went to court. Others closed their organization as a legal entity. Some reopened under other brands. Some continue to work under the umbrella of commercial companies. Others work without establishing a new legal entity. A few NGOs refrained from accepting foreign money, and after one year, were removed from the ‘foreign agent’s’ register.

The effects of the law are diverse. Since the law came into effect, state media coupled it with a propaganda campaign accusing NGOs named ‘foreign agents’ of being ‘foes’ of the country, ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘traitors’. Almost all NGOs have to spend a great deal of human and financial resources to defend themselves. Many of them have been fined hundreds of thousands of rubles for not abiding by the ‘foreign agents bill’.

The so-called law on ‘undesirable foreign NGOs’ from 2015 is foremost directed at cutting NGO’s off from foreign financing. It gives the General prosecutor’s office the right to declare foreign NGO’s in Russia ‘undesirable’. No Russian citizen or registered Russian legal entity is allowed ‘to cooperate’ with a foreign NGO that has been labeled ‘undesirable’ by the Russian authorities. At the time of this writing, five organizations have been labeled ‘undesirable’, among them the National Endowment for Democracy, and two Foundations linked with the billionaire and philanthropist, Georg Soros. It is widely expected that most of the US-based foundations that have been engaged in supporting Russian NGOs will end up on this list in the near future. 

Does that mean the end of independent civil societal engagement in Russia? Not at all. Notwithstanding all the pressure and constraints described above, a number of independent NGOs continue to work within the country, albeit under much more difficult conditions.

Russian NGOs have become more professional over the years. To be better, smarter, to know the law better than the authorities, and to learn how to abide by the law while continuing to work has become a precondition for survival. In some areas, NGO activities have been diminished, sometimes because of the lack of funding, in rarer cases because of direct political restraints. Since restraints have been placed on NGOs to receive foreign money, efforts to obtain domestic financing have grown. A not so small number of successful crowdfunding campaigns are signs of NGOs adapting to the new realities.

The state-run defamation campaign against independent NGOs shows mixed results as well. On the one hand, polls indicate that those Russians who consider NGO’s work negative or even hostile to the country are on the rise. On the other hand NGOs themselves report a growing number of (mostly young) volunteers showing interest in working and campaigning for them. The media reports on Russia’s civil society activity more than ever, though with mixed connotations. The state pressure on independent NGOs remains high and there are no signs that it will cease in the near future, but the authorities seem to underestimate the ability of NGOs to adapt in the long run.

Author: Jens Siegert

Source: intersectionproject.eu 

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