Since 2012, several laws have been enacted restricting Russian civil society organizations (CSOs), specifically targeting human rights and other political groups, while favoring service-providing organizations. This method of both promotion and suppression results in a skewed civil society rather than a diverse, inclusive one.
Russian civil society has been through many iterations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. When international aid flooded in during the early years of the newly reorganized Russian Federation, civil society was inherently shaped by these foreign, mostly Western, donors, leaving pundits and international critics divided. In recent years, the Russian state under Putin has cracked down on foreign funding, thus shifting NGOs’ focus from international donors to domestic ones.
In place of lapsed foreign funding, over the past eight years the Russian Federation has disbursed large sums of grant money in support of the third sector through the Presidential Grant Fund, among other initiatives. With recent third sector legislation, it is becoming clear that the federal government under President Putin is eager to fund specific NGOs over others, creating a problem (again) for a truly independent third sector. Given the foreign influence on Russian civil society in the past, the question remains, will the Russian third sector ever be truly independent?
Recent Legislation Changes: From “foreign agents” to “socially useful”
The partition of civil society has occurred in response to recent federal legislation which has created categories of NGOs, most notably “foreign agent” and “socially useful.”
Especially at the time of the unprecedented election fraud protests in 2012, Putin and his government feared that Western democracy aid could “help incite a popular uprising against the Putin regime.” In the summer of 2012, the Russian Federation accused USAID, an influential civil society foreign donor since the early 2000s, of meddling in its domestic politics by funding election monitoring activities. USAID was later forced out of Russia altogether, and the Dima Yakovlev law was passed to prevent other U.S. organizations from “interfering” in domestic politics. Figure 1 from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace demonstrates the decline in the number of investors and amount of funding for Russian civil society in the period 2006-2016. Those organizations that continue to receive what little foreign funding is left could be at risk of being added to the “foreign agent” list.
The designation “foreign agent” stems from a law in 2012 which targeted human rights, research, and advocacy NGOs that were perceived as interfering with domestic politics. The law sought to restrict the operation of organizations who receive foreign funding and are involved in domestic “political activity.” The definition of “political activity” as part of the foreign agents law is expansive, contributing to widespread fear of persecution among Russian NGOs. In addition to publishing funding sources, “foreign agents” must include in every publication (and on their website, if they possess one) a section which flags their designation as a “foreign agent.”
The term “foreign agent” as a qualifier for the law is believed by scholars and the majority of the Russian public alike to be negative. For the Russian public, the term conjures images of spies and intelligence agents. Apart from suffering negative repercussions from such a suspicious label, NGOs marked “foreign agents” are often required to undergo extensive financial audits and inspections and are slapped with fines should they not adhere to these federal demands. After it became clear that no NGO would willingly accept the label “foreign agent,” Putin ordered inspections of suspected organizations, beginning in March 2013. These searches created a general anxiety among many NGOs who knew that a label such as this could have drastic effects on their survival.
While the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has imposed restrictions on the civil space, it has also created partnerships with “socially oriented” NGOs (SONGOs) since 2010. In an attempt to integrate government and non-profit social services, some NGOs are being funded and supported by the government because their services promote state-sponsored social programs.
A more recent, added layer to division in the third sector is the creation of a new designation in 2017, “socially useful” NGOs, also known as “providers of publicly useful services.” To be granted this distinguished designation, an NGO must have provided social services for longer than a year and must not be marked a foreign agent or owe taxes or debts. These “socially useful” and “socially oriented” NGOs enjoy preferential access to media sources and are able to advertise their services for free, whereas non-SONGOs are required to pay the market rate. Additionally, the former are given increased opportunities to apply for and receive financial support from the state for periods of up to two years.
The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum indicates in its 2017 report that the majority of the “socially oriented” NGOs provide services to “poor families, disabled people and orphans,” as opposed to addressing human rights and environmental issues.
Those CSOs which are perceived as “loyal” by—and to— the state become contributors to government projects and receive benefits such as resources, contacts, reduced taxes, subsidized or free property, information support, and employee training. In fact, in 2016 these SONGOs received grants in excess of 20 billion rubles (approximately $300 million) from the government. Apart from financial support, being awarded the title “socially useful” is good publicity for organizations.
What do these legislation changes mean?
Isn’t it a good thing that the state is supporting civil society groups? Yes and no. While it is important that CSOs are supported and able to operate with ease in the third sector, state agenda-setting in the third sector is detrimental to an organic, diverse civil society. These legislative changes indicate an increase in state control over and pruning of the third sector, a phenomenon antithetical to the very idea of a civil society.
The state’s selective sponsorship undermines civil society and makes it weaker. The Civil Society Center at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow reports that trust in CSOs decreased by 20% between 2011 and 2015, perhaps as a result of the negative association of the “foreign agents” law. One scholar argues that “the decline in indicators such as awareness, trust and participation of society in NGOs after 2014” amounts to a weakening of civil society as a whole.
As Saskia Brechenmacher from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, the Russian Federation has employed a “divide-and-rule tactic” to knowingly forge divisions in the third sector. In a meeting with selected SONGO employees on July 26, 2017, Putin underscored the state preference for these issues: “I have always liked meeting with people who spend years doing what you are doing, that is, helping people, in particular, people who need assistance more than others. I am referring to senior citizens, people with disabilities and children.” By highlighting certain issues and omitting others, Putin instructs the public as to the issue areas deemed worthy of support while intimating that those issue areas not mentioned are not (i.e. human rights).
Indeed, human rights groups or NGOs providing other services to the public receive less aid from the government and from individual private donors than service-providing organizations such as anti-abortion shelters for women. NGOs like Golos, Public Verdict, Memorial, and Women of the Don have been targeted for their human rights work. All of these organizations have had to significantly alter their operations by spending many thousands of dollars on legal and administrative fees to meet the requirements of the foreign agents law. Barred from receiving foreign funding and ostracized from potential domestic donors, many human rights organizations and other “foreign agents” are forced to shut down or dramatically reduce their operations. For example, the League of Women Voters in St. Petersburg shut down in May 2015, just 5 months after being designated a foreign agent. The founder of Women of the Don Valentina Cherevatenko was even charged with “‘malicious evasion of the duty to file the documents required for inclusion in the register of nonprofit organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent.’” Cherevatenko was the first human rights activist to have charges brought against her regarding the foreign agents law, however, charges were dropped in late July the same year after documents were seized from the organization’s office.
We are left wondering, given the past struggles of civil society in Russia, why take issue with the state supporting some NGOs over others? What is the problem with the state choosing which organizations to fund? How is this different from when foreign nations and companies attempted to influence Russia civil society?
While the government has recently sought to promote a robust service-oriented civil society, its selective support of certain organizations over others skews the independence of the sector. The Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation (CCRF), a branch of the Russian state tasked with monitoring civil society development, called civil society an “‘organised public sector’” which is “widely engaged in servicing the government order” in their 2017 report. The report also refers to the blending of civil society and state as “governmentalization of the third sector.”
This direct reference to the role of civil society, pursuant to the state’s goals, should give us pause. Civil society is termed the “third sector” because it should be independent from the desires and influence of both the public and private sectors. In the past, foreign states and enterprises asserted their influence over the Russian third sector by attempting to shape it according to its own notion of the third sector. Now, the Russian state hopes to influence civil society, which will ultimately stifle the organic development of all types of NGOs, including human rights organizations. While some may argue that this internal influence on Russian civil society is more detrimental than the foreign, mostly Western, authority of the past, in both cases the third sector has been unable to develop independently. This trend towards authoritarianism spells trouble for those Russians eager to demonstrate and promote a diverse third sector. It ultimately restricts the opinions and voices of the Russian public as it deprives them of a truly independent space in which to make demands on the government.