Building bridges in Russian civil society

Direct aid givers, civic activists, and political activists spend as much time arguing amongst themselves as they do building civil society. With such divisions, it is clear that bridges need to be built not only between civil society and the state.

Louise Hallman
21 April 2014

If Russia were a drowning child, then civil society consists of three types of actors trying to save it:

Direct aid givers help pull the drowning child out of the water. They are mostly charities that provide disaster relief or services not offered by the state, often receiving direct support or at least co-operation from the state, given the mutual interest in the provision of services for its citizens.

Civic activists help teach children to swim, in the hope that future children won’t drown. They are slightly more contentious for the state, with their goal being to ameliorate the social situation within the existing framework.

The third group, the political activists, is the most contentious group. They suspiciously ask: ‘who is throwing the kids in the water in the first place?’ before taking action to stop the bad man from throwing the child into the freezing river.

Direct aid givers, besides being the least contentious sector of civil society as far as the state is concerned, also tend to form the largest contingent, and the bulk of the most mature and experienced organisations. Civic activists look at the root cause of a problem for which direct aid is given, such as campaigning for women’ rights or those with disabilities. Political activists want to change or even overhaul the entire system, and thus frequently come into dispute with state authorities.

Many civil society groups fulfil more than one and often all three of these life-saving roles. For example, ANNA – Centre for the Prevention of Violence, originally started as a helpline for women suffering from domestic violence (direct aid); then it started to work in local communities to campaign against the root causes of this violence, such as 'de-romanticising' bride abduction (civic activism); and now it is helping to draft legislation to tackle domestic violence on a legal level too (political activism).


There is as much distrust between the three groups as there is coming from the government and the general public.

However, despite many groups working across all three roles, they often do not view each other as friends and colleagues. There is as much distrust between the three groups as there is coming from the government and the general public. The political activists accuse the direct aid groups of being collaborators with the state, especially when receiving state funding. The political activists also think that the direct aid givers and some of the civic activists are too focussed on the short-term.

But the political activists also form a contentious group for their fellow civil society actors; their political clashes with the state earn them the distrust and often the ire of other civil society groups who blame them for provoking the government crackdowns that affect the whole sector. They are also frequently characterised as self-interested or foreign-backed, disrupting the development of civil society, and the lives of ordinary Russians. With such divisions within civil society, it is clear that bridges need to be built not only between civil society and the state.

John Kerry meets representatives of Russia's civil society in 2013. via US Gov.

John Kerry meets representatives of Russia's civil society in 2013. via US Gov.Deep ravines are evident within civil society itself; between civil society and the general populace it claims to serve; between Russian civil society actors and their international counterparts; and, probably most evidently, between civil society and the state.

So exactly what bridges need to be built? This was a question that was discussed at the beginning of April, by more than 40 civil society practitioners, experts, academics, activists and supporters, primarily from Russia, gathered at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, for the four-day event 'Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future' hosted by the international independent non-profit organisation, Salzburg Global Seminar.

A deep ambivalence remains about organisations that engage primarily in civic and political activism

One answer to the question about bridges was that the Russian people should see civil society organisations as an ‘intermediary’ between the state and the people; and in many ways they do – especially the direct aid organisations. But a deep ambivalence remains about organisations that engage primarily in civic and political activism. As Marina Pisklakova-Parker, President, ANNA – Centre for Prevention of Violence, wrote: ‘There is still some memory of what was considered 'public activity' during Soviet times, which meant either being connected closely with the state or being a dissident. Both of these interpretations of what a civil society group is, lead to a lack of trust, to fear, to a quite vague understanding of motives and, as a result, a limited association among the general public with most NGOs.’

For the majority of Russians, despite the countrywide and region-specific issues about economic inequality, security, political corruption and lack of freedom of speech, there is no social tension,’ complained one participant at Salzburg. ‘Give the people an hour to complain and then they are comfortable again.’

This disconnect between civil society organisations and the society they serve needs to be addressed with better language. Russians have a tendency to believe that civil society is something foreign and intrusive, a perception that harms its reputation most in the public’s eyes. But there exists a multitude of informal institutions that work well, especially at a local community level; and not every such organisation needs to be formally registered as an NGO, however, the public does need to better understand that even these trusted informal institutions constitute part of civil society. Civil society organisations need to better express to the public what they are, how the sector is unique and why the public should and needs to both trust and support the sector as a whole. Most importantly, civil society needs to find some coherency to this argument, establishing a frame of reference with which all members of society can identify.

A single-parent family

Russian civil society, especially within the activism sub-sectors, could be described as a single-parent family

In addition to building trust between the triumvirate of different parts of civil society – direct aid groups, the civic activists and the political activists – bridges also need to be built within these three groups, especially along generational lines. Russian civil society, especially within the activism sub-sectors, could be described as a single-parent family; the teenager is desperately trying to prove his worth by decrying all that has gone before him as insufficient, and rebelling against the system at large, whilst the experienced but ailing grandmother is being repeatedly ignored, and in the middle is the hardworking mother trying to keep the family of three afloat.

Disappointment in 2011-2012's protests has reduced many young Russians' faith in civil society. CC Bogomolov PM For many young Russians, the anti-Putin protests of 2011-2012 were their first foray into political activism, but they feel isolated and ignored by the veterans in the field. They also feel increasingly depressed, argued some of the younger participants in Salzburg, as they fail to see immediate or substantial improvements in the political situation; the older participants, mirroring their counterparts back in Russia, argue that these youngsters need to realise that change takes time, persistence and patience. 

How can this one-off or short-term engagement be fostered into long-term engagement in civil society and eventual change? Tech-savvy, youthful enthusiasm could prove a useful asset to the old guard, if only they could look past the accompanying naivety—and if the younger generation in turn could look beyond the small elite of social media users and embrace the wider, long-established networks. Ground needs to be given by both sides. But that is not to say that this younger cohort of would-be political activists needs to be groomed; they do need motivation and capacity building, but they should not have their hands held. The spark that inspires young activists cannot be manufactured, but it can be maintained. If the enthusiasm for political change isn’t stoked within the younger generation, there will be no one to whom the veteran activists can pass the torch.

At Salzburg, direct recommendations were made by the younger participants to political activist groups: umbrella organisations, they suggested, need to organise more conferences – and more inclusive events – to bring these different actors, new and established, together; and through such events, this not only enables new networks to be formed, but also might reduce the unnecessary duplication of work, simply by enabling groups to realise that similar ones already exist.

Legal foundations

There was hope that the legal foundations upon which any civil society bridges could be built are one area in which concrete progress could be made. First and foremost, the current mess of laws related to the non-profit sector needs to be codified and clarified, especially with regards to the right of association. Numerous legal terms, including even the phrase ‘non-governmental organisation,’ it was said, should be clearly defined, with the procedures for both registration and closure made much clearer. But that is not to say that all groups must be registered – a right to remain unregistered should also be enshrined.

Better legal expertise, it was felt, is clearly needed in the sector; far too few NGOs are ‘legally literate’—and too few lawyers are specifically NGO legally literate. Pursuing cases through the courts is a costly exercise, be they proactive (which was advised) or reactive (which is rarely a choice). NGOs shouldn’t just be waiting to see the doctor/lawyer when they get sick/sued – they should be looking for ways to remain as in good legal health as possible. Greater legal literacy training of NGOs – and greater funding in NGO legal aid – is therefore needed.

In order the ensure that the bridges between Russian civil society and international civil society at large are robust, relevant and well-resourced, the participants at Salzburg argued that seven key values must be adhered to. Firstly, the international community must commit to continued engagement, regardless of the difficulty of the situation; to pull out and re-engage intermittently will only breed further distrust. Secondly, such continued international linkages should be mutual; international civil society organisations should not just be funnelling funding into Russian groups, there should also be the opportunity for two-way learning and valuable sharing of experiences. Technical skill building and exchanges should be arranged in addition to any direct funding. Thirdly, efforts should be made to breakdown the falsehood that international civil society exclusively means ‘Western’ civil society; more countries other than the US and Europe can and should support and benefit from engagement in Russia; and Russia with the wider world. Fourthly, international exchanges for students and young professionals aid personal transformation that can en masse help change societal attitudes both within and towards Russia; such programmes should foster long-term linkages, rather than just one-off trips. And fifthly, these programmes shouldn’t be limited to the typical elites; more efforts need to be made to expand participation to a wider society. Sixthly, advocacy for funding and funding for advocacy needs to continue. Finally, any efforts in each of these six areas needs to be tackled with an inclusive approach; academics, NGOs and activists need to be united in their efforts to strengthen the sector, not undermine its constituent parts.

In addition to these seven values, further recommendations for how Russian civil society could form better international linkages were offered: the growing, and wealthy, Russian diaspora should be actively courted and encouraged to engage in and support civil society; and local representatives should be entrusted with setting the agenda, and not to be coerced by international organisations to pursue an agenda for which neither they nor the Russian populace is sufficiently prepared.

But about the biggest bridge of all, that is a question still in waiting for an architect. There was little expectation in Salzburg that bridges could be built between the state and civil society, with some participants damning the exercise as ‘Kafka-esque.’ As one participant asked: ‘Where exactly would this bridge be built to?’

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