January 26, 2006
Civil Society Will Emerge, Spies or Not
Moscow and London have lived through many spy scandals. The one that erupted this week could seem trivial compared with those of the Cold War, when, for example, London could declare 105 Soviet diplomats persona non grata at a single go.
Yet the current tumult is different in both scale and consequences. Reciprocal expulsions are one thing; the future of civil society in Russia is quite another. When Rossia television linked the Moscow Helsinki Group and the New Eurasia Foundation to a spy operation, civil society in this country was immediately endangered.
Control of civic organizations, the nation was informed on the air, "should be exercised by incorruptible people who care about the interests of their homeland and not an alien country." The Federal Security Service then reiterated the allegations and expanded the list of spy-related groups to 12.
On Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin himself drove the point home, claiming the incident proved that passing a law restricting and regulating NGOs had been correct. He also made it clear where NGOs should now seek funding, vowing that state authorities would continue to support them. This is hardly reassuring given the president's assertion last year that NGO's "cannot bite the hand that feeds them."
The NGOs have denied any knowledge of espionage, noting also (as have various Moscow newspapers) that their grants came from Britain's Foreign Office, not from individuals or secret agencies. But many ordinary citizens will now likely think, after a loud and prolonged chorus of charges over the nation's airwaves, that NGOs are what the state says they are.
If a British intelligence service actually thought that a job making routine grant awards to NGOs was both appropriate and sufficient cover for one of its operatives, then there is little to say beyond the obvious: that it was a stupid and counterproductive idea.
But the main point lies elsewhere: The Kremlin wants Russia's civil society as docile and closed as are its so-called verticals of power in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, where only privileged patriots are be allowed to interact with the outer world.
The scandal was just another signal of this, and renewing the probe into the British Council in St. Petersburg is the first evidence that the signal has been received. These signals will continue as the Kremlin implements its new -- and sadly shorsighted -- vision for Russian society.
This vision is shortsighted because dissent over growing restrictions on basic rights and freedoms will surely persist -- then expand, go underground and eventually boil over.
When that happens the manipulators in the Kremlin will be caught by surprise; in the absence of an independent NGO movement they will have had no way of keeping in touch with the real undercurrents in society.