Who Guards the Guardians? The Illusion of Civil Society in Russia

August 3, 2018

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama confidently declared that we had reached the end of history; that liberal democracy had vanquished all other modes of governance. This declaration captured the political zeitgeist of the 1990s. Democracy had overcome authoritarian regimes in Southern Europe and South America in the 70s and 80s, and there was conviction that it would diffuse through liberated Eastern Europe. In the process of democratisation, great importance was placed on the development of civil society as a way for the people to aggregate and represent their own needs and interests, and to dislodge corrupt and incompetent governments. No state can be omniscient and is liable to fail in the delivery of social and public services. In theory, civil society fills this gap and gives the people political agency outside the rigid structure of representative democracy.

In the Soviet Union, there was no allowance made for independent, organised groups. Civic organisations did exist, but not autonomously. Participation was not voluntary, and was very much tied to Party membership, rendering civil society nothing more than an extension of the state. In fact, civil society monitored society instead of the state, reflecting the top-down power structure of the the Soviet Union. The resultant lack of democratic communication between the state and society meant that the citizenry relied on an informal economy of sophisticated personal connections in order to meet their needs and interests. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, its citizens uniformly rejected government institutions as a reliable support network.

When Yeltsin came to power and Russia nominally began to embrace Western-style neoliberal democracy, there was a drive among Soviet dissidents to establish an independent civil society. The state under Yeltsin withdrew a step too far, leaving many of the most vulnerable in society without adequate social care. Western commentators thought this power vacuum ideal for the development of autonomous social organisations. However, as it turned out, an all-pervading legacy of mistrust in organised social groups polluted the idea of voluntary associationalism, and the Russian citizenry continued to rely on tight-knit family networks. Also the lack of legal structures meant that those social networks which did develop became embroiled in exploitative self-enrichment rather than focusing on societal issues. Finally, the lack of domestic funding and wider political support stifled the optimism of social activists.

Putin came to power at the start of the new millennium and made it his task to reclaim the power of the state, and increase its influence in every aspect of social life. While he recognised the need for a strong civil society, he was determined that it should be obedient rather than critical of the state. At the time there were some civil society organisations who were working to imbue Russia with liberal values. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia, founded in 2001, is one such example. The organisation, affiliated with Henry Kissinger and Lord Jacob Rothschild, sought to educate young people about free market democratic principles and support human rights NGOs. The attitude of the Putin administration to NGOs with pro-democracy agendas significantly changed following the colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In all three cases, NGOs played a role in challenging the respective incumbents through promoting the importance of fair elections.

Fearing a similar threat to his own power, Putin began to narrow the parameters of the autonomous public sphere, and sharpen the boundaries between civil and “uncivil” society by constructing the notion that Russia was under siege by corruptive forces. In 2006, new legislation was introduced which made it vastly more difficult for unfavourable NGOs to operate – laborious layers of bureaucracy were introduced and several human rights organisations were outright denied registration (most notably, the International Youth Human Rights Movement). Open Russia had its bank accounts frozen during this period, effectively shutting it down. Alongside this the Public Chamber began to regulate the relationship between the state and civil society by granting funds to NGOs acting with the state’s remit and excluding those with independent agendas.

From 2006 onwards, hostile rhetoric towards foreign funded NGOs increased, and dissenting voices in the human rights movement were met with violent threats and attacks. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered for exposing of Russian warcrimes in Chechnya. Three years later, Baburova and Markelov, a human rights lawyer and a journalist working on the Politkovskaja case, were gunned down on the streets of Moscow. Opportunities for public demonstrations were almost non-existent as groups critical of the government, or promoting foreign narratives, were increasingly marginalised. Pro-government groups like Nashi and Molodaya Gvardiya grew in stature, and increasingly patrolled the boundaries of the legitimate public sphere. However, it was after the anti-corruption protests of 2011-2012 that an all-out legislative assault on centrifugal, liberal forces in civil society was mobilised. Alongside this ran a concerted effort to inspire pro-state civic activism through a direct grant system.

Anxious about potential revolution – a notion embedded in Russian consciousness – Putin introduced several laws which remind one of the hysteria of Soviet totalitarianism. Under the new system, every NGO receiving foreign funding or engaging in political activities is required to register as a “foreign agent” – an expression semantically rooted in the rhetoric of Stalinism. As it stands, 76 NGOs have been declared foreign agents, including one which provides assistance to children with cystic fibrosis. Additionally, the definition of treason has been amended and now includes the provision of “consultative or other assistance to a foreign state, an international or foreign organisation, or their representatives in activities against the security of the Russian Federation.” Under these new conditions, it is impossible for many NGOs to operate as a result of the heavy administrative, financial, and moral sanctions invoked by being dubbed a foreign agent.

Despite the unambiguity of this legislation, Putin has continued to espouse the rhetoric of democracy. State financing of NGOs has actually increased but in a way that strengthens apolitical, regime-orientated NGOs – known as GONGOs (Government organised non-governmental organisations). This two-pronged scheme has been successful in mobilising support groups and demobilising opposition voices. This conception of civil society is weak and possesses no power to check political corruption and influence unpopular government policy. This model of organised civil society has been copied by two other authoritarian regimes – Erdogan’s Turkey and Orban’s Hungary. Many brave civil society activists continue to struggle for human rights but as Putin’s grip on power weakens his insecurity over autonomous social organisations will only increase.

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