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Trusting in Russian civil society

‘We are from the same sector; we want the same things!’ was the result of one discussion at the Salzburg Global Seminar Russian Civil Society Symposium. But how to achieve them?

Alex Jackson
17 April 2014

‘We are from the same sector; we want the same things!’ concludes the chair of a discussion on the key markers of improvements in Russian civil society at the Salzburg Global Seminar Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future, held last week in Salzburg, Austria. This may seem like a foregone conclusion, but if anything the discussions in Salzburg highlighted not only regional divisions, but also international tensions.

There is little trust between organisations, which is an indictment of the civic sector as a whole, if those that claim to promote developments in human rights are not able to foster peaceful talks between different organisations and its public stakeholders.

There is a strong sense of distrust of European, non-Russian NGOs, with little consideration as to how much can be learnt from the experience and history of these organisations in a wider context. Furthermore, there is a gap in civil society that does not cater or allow for the pooling of common ideas, goals and understandings between neighbouring NGOs. 

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LGBT activists attacked in Moscow. LGBT equality is one of the many issues Russian society has to tackle.Photo: cc Roma Yandolin

Thanks in part to the foreign agents law that has scared off investment from international donors, there is a sense of malaise about the lessons that external allies can give to those just starting out in Russia. Outside factors matter just as much as internal markers, and this is no more so evident than the slowing pace of growth directly caused by the foreign agents law. If connections are not sought or seen, how can the sector determine its successes and mistakes within a framework of development?

The best method of fostering a sense of trust is to be more transparent.

The best method of fostering a sense of trust is to be more transparent. The importance of this was touched upon by Oksana Oracheva, executive director of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, in her recent interview with Salzburg Global Seminar. Oracheva suggested that an open dialogue surrounding the work of NGOs is extremely important because ‘without visibility you can’t build trust, because people can’t see what you are doing and see if it is really good.’ 

Investment is key. Yes, there are government grants that are disseminated amongst organised NGO groups, but this does not provide the support system for growth that one might expect as there is a real competition for a limited number of donations, and there remains the question as to whether these contributions are ever truly free and void of ulterior motive.

Russian civil society therefore desperately craves sustainable models and sources of income that will allow them to operate as independent entities. There needs to be a process of consolidation and taking stock that will allow Russian NGOs to openly assess and discuss their positions and their failings in certain parts of the sector, and the country itself.

The discrepancy in regional support is something that constantly bewilders and isolates many Russians.

Indeed, the discrepancy in regional support is something that constantly bewilders and isolates many Russians. There are some areas that have no interaction at all on a local level with civil society groups; meanwhile, cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg have these services readily available to offer support and assistance. With such anomalies between the availability of resources, there is little cohesion between public opinion and civil society aims across Russia; certain parts of the country have little or no interaction with these organisations, and thus do not appreciate or understand what is meant by a civil society.

This problem calls for more strategic planning, now more so than ever, in order to better organise and consolidate efforts in an area that is under constant attack and scrutiny from the state. Certain regions are being left behind, denied those opportunities that could enable economic growth and sustainability if there was even a low-level mobilisation of these groups in society. 

Communication is important in order to convey the necessity of this collaborative effort. At the moment, there are too many factions, talking about different development aspects and different funds and sources as if they were independent of each other. Whilst there are a great many issues to tackle in Russia - racial disputes, LGBT equality, women’s rights, press freedom - NGOs need to find partners and allies for cooperation outside of their own niche and even outside the civil society sector. 

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The imprisonment of Khodorkovsky dealt a serious blow to the hope that businessmen would become involved in civil society.

There is a more fundamental problem here: a lack of philanthropic culture in Russia.

Businessmen can be a reliable resource in this respect, argued some of the participants in Salzburg; they know how to manage, can advocate change, and offer funding that is (at least nominally) independent of the government. The imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky dealt a serious blow to the hope that businessmen would become generally involved in civil society, but there is a more fundamental problem here: a lack of philanthropic culture in Russia, which is so prevalent in the US and Western Europe. Nevertheless, individual businessmen’s support is offering much-needed financial support to many organisations in the sector, even if questions remain around the legitimacy and origin of such largesse.

Businessmen, their advocates claim, not only bring a wealth of money and specific skills to the civic sector, they can also introduce their networks and contacts. However, a common misconception of this professional group is that the failings of the non-profit and civil society sectors rest on the shoulders of the activists in the region. They often fail to understand the difficulties in adapting to the nuances of working in a restricted and specific niche. 

Civil society needs to understand the positive role of collaboration both nationally and internationally.

Civil society needs to understand the positive role of collaboration both nationally and internationally. There is a need for institutional support of planning and development, reminiscent of the situation in the early 90s when civil society first started to open up. Then, there was strong support for the development of new programmes; now, thanks to increased social spheres via mobile and the Internet, there is still an innovative field to occupy, but the widespread societal support that first promoted diversity has almost disappeared. 

Furthermore, if civil society cannot create a dialogue with the regional populations, who are so in need of support networks often not provided by the state, then these people will continue to believe that they have no power to instigate change. Thus, their first port of call is a government that restricts and controls the sense of individual, communal, regional and national autonomy in favour of Soviet patriarchies. If civic groups can be persistent enough in promoting the idea of people who are able to wield the same power of authority as the government, this can promote an open dialogue that simultaneously defeats totalitarian attitudes. Russians all across Russia need to both understand and believe that this idea is not something of foreign origin, but something from which their own personal sphere, be it in work life, home life, education or beyond, can benefit immensely, in a steady progression towards positive change.

 

Second image: Ruslan Krivobok via RIA Novosti

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