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Russian civil society: the G8 and after

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When the G8 summit is coming to your country, frantic NGO activity is a must. Not that you actually believe that the summit will have any real impact on the domestic situation, or on the global situation for that matter. You certainly don't expect any groundbreaking development. However, a few months prior to the Big Event your phone starts ringing off the hook. You are attacked by hordes of diplomatic officials, journalists and even donors, all of them asking the same questions: "What are you planning to do in context of the summit?" and "Which preparatory and parallel NGO events will be held?"

So, even if you weren't planning a thing and in the deep depth of your soul strongly believe that those ritual dances around the G8 aren't worth a minute of your time, you suddenly find yourself involved in a whirlwind of action. Soon, you realise that the G8 has become a definite number one on your agenda and there is neither time nor space for anything else. Your normal work is suspended until after the summit. And you are putting together one meeting after another – not because you want to but because in a perverse fashion you're called to do so and there is no way to ignore the calling.

Tanya Lokshina works for the Russian NGO Demos

Also in openDemocracy on Russian history, politics and culture:

Ivan Krastev, "The energy route to Russian democracy"
(13 June 2006)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

In 2006, Russian NGOs had a particularly bad case of that "calling". Two main factors account for this. First, Russia is relatively new to the G8 and the inaugural presidency is always a major happening; second, Russia's leadership of this very elite club arrived precisely in the year when her retreat from democracy and human rights became dramatically evident.

To stress, this does not mean that Russian NGOs wanted western democracy to threaten Russia with sanctions on the level of her exclusion from the community of developed democratic states. We are convinced that Russia's very membership in the "elite club" represents a point of leverage and can be effectively used to promote Russia's democratic transit.

At its accession to the "club", the Russian Federation pledged to follow its well-defined set of rules, based on the values and principles of human rights and democracy. And the summit in St Petersburg, in theory, provided an excellent opportunity to Russia's partners within the G8 to remind Russia that her status in this elite community directly depends on her commitment to her obligations. This is what we wanted the western democracies to do. Not that we had too much hope. But that was the message.

Message and reality

In light of these considerations, several NGO initiatives were organised on the "Russian civil front" in light of the St Petersburg summit.

One of the events was the Civil G8 International NGO Forum coordinated by Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights under the president of Russia. The Civil G8 process started early in 2006 with several independent Russian NGOs accepting Pamfilova's invitation to join the board of an advisory council.

Problems of education, health and energy security were thoroughly discussed at the forum, and though human rights weren't one of the items on the agenda of the official summit, Russian human-rights defenders organised a special human-rights section within the framework of the Civil G8, including four thematic roundtables on such priority issues as:

In all these roundtables, the legislation and practices at the national and international levels were analysed, concrete recommendations were addressed to the G8 leaders, and aims for broad dissemination were developed. Half of the participants of the roundtables came from international and foreign human-rights organisations and think-tanks based in the G8 countries and beyond. President Putin attended the forum on 4 July, listening and responding to statements by the roundtable's rapporteurs.

In his comments, he paid particular attention to such issues as the conflict in Chechnya (in respect of which he strongly emphasised that the situation there has sufficiently normalised) and the now infamous Russian NGO legislation (Putin erroneously asserted that the final version of the law was fully in sync with the relevant recommendations of the Council of Europe and promised to interfere if NGOs face any serious problems in connection with implementation of the law).

On the evening of the same day, Putin had a separate meeting with the leaders of global networks, including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Greenpeace and Transparency International to discuss those same issues at greater length.

Certainly, the Civil G8 was to a great extent a project of the president's office, with Ella Pamfilova essentially put at its helm by the administration. The Kremlin successfully used the event to show that Russia is democratic country that treats NGOs with respect. At the same time, Russian NGOs in cooperation with their international and foreign partners succeeded in preventing manipulation of the process in the political interests, worked out the agenda without any restrictions and at the end produced some strong documents with solid recommendations, which were all delivered to the G8 leadership and broadly publicised.

The other Russia

In addition to the Civil G8 Forum, two further major NGO events were held.

On 11-12 July, the All-Russian Civic Congress, a coalition of pro-democracy NGOs and political parties, held a controversial conference called "The Other Russia" to show the world that there are a lot of people in Russia who not only disagree with the authoritarian trend and erosion of democracy in the country but are working hard on developing alternatives for Russia based on freedom, democracy and human rights.

Among the participants were members of varied civic organisations, parties and grassroots movements – from right, centre and left. The Kremlin was overtly hostile to the event. As a result, the most prominent Russian democratic parties, Yabloko and SPS, pulled out, leaving the conference dominated to a significant degree by National-Bolsheviks and other radical political opposition groups. Quite a number of human rights NGOs thought it overly politicised and did not want to partner with such radical actors.

However, on the eve of the conference, the pressure from the Kremlin became so aggressive (starting with the Russian sherpas' statement discouraging foreign governments from sending observers, all the way to actually removing from trains and "temporarily disappearing" some would-be participants traveling from different regions of Russia) that even many skeptics ended up attending the conference simply to assert their own integrity. Because of this same pressure, The Other Russia, which was a relatively marginal event, received a lot of publicity in Russian and foreign media.

Interestingly enough, on 5 July, in between the Civil G8 Forum and The Other Russia conference, Russian human-rights NGOs held their own independent event, which was focused solely on human-rights issues in Russia. The leading Russian human-rights NGOs, which formed the steering committee of the meeting, felt that with the quasi-official globally-oriented forum on the one hand, and the politically-tinged conference on the other hand, the human-rights defenders needed their own platform and independent voice. Its participants came from over thirty different regions of the country. The event was also attended by numerous international human-rights NGOs and the new human-rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg.

The participants discussed the principal manifestations of the systemic human-rights crisis in Russia in the year of her G8 presidency and Council of Europe chairmanship, and developed concrete recommendations aimed at remedying the existing problems. The conference delivered a statement calling the participants of the G8 summit in St Petersburg not to ignore those growing problems and not to legitimise through their silence the turn to authoritarianism and the erosion of the rule of law in Russia.

In addition, some Russian NGOs participated in the so-called social forum, a typical anti-globalist gathering held in St Petersburg at the same time as the summit. That event in itself would not have deserved special notice except for the fact that some of its activists were also removed from trains by police, which naturally enough made more activists attend the event out of solidarity with the victims (as well as ensuring some media coverage).

The view from the summit

So, today with the summit finally over (and completely overshadowed by war in the middle east), the time has come to assess the results of all that NGO activity. As regards our prospects of continuing a dialogue with the Russian authorities as a follow-up to the summit, no such prospects are in place. It was important for the Kremlin to show that they are democracy-oriented in general and NGO-friendly in particular. And it was equally important for the Russian civil-society actors to publicly voice their recommendations and concerns together with their colleagues from the international NGO community. Both parties managed to fulfill their respective objectives, and both have now retreated to their respective positions.

The situation of Russian NGOs shall not improve because Putin vaguely promised to change the NGO law in case of implementation-related problems. Putin's sudden goodwill isn't likely to stretch far, particularly as he remains concerned that NGOs may promote oppositional (and foreign) political agendas - and even stressed that concern in his remarks at the Civil G8 Forum.

On the bright side, though, all the frenzied and diversified NGO activity in the context of the summit had one very important result. Even if for a short time, the problems with human rights and democracy in Russia received significant attention from the international community and were in the media spotlight. Very strong documents were drafted in the course of some of the aforesaid NGO events and brought to the attention of the international community. Some Russian NGO leaders met with the United States president on the eve of the summit and a broader group of human-rights defenders held numerous well-attended briefings for high-level American and European diplomats. Russian NGOs got as much as they possibly could out of the summit. With this said and done, it's quite a relief to go back to one's normal work.


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