Russian civil society: simultaneously suppressed and supported


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Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart is Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Two recent measures show how the Russian government is trying to reshape the country’s civil society. One, a 2012 law, obliges all civil society organisations engaging in political activity and receiving funding from abroad to declare themselves “foreign agents”. As a result, numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have had to stop or severely limit their activities. On the other hand, NGOs that the state judges to be “socially oriented” are operating in a more favourable environment. They are now largely exempt from taxes on income from social services provision and are newly eligible to apply for state financing.

The message is clear. Russia’s government is extending its anti-western policies to civil society, making that sphere increasingly inward-focused. Civil society is thus joining the numerous realms in which contacts between actors in Russia and the EU are waning, reducing the potential for transnational cooperation. The moves convey to the Russian people that they should distrust western actors and Russian citizens who cooperate with them. So they increase the likelihood of misunderstandings and misperceptions, hindering diplomatic relations and increasing security-related risks.

Two recent measures show how the Russian government is trying to reshape the country’s civil society

The shift has been underway for a decade now. A 2006 law required all NGOs to re-register and forced branches of international NGOs to apply for the status of purely Russian organisations. The 2012 law was followed by an amendment in 2015 that gave the Ministry of Justice the right to designate any organisation a foreign agent, even if the organisation rejected this label. NGOs that have contested the ministry’s rulings in court have rarely been successful.

There have been a few positive aspects to the trend. The re-registration rule helped clarify which NGOs were still active and which were not. The increase in state funding available for socially useful projects – without a political component – and for socially oriented NGOs could have a positive impact on social services provision. However, these organisations will likely need to rely exclusively on Russian funding. The definition of “socially oriented NGOs” is purposefully kept broad to enable state actors to choose the projects they deem most suitable. These include, for example patriotic education, legal advice, and health promotion projects.

Cooperation with foreign organisations and governments – especially European or American ones – has become much more difficult and therefore been reduced, both in quantity and in quality. The most significant reduction resulted from the forced closure of USAID’s Russia office in 2012. For that year alone USAID had budgeted almost USD 50 million for support for democracy, civil society, health and environmental programs. Even joint workshops and other types of cooperation with western organisations have become rare. New cooperation initiatives are also much less likely to emerge due to all the hurdles which have been placed in their way.

The EU and its member states will need to be creative in their dealings with Russian civil society

As a result, EU and Russian civil groups will become increasingly separate, losing the opportunity for dialogue on pressing social issues and possible solutions. Moreover, patterns of thinking are being encouraged that will make it difficult for fruitful cooperation to be revived in future. For example, if Russian citizens believe state propaganda that western states and societies propagate decadent morals and desire Russia’s demise, this will create an atmosphere of suspicion which makes interaction problematic.

Of course, Russian civil society goes beyond the types of organisations discussed here, which fall into the category of registered non-governmental organisations, usually with a focus on a particular issue area. But others can be even more difficult for the EU and its member states to interact with: Some are close to the Russian government, such as parts of the Russian Orthodox Church and certain trade unions; and others are informal in character, such as fledgling social movements and single-issue protest groups.

The EU and its member states will need to be creative in their dealings with Russian civil society. Staying in close touch with existing partners will give them the encouragement and support they need, and also allow EU and member-state actors to recognize opportunities for exchange and assistance. They might thus still be able to make a positive contribution – while remaining below the threshold of direct financing where necessary.

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