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#19 - JRL 2009-32 - JRL Home
Date: Fri, 13 Feb 2009
From: Al Evans <evansalca@comcast.net>
Subject: comment on civil society

I enjoyed reading the piece by Debra Javeline and Sarah Lindemann-Komarova (PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 34) in Johnsons Russia List on February 2. I agree with many of the points that they made. It is true that in the West much of the coverage of civil society in Russia has been very one-sided during recent years, and I would add that there has been a political motivation for such coverage. It is also true that many Western sources have equated civil society in Russia with human rights organizations, neglecting to mention the activity of many other types of organizations that have a broader base of support. I also agree with the observation that much of the Western coverage of recent legislation on NGOs in Russia has been one-sided and has not considered the experience of all organizations.

Javeline and Lindemann-Komarova argue that there is a need for open-minded studies of civil society development unbiased by distaste for Vladimir Putin and prior assumptions that all developments in Putins Russia must be incompatible with democracy. I agree with that statement, but I am surprised that those authors do not acknowledge that a number of scholars in the West have published objective reports on developments in civil society in post-communist Russia. Some of those scholars whose names come to mind are Laura Henry, Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, Valerie Sperling, Janet Elise Johnson, Sarah Henderson, James Richter, Sarah Oates, Edwin Bacon, Linda Cook, Sue Davis, Christopher Marsh, and Anne White (and I probably have neglected to mention some other able scholars). Stanislav Markus, William Pyle, and Andrei Yakovlev have authored very good studies of business groups in Russia.

Some of those authors contributed chapters on contemporary developments in the book Russian Civil Society: A Critical Assessment, which Laura A. Henry, Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, and I edited (published by M. E. Sharpe in 2006), providing examples of empirically based analyses of various types of organizations in Russia. The conclusions reached by the authors of those chapters reflect a mixture of positive and negative trends in civil society in Russia in recent years. Those scholars also recognize that there still is much that we do not know about many organizations in Russian society.

Many of those scholars regularly participate in the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). Recently there have been panels on civil society in Russia in that convention each year; I hope that there will be as many as three of those in the program of the convention in November of this year.

Javeline and Lindemann-Komarova also say that Western reaction to the Public Chamber of Russia, which began to function in January 2006, was extremely negative, and that once it did begin to meet, we heard little about its activities, anecdotally or systematically. Actually, I have presented two papers on that chamber at AAASS meetings, and the first of those was published in the American journal Demokratizatsiya in December of last year. While I noted the limitations on the Public Chamber, I concluded that the its members were active in addressing a remarkably wide range of issues, were bold enough to align themselves with independent voices in society on some of those issues, and did not hesitate to criticize some of the policies of state institutions. James Richter has written a very perceptive paper on the Public Chamber, which will be published soon if it has not already appeared in print.

I agree emphatically with Javeline and Lindemann-Komarova that many people in the West have presented a one-sided depiction of civil society on contemporary Russia as part of their attacks on the Putin regime. But most of the scholars who specialize in the study of the institutions of civil society in Russia have produced assessments that strive for accuracy and objectivity, and in fact do offer a balanced assessment of the very mixed trends for nongovernmental organizations in that country. Most would agree that the most serious problems of NGOs in Russia are not imposed by the government, but result from economic conditions and the attitudes of the population.

I look forward eagerly to seeing further writings by Javeline and Lindemann-Komarova. I have written this brief essay simply to point out that their criticisms do not apply to a large proportion of the scholarly writings on civil society in Russia.