Russian civil society is a 25-year-old work in progress

A summary of the results of the recent Salzburg Global Seminar ‘Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future’ is simple: no easy answers, more questions. But that does not mean it was a failure.

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
19 April 2014

A summary of the results of the recent Salzburg Global Seminar ‘Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future’ is simple: no easy answers, more questions. But that does not mean it was a failure. It is no small accomplishment to capture an accurate description of the status of civil society in Russia today. This was possible because representatives from all elements of civil society were included without one agenda dominating in numbers; factions were not safely segregated into like-minded work groups, and the presence of a diverse group of Western academics, donors and others served as a moderating force. 

The identification of questions that need answers, and the clarification of internal fault lines provide an essential foundation for a step forward in this 25-year-old work in progress. It is not clear if that step will be taken, it is only certain that if it is not, there is no hope of improved status, increased bargaining power and self-determination for civil society actors. The weakened hand of civil society in Russia, as in all democracies, translates into an ongoing strengthened hand and role of government, and other elites in determining the direction and fate of the country.  

The framework restricting the possibility for forward movement was well known prior to the Symposium, and the problem is not Putin.

Two Narratives

The framework restricting the possibility for forward movement was well known prior to the Symposium, and the problem is not Putin. It is two competing narratives of the history and context in which civil society operates today. Despite its title, ‘Perspectives on Russian Civil Society Today,’ the opening session presented only one of these narratives, the one known to most people outside of Russia. This is best described by the Russian term ‘chernaya polosa,’ literally translated it means ’black stripe,’ but it is also used to describe life when everything is against you, all is darkness, when nothing good can happen. 

‘Chernaya polosa,’ says that Russia is an authoritarian state with no independent voices, no effective NGOs, no legitimate elections or even the possibility of any of these things so long as the Putin regime is in power. This narrative is loud, clear, and has gained enormous power and influence in the trajectory of not only Russian internal politics, but also world affairs. It starts from the position that the height of Russian democracy was in the 90s. Recent events such as the introduction of the law that requires NGOs with foreign funding that are engaged in politics to register as ‘foreign agents,’ or the attack on the Dozhd independent TV station are presented as proof of a totalitarian trajectory for this narrative. Its direct influence, however, is minimal among the general Russian population because it is primarily a PR not a grassroots driven narrative. The dynamic here is a slide downhill into ever greater darkness. 

A slightly drunken march 

The alternative narrative is best described as a slightly drunken march. Here the dynamic is not so drunk as to be unaware of the danger around one, but the pace is limited to two steps forward, and one step back. Still, that is a net gain that continues to inspire hope. The roots of this narrative are not Pollyanna-like optimism or naiveté. First, because one can posit a different assessment of the 90s; rather than the height of democracy, it was a time of social and economic chaos. This lead to disillusionment with the results of democracy, if not democracy itself, that was disastrous for all but a very few people. With this narrative as your baseline it isn’t hard to achieve some degree of progress. Second, this other narrative puts politics and Putin aside, and concentrates on concrete issues that people are interested in, and good governance practices (citizen participation, evaluation etc.). Here there is positive value in such things as the 2006 law that mandates citizen participation on issues of significance - increased funding for social projects and NGOs, improving legislation and services for the disabled, women, healthcare, education etc. Furthermore, this narrative is active at a local community level. However, the expectations of the people who might benefit from this narrative are high so, whether the primary constraints are internal (civil society weaknesses) or external (government over reach), the real capacity to deliver is a concern.

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What constitutes civil society? Does it include people that go to the sauna together? Photo cc: Artur Potosi

The drunken marchers believe there is still so much space for civil society to fill that it cannot be exploited effectively.

Another way to understand the difference in these narratives is to think of civil society as a space between government and home where people are free to express themselves. This provides two parameters for assessing the dynamic of civil society - the size of the space (is it changing), and the activities taking place in the space (number and types of people, range of issues being addressed). Both narratives similarly acknowledge a tightening of the space for NGOs, and from there they diverge. The ‘chernaya polosa’ believe there is no space left for civil society, it is one black circle that has been coloured in by Putin. The drunken marchers believe there is still so much space for civil society to fill that it cannot be exploited effectively because the knowledge and skill level of most activists and active citizens is not high enough. 

Most adherents to both narratives do agree there are more Russian people engaged in a wider range of activities today, and they share the frustration that the numbers are not increasing faster. The real debate, then, is why more people are not active, and who to include as a member of civil society. Does civil society include people that go to the sauna or fish together, as well as members of un-registered neighborhood groups? And what is the best trajectory of civic activism: from civic service provider to civic activist, or vice versa or both? What is clear is that the differences that surfaced are bridgeable because they are not fundamental to either narrative. Yet one big question remains: can an optimum strategy for developing and supporting civil society be identified without a shared understanding of what it is? 

Three Fault Lines

There are three fault lines in the Russian civil society movement. Here, one must state there is no orthodoxy to membership in these alliances, for it is possible to agree with elements of more than one of these groups. These fault lines are provided here to highlight existing tensions most closely related to how best to promote civil society. Those tensions are a constraint, perhaps the greatest constraint, to the development of civil society in Russia today. 

Moscow-Regions: The centre-periphery dynamic is especially acute in Russia because of the historical nature of leadership from Moscow. Still, the lack of recognition even among ‘democratic’ leaders in the NGO community, of the unbalanced nature of the privileged position and amount of resources the centre demands, is extreme. For example, in 2013, 57% of the money in a national competition went to Moscow NGOs (home to 8% of the population and 15% of the NGOs). Another aspect is participation in national and international dialogue on issues of importance to the regions. In 2011 it took months of behind-the-scenes lobbying to get regional representatives invited to the founding meeting for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, and it was 2012 before regional experts were included on a Russian national committee to support civil society funding in the regions. 

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In 2013 57% of funds went to NGOs in Moscow which is home to only 8% of Russia's population. Photo cc: Josef Steufer

The Salzburg Global Seminar featured a plurality of regional participants; and the positive aspects of a developing relationship among regional and Moscow groups focused on NGO development, were evident.

Human Rights - Community Development: The fault line here relates to strategy but it is not clear if the differences are tactical or represent more core visions for the democracy they are trying to build. There is certainly some correlation between the two narratives and adherents to each of these groups; between community development activists that sense a darkness descending, and human rights activists that believe in a more nuanced assessment of the current threat to civil society, and the potential for bringing about meaningful change in the existing environment. Below is a chart comparing the two with regard to strategic focus. 

Focus on Human Rights

Focus on Community Development



NGO development

Improved quality of life through social and economic development


Governance and other forms of participation

Civil society is equated primarily with human rights and NGOs

Civil society is equated with anyone who chooses to use the space


One on one organisation

Approach to government: criticism and demands, cooperation is a slippery slide to cooptation

Approach to government: Partnership and demonstrating your value by offering what you have to give

Political engagement

Keep politics personal

End justifies means

Process is as important as end result



‘Regime’ change

Build or strengthen the infrastructure to support good governance and increased citizen participation in it

Unhelpful characteristics emanating from both these groups were manifest at the Symposium. Some who focus on human rights spoke with a tone of certainty and sarcastic humour that is off-putting in its condescension. Some community development specialists acted like a clique by sitting together most of the time. Building bridges between these groups should surely nevertheless be possible because of the shared goal of a strong civil society. 

Clearly, if the needs and interests of the next generation are not respected there is little possibility for Russia to achieve its potential in any sphere.

Generation Gap: The generation gap surfaced in public discussion when an experienced activist said that young people need to listen and learn more before they can participate in a meaningful way. In discussion with several young people it became clear this attitude is not unique. One described it as, ‘doors being shut in your face’. Clearly, if the needs and interests of the next generation are not respected there is little possibility for Russia to achieve its potential in any sphere. In general, young participants at the Symposium represented the greatest hopes and fears for future outcome; .hope in the form of how diverse and impressive they are as individuals; fear in the form of exit - several participants are already no longer living in Russia. It is thus essential that their elders recognise the value in fostering the intelligence, creativity and enthusiasm of the next generation. 

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Young Russians wanting to participate in civil society often have doors closed in their faces. Photo cc: Facebook

Squeezing through a window

The questions that surfaced or were codified at the Symposium came down to two fundamentals:  ‘What is civil society’? Not everyone has to agree on a single definition. It is necessary to agree on a few common indicators so there is a more objective assessment of what is happening and why. This would answer the question a Western academic asked me at the end of the conference, ‘what are the metrics?’ 

The second question is more complicated; ‘What is your vision for democracy?’ Here, it isn’t realistic or desirable for everyone to agree on a vision, but, without more clarity it will be difficult to bridge the gaps between the narratives and fault lines.  So much of what happens today in civil society in Russia is reactive instead of pro-active, against something instead of for something because there is no depth to the vision. Only when people understand where everyone wants to end up, will they be able to identify directions they can agree on, and consolidate their forces. 

As long as civil society leaders in Russia cannot bridge or find ways around the gaps that exist between each other, and between them and the state, they make it easier for other forces to set and promote their agenda. During the Symposium there was some discussion about what to do in a situation where a door is closing but a window is still open?  That is the challenge they face.

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