What Civil Society Russia Is Building

We publish english translate of the article by Ihor Zhdanov (Open Policy Analytical Center), Halyna Usatenko (Europe XXI Foundation) and Yulia Tyshchenko (Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research)

Original text in Ukrainian we can read on the Center for Independent Political Research site.

 

A popular wisdom says if a force could not be fought, it should be led. There is an impression that this is the way Russia chose to shape a civil society.

So, the general course of the Third NGO Congress organized by the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe on December 4-7, 2008 in Penza, the Russian Federation, served as yet another illustration for the Russian government concept of "guided" or "imitating" democracy. The first two congresses were held in Warsaw and Kyiv (2007).

By the way, the first Congress in Warsaw was co-organized by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation and the Polish Forum of Young Diplomats. The second congress Kyiv was co-held by the Laboratory for Legislative Initiatives and the International Renaissance Foundation. The Third NGO Congress in Russia was held in conjunction with the Council of the Federation Commission on Civil Society Development Institutes Affairs. As a matter of fact, the important action held under the aegis of the Council of Europe was led by the government institution.

The respective format of involving power as a main "public" institution can symbolically demonstrate not only problems of the civil society development as regards the Congress holding but also the state of democracy in Russia and on the post-Soviet space on the
whole. In this sense, politics directly deals with us, actually suggesting quasi-initiatives, or rather an imitation of a dialogue of power with society. The observation of the course of the Congress, in which some 250 NGO representatives from the post-Soviet states and European neighboring countries took part, suggests about the role of civil society in this region and a frontier in relations with power, which would not be the Rubicon for civil society institutions.

Civil Society in Russia as It Was Shown to Us

Yes, public organizations and movements function in the Russian Federation and their number is constantly increasing. Though there are nuances. As a rule, such organizations operate at the local level and their work is geared towards the implementation of only social projects on children's aid, youth entertainment and education, assistance to the handicapped and veterans. Similar structures are active in all democratic states. Meanwhile, in developed democracies, socially-oriented organizations function parallel to powerful think tanks, rights protection, monitoring and advocacy public organizations that attempt to make policy open and decisions transparent. However, there was no room either for think tanks or rights protection or monitoring Russian NGOs at the Congress.

The explanation is quite simple. On December 2, a press-conference of initiators of the Statement of non-governmental organizations on the occasion of the Third Regional NGO Congress of the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe was held with the participation of the Moscow Helsinki Group (Russia); "We, the Citizens!" NGO Coalition (Russia); Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights (Russia); Interlegal International Foundation for Political and Legal Research (Russia); and International Youth Human Rights Movement. Strictly speaking, the above NGOs denied taking part in the "imitation of civil
society meetings".

This Statement was repeatedly interpreted and explained to the present Russian participants. A key thesis was that they rejected to participate because they were not among main organizers. Though there are other NGOs except for the above ones. Specifically, a moderator of the Section "The Media and Civil Society" (Russia) later said, "It was important to prove by this Congress that NGOs are not only rights protection organizations. Rights protection organizations, funded by western grants alone and dealing mostly with politics, cannot represent the whole third sector."

There was another example. On December 4, a roundtable on the settlement of the Russia-Georgian crisis was announced. However, a completely opposite name was indicated in the official final version of the agenda, "The Role of NGOs in Developing Regional Cooperation
and Overcoming Consequences of the Economic Crisis". Though invited participants, whose addressed were scheduled, broadly presented the Ossetia's position alone. A discussion and a dialogue evidently took place in the long run but another thing worth noting. In the
Congress's agenda, this roundtable was held parallel to the "Bridge of Friendship" Youth Forum and the cultural introductory tour of Penza.

So, those, who wanted to attend the roundtable, were invited to one bus, while those, willing to make an excursion, - to another. People, who took advantage of the opportunity of excursion, can hardly be blamed. It is organizers, who must give explanations.

Protocol in the Soviet Way

Outwardly everything was just perfect: buses to meet delegates accompanied by militia cars equipped with flashers; dinners lacking only "Gypsies with bears"; traditional Russian hospitality; and the Soviet protocol, under which anyone from Moscow or from abroad was
received at the highest level. Yet on the other hand, there were reprimands to volunteers, who allegedly communicated too much with foreign delegates, and efforts to restrict communication of foreign participants with common residents of Penza. Here is an indicative
example of the afore-mentioned: the Congress delegates wanted to go some hundred meters to the next building but they were asked to move only by transport with the militia motorcade.

A representative of the Penza NGO was not let to the Congress meeting because he did not have a badge but he had the CE invitation. He explained that he could get a badge only on entering a premise and producing the invitation but the guard ignored the arguments. A list
of examples of such entourage can be continued, though internal collisions attending the Congress's work are more interesting.

Democracy as Seen by Russia

Russian authorities sincerely welcomed the Congress's holding in Russia. According to Chairman of the Council of the Russian Federation Sergey Mironov, the action is the recognition, by Europe, of the fact that Russia is interested in civil society. There is an impression that for Russian authorities, such recognition is mostly a kind of a brand for demonstrating its outwardly civilized and democratic political system. However it happened that average participants in the Congress quickly sensed what civil society and democracy really meant for the Congress's hosts.

We saw that even at the international congress, Russians tried to limit freedom of speech. Members of the Ukrainian delegation understood that they were present at the important representative action and were going neither to criticize their native country nor to throw mud at policies of other states. Our expressions were diplomatic enough and, perhaps, the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine sometimes makes more radical statements on Russia's policy than we did.

Yet for an unknown reason, at the Congress's opening, organizers substituted a representative of the Ukrainian delegation, who had to speak on its behalf, with another person without preliminary agreement with us.

The Armenian delegation, whose representative was denied to deliver an address, left the plenary session as a sign of protest.

A real scandal surrounded the presentation of political scientist Denis Bogush, who was to deliver a report on "The Role of NGOs in Creating an International Image of a Country" and who had two photos dedicated to the Orange Revolution illustrating his viewpoint. Russians called that an open provocation and prohibited him from holding the presentation and speaking.

As stated by member of the Council of the Russian Federation, who, by the way, chairs the Commission for Civil Society Institutions, organizers prevented provocations on the part of the Ukrainian delegation that attempted to show an hours-long movie on the Orange Revolution. Colleagues from the Council of Europe inquired why we decided to demonstrate an hours-long movie on the Ukrainian Famine. At the instigation of the Russian party, the situation got totally complicated. Anyway, we simply did not have any movies on either the
Orange Revolution or the Famine. Our delegation was just denied to speak. Such apparent idiosyncrasy concerning events of Ukrainian history was surprising. A soap bubble of the artificial scandal was blown from two photographs to two full-length movies.

At the first sight, the draft Declaration of the Congress was a good document and one could sign under every word of it. The Declaration had the only failing: it was word-for-word rewritten from a textbook and dedicated to general principles of democracy and building of a
civil society. Yet, the Declaration says nothing about problems of activities of NGOs in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus or other countries.

Efforts to make proposals met the dead wall of bureaucracy and procedural issues. All Russian representatives applauded with enthusiasm, when in a minute, the Declaration was submitted for voting and passed by alleged consensus. The Council of Europe made almost no comments on the general situation at the Congress. Most likely, this was not simply a position of some officials or politicians but a kind of transformation of general policy of Old Europe towards Russia.

Contemplations: Guided Democracy

Every member of the Ukrainian delegation was not at ease with those Russian colleagues, who boycotted the Congress. As a matter of fact, this action could hardly be called a Congress of non-governmental organizations or a process of building a civil society according to principles of democracy.

All we faced suggests contemplations and speculations.

  • The thesis is trite but a civil society is impossible under guided or imitating democracy. Hence, it is substituted with a quasi-civil society governed in the Soviet way and demonstrated to foreigners as a confirmation of democracy and civilization. Senator form Penza and Chairman of the Council of the Federation Commission on Civil Society Development Institutes Affairs Boris Shpigel again and again emphasized the need to create clear mechanisms of activity of NGOs and their relations with power. Such the need does exist. And what about principles? For what segment of the public sector shall these principles be designed? For socially-oriented Russian NGOs, they have already been formulated. And what about the rest: think tanks, right protection and monitoring ones? Or, under the Russian scenario of democracy, they are not civil society elements?
  • Communication of NGOs with power is necessary because it is an attribute of democracy and allows making policy legitimate and really clear for citizens. Ukrainian practice demonstrates that our authorities understand this. Specifically, the Cabinet of Ministers of
  • Ukraine has recently passed the resolution No. 976 "On the Approval of the Regulation on Furthering Public Examination of Activities of Executive Authorities". Though too "tight embrace" can be needless and even dangerous. And it is necessary to sense a rational measure preventing partnership of power and society from turning into the imitation that officially legitimates actions of power and makes social consent tacit and formal. Power made efforts to implement the above scenario in Ukraine in the late 90s, when different public discussions of government programs or "public initiatives" were nothing but décor for the approval of government known-in-advance decisions. In the RF, this scenario developed and is successfully transforming into quasi-democracy. In Ukraine, there is another paradox: power often disregards civil society institutions. Specifically, certain government resolutions indicate that there is no need for a public discussion.
  • Ukrainian society and the public sector in particular were relatively quiet after 2004, notwithstanding numerous difficulties and the multi-level imitation of a dialogue with power because influence of NGOs and the academic environment on policy and decision-making is
  • minor and we have a much broader field of action and functioning. Many of us became careless. But things we witnessed make us wake up. A shift of political leadership in Ukraine or a re-orientation of external forces gives rise to an actively operating mechanism for the "development of civil society institutions", while there are always opportunities for the adoption of certain models. Of course, Ukraine is not Russia but our politicians often feel nostalgic for symbols of the Soviet period. The same stands true about Russian officials. Not without reason, Russian officials publicly recalled Pioneer fires and friendship and a cross-cultural dialogue around these fires, avoiding the topic of deportation of peoples under the USSR and "white spots" in history. Nostalgia is a quite natural feature of human psychic. Nostalgia that is shifted to society in general is a dangerous phenomenon, since it justifies logic of political actions.
  • By the way, in the Congress materials, a mention is made of the Russian's state origin dating back to the 9th century and nothing is said about the Kyiv Princedom. This occurred parallel to talks about a cross-cultural dialogue, the need for shared history studios and cautious theses about the "Russian world". Present discussions of such dialogue in the format of Ukrainian-Russian relations mean, unfortunately, just simulated understanding. Much more efforts are needed to make Ukrainian interpretation of historical events clear in
  • Russian history textbooks and for their readers.
  • Despite different emotions, we would like to express gratitude to those Russian organizers, who tried to tell the truth at the Congress, and those, who sincerely worked at this action paying no attention to political undercurrents.
  • Old Europe chose a policy of appeasement of Russia and decided not to annoy the "Russian bear" adhering to the principle "do what you want but leave us alone". The general situation was simply extrapolated to the course of the Third NGO Congress. Many people,
  • inclusive of Ukrainians, compared this policy with that on the eve of the Munich Agreement. The effect of such actions of France and England is well-known. We shall wait and see the effect of such actions of Old Europe, France and Germany.
  • We would like to show deep gratitude to our Russian colleagues, who announced the situation with the Congress to everyone. Though we had to see everything with our own eyes to get convinced and warn others. If we did not take part in the Congress, Russian organizers would find more loyal participants.

Ihor Zhdanov
Halyna Usatenko
Yulia Tyshchenko