Vladimir Putin Loves Civil Society (As Long As He Controls It)

The Russian government gives millions of dollars to civic organizations. But that money comes with strings attached.


At first glance, the attitude of the Putin regime towards Russian civil society seems strangely inconsistent.

On the one hand, over the last few years, the Russian government has tightened the screws on non-governmental organizations. First, a 2012 law labeled a number of domestic NGOs as “foreign agents” — that is, as traitors who promote the interests of Russia’s enemies. And this wasn’t just a symbolic tarring. It has resulted in quite tangible consequences for these organizations, crippling their work by imposing exhausting bureaucratic hurdles, enforcing endless inspections, and driving away potential partners and collaborators.

In 2015, Russia’s parliament passed another infamous law, this time allowing the government to designate foreign NGOs as “undesirable organizations” and driven out of the country. Seven groups, including the National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, have already been declared undesirable. The regime has further tightened its grip by cracking down on the rights of free assembly and freedom of speech. Unsurprisingly, the main targets of this persecution are organizations that promote human rights or engage in other activities that challenge President Vladimir Putin and his grip on Russian politics. As a result, between 2012 and 2015, the number of civic groups in Russia decreased by 33 percent.

The other side of the story — and this part is routinely ignored by the media — is that this persecution has coincided with a series of new government programs designed to promote Russian civil society. These initiatives include grants awarded by the Ministry of Economic Development, subsidies to regional governments that encourage civic activity, and tax privileges for NGOs.

Why is the Kremlin simultaneously attacking civil society and promoting it? As two sociologists from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics write in a forthcoming paper, it’s almost as if “the left hand of the government doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

In fact, though, the Kremlin knows precisely what it’s doing. Upon closer inspection, both the repressive and the supportive sides of the strategy are pursuing the same goal: To neutralize the power of civil society and keep it under the state’s watchful eye.

State support for nonprofit organizations is, of course, not inherently nefarious. As a matter of fact, governments are the largest funders of nonprofits in most democracies. But Russia, where there is little homegrown charitable giving, and where the government has choked off the flow of foreign funds, NGOs that accept government funding become much more dependent on its whims. That’s why the Kremlin’s support of Russian civil society is no less harmful than its suppressive legislation.

The Ministry of Economic Development is the state’s main instrument for channeling funds to civic organizations, either through direct grants or through regional governments. These initiatives were launched in 2009, although the funding level was, at first, negligible, it increased over the next few years, particularly in the wake of the mass demonstrations against electoral fraud that rattled the Kremlin in the winter of 2011-2012. This year, over $112 million were allocated to civic groups from the federal budget, triple the 2012 figure.

The ministry restricts its support to one segment of the nonprofit sector — the so-called “socially oriented” NGOs, which includes groups working on such issues as patriotic education, financial assistance for low-income families, and public health. This selectivity is no accident. In Russia, organizations working in these areas are careful to represent themselves as being “outside of politics” and typically refrain from criticizing the regime (when they’re not openly praising it). As a result, they’re not viewed by the government as a threat. It is no surprise, then, that the list of the ministry’s grant recipients contains no groups that work in human rights, environmental issues, corruption, or in any other sphere where their work would entail holding the government accountable for its misdeeds.

Even so, many activists have greeted the ministry’s support program with enthusiasm, believing that it would not only enable them to keep providing vital services, but also bolster Russian civil society as a whole. They viewed the “social” sector as a kind of sanctuary where civil initiative, trust, and participation — indispensable qualities for building a vigorous civil society — could be cultivated without being cut down by the regime.

That would be true — if only the funds came without strings attached. Unfortunately, they do not. In the first place, every applicant for a grant knows that, in order to succeed, it is expected to demonstrate unconditional loyalty and total obedience to the government’s policies. (It also helps if they have connections among the officials who are judging.) In addition, grants are given on an annual basis and only for particular projects selected by the ministry or by operators appointed by the president’s administration. Should an NGO step out of line by expressing dissent or working with “foreign agents,” its funding would be choked off. Needless to say, given the lack of other funding sources, this often means a complete shutdown.

Under such conditions, the government’s assistance becomes little more than a tool to manipulate the non-profit sector. Officials determine which projects are “allowed” and which are not, forcing NGOs to focus only on permitted issues while ignoring topics that could unveil the regime’s malfeasance and corruption. At the end of the day, in the fight for their survival, most NGOs prefer to cultivate a good relationship with officials rather than insisting on independence. Instead of fighting for the interests of Russian citizens and holding the government accountable, the nonprofit sector becomes almost a branch of the state, obediently fulfilling its instructions.

Another side effect of this scheme is that it amplifies division and polarization within the nonprofit sector. The “foreign agents” law began splitting NGOs in two antagonistic groups — the “foreign agents” (that is, those who challenge the government or its policies) and the “patriots.” The government’s selective financial assistance deepen this schism. By privileging certain groups and neglecting others, the Kremlin sends a message to the public about which are legitimate and which are not.

It’s no wonder that the socially oriented NGOs, which depend on government funding to survive, strive to avoid any contact with the marginalized groups. For example, according to a representative of Bellona-Murmansk, a environmental organization, almost all of the organization’s long-time partners shied away after it was designated a “foreign agent.” Anton Pominov, head of Transparency International Russia, which was also blacklisted, said that some of his organization’s potential partners abandoned several planned projects because, as they said, “we’re afraid.” Only a small number of organizations — mostly human rights groups — protested against the repressive inspections imposed on their colleagues. In fact, citing the need for security, many NGOs have come out in support of the government’s restrictive laws.

Russian civil society has never had it easy — but today, the situation is as bad as it’s been since the Soviet collapse. What’s more, while the government’s aggressive crackdown attracts the attention of the international media and foreign governments, its ostensible “support” doesn’t raise any suspicion. But it’s important to understand that punishing one segment of the non-profit sector while privileging another enables the Kremlin to deprive NGOs of their independence while also conveying a distorted picture of civil society to the Russian public. By delegitimizing the political dimension of civil society, Vladimir Putin is able to suppress one of the key sources of opposition to his rule and thereby to secure his grip on power.

In the photo, protesters carry a banner that reads “No Maidan – No War!” during a patriotic rally in central Moscow on February 21, 2014.

Photo credit: DMITRY SERERYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

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