Argument

Putin’s Assault on Civil Society Continues

Putin’s Assault on Civil Society Continues

Last week, as international attention toward Russia was focused on its belligerence in Ukraine, a member of the Russian parliament introduced a draft amendment to the current law on nongovernment organizations that largely escaped the notice of Western media. The potential impact on Russian NGOs is substantial. After the Kremlin passed a notorious 2012 law that compelled a wide range of organizations to register under the sinister-sounding label of "foreign agent," the country’s civil society has resisted with admirable solidarity, and not a single organization has complied. The new amendment, if passed, would allow the government to simply place groups on a "foreign agents" list by fiat.

This latest initiative by the Russian government serves as a reminder that, even as the international community is scrambling to respond to Moscow’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine, the Kremlin has been equally aggressive in cracking down on domestic political freedoms. This week marks two years since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, and the intervening period has coincided with a wave of unprecedented official hostility toward civil society. (In the photo above, protesters hold fake prison bars to mark the two-year anniversary of the Bolotnaya Square arrests.) Since the annexation of Crimea, Putin has intensified the domestic crackdown. Draconian new legislation in numerous areas, ranging from Russia’s cultural policies to expanded control over the Internet, poses grave new challenges to Russian civil society.

Last month, a group of NGO leaders, donors, and journalists discussed the worsening environment at a recent conference convened by the Salzburg Global Seminar. Two fundamental and interrelated challenges dominated the discussion. First, it is still very difficult for Russian NGOs to reach broad segments of the population, who remain mired in a submissive and paternalistic relationship with the state. Second, the NGOs are struggling to cope with deepening levels of repression against Russians seeking the active exercise of their rights as citizens.

The Russian people commonly think of government officials as corrupt and self-seeking and don’t believe in the prospect of positive change. Over centuries of Russian and Soviet history, Russians have tended to adapt to the ruthless demands and unfair practices of the government. According to Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a large segment of Russian society — as much as 80 percent in some public opinion surveys — routinely indicate, year after year, that "ordinary people cannot influence decision-making in the country." The Russian people expect to be cheated or treated unfairly by their government: In surveys conducted from 2004 to 2012, more than 70 percent said they do not feel protected from abuse by the police and other law enforcement agencies. Yet most also continue to believe in the greatness of the Russian state, says Lipman. Pride in the greatness of the state helps them to overcome their grievances for the sake of the greater good.

The annexation of Crimea and the accompanying rise in patriotic fervor illustrate this phenomenon and reinforce the traditional relationship between the government and the masses. For civil society groups and activists, reaching this part of the population is particularly difficult due to the dwindling space for independent media and free expression. In recent weeks, even previously unaffected Internet-based publications have come under threat.

Insatiable in its desire for control, the Russian state wants to be the only source of funding for media and NGOs. The message from the government to civil society is simple, says Russian journalist and publisher Sergei Parkhomenko: "Mine will be the only hand that feeds you. Otherwise you will starve." His presentation, which drew parallels between the Russian state’s methods for taking over independent media outlets and those it employs against civil society, was one of the high points of the conference.

The current attack on Dozhd television — the last remaining independent TV news provider — bears striking similarities to the state’s takeover of independent media outlets such as NTV or Itogi magazine in 2000 and 2001. To gain control, the state pressured the owners of the media outlets and their advertisers, bringing them to the brink of bankruptcy. This paved the way for factions close to the Kremlin to seize control. Now, the Russian state is employing similar methods against NGOs in an effort to deprive them of any independent sources of funding.

Over the last two years, the Russian state has sought to delegitimize assistance from foreign donors with onerous new laws and intrusive audits, while simultaneously increasing Russian government funding for NGOs. Many NGOs that had relied largely on international donors — and particularly those involved in providing social services — have started to receive a more substantial level of support from the Russian government. The concern that NGOs may lose their independence led some to ask worrying questions: Will NGOs be reduced to solely providing social services? Will they essentially become another extension of the state?

Such a categorically dire prognosis may be a bit of an exaggeration. To date, no Russian NGOs have registered as foreign agents — and, what’s more, some NGOs that have challenged the law in the courts have met success. Numerous appeals in important cases, such as one from the human rights center Memorial, are still pending resolution. Take the vote monitoring the organization Golos, for example: Despite facing a fierce legal and rhetorical onslaught, the NGO remains extremely active. In April 2014, it monitored several local races (including a mayoral race won by an opposition candidate) and publicized its work.

In the face of unrelenting legal and societal pressure, new groups continue to experiment with different formats and strategies. For example, Russian online activists have organized various informal networks to support local initiatives and expose corruption and injustice through social media. One such group, the "Dissernet," uses crowdsourcing techniques to research and analyze signs of plagiarism in the dissertations of prominent persons, including Duma deputies, ministers, governors, and university professors. Such initiatives promote accountability and transparency and attract considerable interest, while rejecting the formal structure of NGOs. Ano
ther new initiative is the rusini.org platform that provides training and crowdsourcing resources for grassroots initiatives in Russia’s regions. Such informal groups are very different from the established NGOs; one conference participant dubbed them the "rebellious and ungrateful teenage children" of the established NGOs.

Despite these differences in attitudes and methods between the older, more established NGOs that tend to focus on social services and the newer, often ad hoc groups that work on politically sensitive issues, the biggest challenges facing all Russian NGOs are the same. Until they can overcome their government’s sustained campaign against the development of an independent civil society and an actively civic-minded populace, all Russian NGOs will struggle to gain public trust and the power to make true progress toward their goals.