A Balanced Assessment of Russian Civil Society

May 17, 2011, 5:23 p.m.

A BALANCED ASSESSMENT OF RUSSIAN CIVIL SOCIETY by Sarah Lindemann-Komarova published in the Journal of International Affairs analyzes the atmosphere in which NGOs operate in Russia and attempts to provide an unbiased representation of the situation NGOs face in Russia.  The paper expresses concern that too often reports from organizations like Freedom House are not critically reviewed, when frequently they may not represent an overall view of the country.  An example presented in the paper focuses on the new NGO law passed in Russia expanding the government’s authority to audit and require reporting from NGOs.  There were international fears that this would result in a clamp down on civil society and resulted in a lower Freedom House Index score, but the report shows findings that there has not been a significant increase in requests for audits and reports.  While the environment for NGOs has always been difficult, it has not been made any more difficult.  The author hopes to facilitate more intensive studies of reports and findings rather than just taking them at face value to see what evidence there is to back it up.

In this article we present current assumptions about Russian civil society, that public space between the home and government where citizens act collectively. We then report some unexplored developments in Russian civil society, including pockets of public activism, NGO activity, and newly institutionalized frameworks for citizen participation in governance. We submit that these developments merit attention in assessments of contemporary Russian politics.

We propose to assess Russian civil society in a more objective manner. Russia has witnessed repressive actions toward some organizations and individual activists, reporters, and election monitors. These instances should be documented as part of the track record of the Putin administration’s relationship with its citizens. However, Russia has also witnessed government that has been responsive to public participation at all levels: federal, regional, and local.  This too should be documented as part of the record.

Our ultimate goal, outside the scope of this article, is to find clarity on the questions of how much citizen participation there is in Russia, how much the government is facilitating or hindering participation, what other factors influence participation, how meaningful participation has been so far, and what the potential is for future citizen participation. Our more immediate mission is to encourage others to think critically about the current anecdotal evidence and to demand more objective, systematic, and convincing data on Russian civil society, whether or not the data correspond to the most notable anecdotes.

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