Already fragile and underdeveloped as a consequence of the repressive Soviet legacy, Russian civil society is facing an intimidating array of legal and financial challenges. With the active cooperation of the State Duma, the Putin administration has employed several legislative measures to undermine the country’s civil society organisations. These include the Dima Yakovlev Law, which bans US-funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) carrying out activities vaguely-defined as ‘political’ or deemed to be ‘posing a threat to the Russian Federation’; amendments to the criminal code expanding the definition of ‘treason’ to include such innocuous activities as public opinion polling, legal aid, and human rights monitoring; and the Law on NGOs, known colloquially as the ‘Foreign Agent’ law, which requires civil society groups receiving foreign funds while engaged in ‘political activities’ to register as ‘foreign agents’ and submit to onerous reporting requirements.
The response to these challenges has varied, with most NGOs adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude, citing specific wording in the Yakovlev Law as evidence of the government’s plans to target only a select few national-level groups (specifically the clauses that limits the ability of dual US-Russian citizens to hold leadership positions in noncommercial organisations). Well-established NGOs are pursuing more proactive measures, including taking domestic and international legal action against the government. In early February, eleven leading NGOs lodged a formal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, asserting that the ‘Foreign Agent’ Law violates Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect freedom of association and expression. Recent statements by Justice Minister Aleksandr Konavolov indicate that the authorities are still negotiating enforcement mechanisms for these overlapping laws.
Legislative restrictions on NGOs are only one indicator of disturbing authoritarian trends since Putin assumed his third presidential term. Pending legislation limiting freedom of expression on the internet, freedom of assembly and speech for sexual minorities, and the return of Soviet-era residency registration requirements, point to an even more dramatic shift away from international norms and a pronounced democratic regression.
Against this backdrop of growing authoritarianism, the funding environment for civil society organisations, which was never healthy, has deteriorated rapidly. The Kremlin’s expulsion of USAID last September left a large number of civil society organisations with constricted budgets, necessitating programmatic and staff cuts to remain active. Meanwhile, USAID’s exit has had a chilling effect on the international donor community, with many US and European donors revisiting funding strategies in the hope of avoiding a similar fate.
‘USAID’s exit has had a chilling effect on the international donor community, with many US and European donors revisiting funding strategies in the hope of avoiding a similar fate.’
Unsure of the long-term future of international donor support, a small number of civil society organisations have turned to crowdsourcing for supplemental funding. Aleksey Navalny’s anti-corruption Rospil project, which raised millions of dollars from ordinary Russians while explicitly rejecting any foreign support, is the most famous example of success. But it is also worth pointing out that Navalny’s group benefitted from effective PR and a popular mission. Traditional human rights groups are hamstrung by limited public knowledge of their activities, limited access to media, expensive or inaccessible online systems for collecting funds, significant pressure from the government, and a lack of the resources necessary to carry out long-term crowdsourcing campaigns. So while some civil society groups and enterprises such as Dozhd TV, have made significant inroads towards developing domestic funding mechanisms, for the majority of civil society, especially small NGOs in the regions, reliable and long-term crowdsourced support remains a distant prospect rather than a realistic option.
The donor community obviously needs to adjust to new challenges by exploring new funding models and showing greater flexibility in managing grantee finances. In particular, donors should reconsider the traditional ‘call for proposals’ model of grant-making, which not only lends credence to government claims of undue donor influence on NGO activities, but may also lead to mission creep. The alternative, a demand-driven model of grant-making, incentivises highly-adaptable, grassroots projects that avoid many of these programmatic and financial issues.
This is the model that informs National Endowment for Democracy’s approach in supporting Russian civil society projects. From regional human rights initiatives to national-level transparency programs, our work homes in on popular local issues or pursuing the protection of fundamental freedoms and norms that may have yet to gain traction in the wider society. For example, many international donors are largely unaware of or uninterested in the vagaries - and the potential - of political and economic developments in Russia’s regions. We have identified a great number of of local initiatives that may require years of stable support to generate tangible results.
‘To suggest that Russian NGOs should simply develop membership-based fundraising models along the lines of their well-established Western counterparts appears either naïve or disingenuous.’
The donor community has played an instrumental role in helping Russian civil society to weather previous attempts to curtail their activities. It must stand by its partners as they explore new strategies to maintain their work. However, to suggest that Russian NGOs should simply develop membership-based fundraising models along the lines of their well-established Western counterparts appears either naïve or disingenuous. Western NGOs like Amnesty International, for instance, are not harassed or circumscribed, but widely respected as legitimate pressure groups, even when their pronouncements or activities are critical of Western governments. NGOs operate in the context of considerable political pluralism, tolerance and diversity, enjoying unimpeded access to media and freedom to raise funds from a variety of sources - from individual members to philanthropic or corporate foundations.
The fates of Mikhail Khodokovsky and, more recently Alexander Lebedev, owner of Novaya Gazeta and a Navalny donor who is due to stand trial for hooliganism, provide clear examples of political persecution arising from private initiatives to assist civil society. Let us not forget too the deterrent effect of such cases, which is both less evident and impossible to quantify. In the context of authoritarian rule, it is surely unrealistic to expect independent NGOs addressing politically contentious issues to attract widespread membership-based funding.
‘Genuine donor pluralism would be hugely beneficial to Russian civil society: if only the country’s beleaguered non-governmental groups were able to draw on a diverse range of funding sources’
It is no accident – as the Marxists used to say – that the Kremlin’s offensive against civil society followed the most extensive, sustained and dramatic protest movement in post-Soviet Russia. Authoritarian regimes in general look to harass activists, impose restrictions, and seek to de-legitimise indigenous actors as foreign agents when they want to stop activists from engaging with the wider public (an engagement which, by the way, might generate much membership-based funding). It is precisely in such states, where providing support for civil society is a potentially hazardous political act, that international donors can step in to address the domestic donor deficit.
Of course, genuine donor pluralism would be hugely beneficial to Russian civil society: if only the country’s beleaguered non-governmental groups were able to draw on a diverse range of funding sources, from individual members and indigenous philanthropic foundations to corporate and even government funding, international funders would not need to compensate for the domestic donor deficit. But the Putin regime is manifestly hostile to pluralism of any stripe, as demonstrated by the authorities’ current efforts to stifle the donor community, using the same tactics of legal and extra-judicial harassment that they have applied to the rest of society to restrict alternative or critical voices. The government wants to limit resources for groups and initiatives that are known to test the official line. The most sensible response to this overt effort to choke off resources for dedicated individuals and groups working against the odds in Russia to bring greater justice and accountability is not to acquiesce but rather to let a thousand flowers bloom and to enable open and transparent funding from domestic and international sources alike.