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#26 - JRL 2006-235 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
October 18, 2006
Russias Civil Society at the Crossroads
Foreign Donors Face New Challenges

Comment By Andrei Kortunov
Andrei Kortunov is the president of the New Eurasia Foundation. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.

Civil society is one of those general phenomena that allow for a variety of different definitions and interpretations. My own preferred definition of civil society is simple. It is not about political parties, dissidents or even about freedom of speech or religion. For me, civil society is a society in which people (citizens, city dwellers, next-door neighbors) get together to fix a problem when it emerges.

This definition essentially implies three preconditions. First, people should have a certain amount of pride or self-esteem; they should be confident in their ability to resolve problems on their own, without any Big Brother to assist them. Second, they should be ready for collective action, they should trust their potential partners and they should have mechanisms for working together. Finally, the state should realize its limitations, it should resist natural paternalistic temptations. If it does not, society should have instruments for limiting the states ambitions.

None of these preconditions for collective social action existed when the Soviet Union collapsed. The level of confidence was extremely low; the demise of the communist principles led to an ideological vacuum, which was only partially filled by resurgent ethnic nationalism and vulgar liberalism. Social problems were mounting and positive problem-solving experiences were few.

At the same time, after seventy years of forced collectivism, society was highly fragmented, even atomized. Post-Soviet societies literally fell apart, and most traditional forms of social organization ceased to exist. Individualism in its most radical form became more than fashionable it became dominant with younger people and the emerging business community.

Finally, the state was in the process of a very difficult and painful transition. On one hand, it tried to preserve as many functions as it was used to having under the Communist system to control as much as possible in the social domain but on the other, it was progressively losing its ability to handle social matters. As the gap between old expectations and new realities grew wider, state institutions became more and more discredited in the eyes of the public.

At the same time, major foreign groups began working in Russia and other CIS countries. The development of civil society was one of the main priorities of their efforts. A number of them opened branches in Moscow, while others operated from the outside. Now, fifteen years after the beginning of this activity, their work shows different results at different levels of social organization.

Much was accomplished at the level of supporting individuals and specific target groups. Investments into able, ambitious, and committed individuals (such as scholars, educators, journalists, NGO leaders and politicians) turned out to be generally productive, generating solid social returns. Not only were many people given a chance to survive during these troubled times, but most of those supported became vocal proponents of the values of civil society, political freedoms, and market economy on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The social base for civil society was broadened significantly, in part due to numerous programs carried out by external players, particularly by private charities and operational foundations.

At the level of institutional support, however, a much more controversial picture has developed. On one hand, institutions that were built and sustained with foreign assistance (NGOs of different types, universities, professional associations, independent think tanks) appeared to be among the most professional, socially active, innovative and modern in their respective fields. Some of them reached a high level of institutional capacity, close to that of similar organizations in the West.

On the other hand, the idea that these implants would serve as models for broad replication and dissemination, causing their individual success to create a chain reaction in the whole field, turned out to be wrong. The overwhelming majority of implants remained too expensive, too dependent on foreign funding or too elitist to generate a cascading effect. They could serve as centers of excellence, but not as models for imitation. In addition, many of them gradually developed clientele-type relationships with their donors: as operators of foreign programs they started focusing their efforts on the perceived interests of funders, not on the needs of their supposed local target audiences.

As for attempts to promote systematic change in transitional societies, the results of these attempts were even more dubious. Many technical assistance programs, unable to capture local specifics, demonstrated low efficiency and even compromised institutions rendering these programs. Complicated negotiations with state agencies often resulted in very slow launches of urgent initiatives. A lot of red tape and, in many cases, explicit corruption was one of the intrinsic features of technical assistance programs. There are very few success stories here, especially considering the amount of money spent.

Today, the countries of the post-Soviet sphere are much more stable, wealthy, and assertive than they were ten years ago. Elements of civil society and market economics are becoming more and more visible: in Russia alone there are more than 250,000 registered NGOs and close to 3 million small businesses. Self-esteem is on the rise, and optimism has replaced pessimism as the predominant public mood.

These changes have brought about new challenges for civil society in the CIS countries. Their efforts no longer need to focus on the physical survival of intellectuals or teaching the ABCs of democracy and free market economics. The countries possess sufficient financial resources, and state institutions no longer fail to perform their functions properly.

Today, the greatest challenge facing civil society lies in another dimension. The state is back, and in most post-Communist countries, the state is growing faster than civil society. This situation has shifted the balance once again: the state offers a new (or old) paternalistic social contract, and society seems ready to accept it. This scenario cannot produce a mature civil society, but rather a proxy civil society subordinated to, if not consumed by, the resurgent state.

This new challenge requires new approaches. The focus should not be about developing new legal and regulatory frameworks, although there are still some problems in that area, such as the almost nonexistent tax incentives for NGOs. But more emphasis should be placed on how to use the existing frameworks in the most efficient way.

Even though the current withdrawal of some major Western foundations from the CIS is premature, organizations need to stop bemoaning the lack of resources and work instead on mobilizing local resources for something more than corporate PR or political lobbying. Civil society no longer needs to train human capital, but it must work to keep the best and the brightest in the nonprofit sector and use them in such a way that this sector will not become a mere extension of the state machinery. At the same time, it should be prevented from sliding into open political confrontation and destructive criticism.

The role of foreign actors in this new game will be more modest than it was during the 1990s. Still, this role might be significant, if it is played the right way.

Three issues here are of the utmost importance. First, it is crucially important to stage exit strategies in a way that does not leave local organizations with the perception of sudden betrayal. Second, foreign foundations could play a leading role in assisting nascent local corporate charities, helping these charities to establish themselves in the field, to develop proper technical skills and institutional capacity. Third, civil society in Russia and the CIS should not feel that it is isolated, but rather that it constitutes a part of the growing global civil society, appreciating the fact that the challenges we face in this region are very specific, but in no way unique.

The future points towards transnational projects in the field of civil society, and big international foundations are best positioned to assist such projects.