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The Russia Journal
November 16-22, 2001
Kremlin tames civil society

Apompous gathering, pretentiously called the "Civic Forum," will take place in the Kremlin on Nov. 21. The forum’s aim is two-fold – for Russian civil society to demonstrate its existence to the world and show its loyalty to the president.

This undertaking began back in May, when, with military precision, President Vladimir Putin ordered court spin doctor and director of the Effective Politics Foundation, Gleb Pavlovsky, to come up with a concept for Russian civil society within two weeks and begin its immediate implementation.

The Kremlin spin doctors paid no heed to Narodnaya Assambleya (People’s Assembly), an independent association of Russia’s largest civil society organizations, when it warned that it’s impossible to "build civil society from above." The association has now found itself also roped into organizing the forum with the Kremlin. True, the Kremlin would have liked to and even tried to ignore these independent organizations, but that strategy didn’t work.

Civil-society organizations today are the last area of public political life not to have been integrated into the vertical of power. The Kremlin has brought the Federation Council to heel, established a firm pro-presidential majority in the Duma and tamed the regional governors. It has used the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs to rein in businessmen and has brought most of the media under its control.

Russian NGOs provide 1.5 million jobs, and another 10 million are involved with them or concerned by them in some way. This represents 10 percent of voters – on the whole particularly active voters. As Pavlovsky pointed out quite openly, this is a political resource the authorities can’t afford to overlook.

The authorities have at least three other reasons for wanting to get involved in building civil society: First, they are concerned by the interest that exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky has been showing in the issue. Berezovsky and his money are behind the Foundation for Civic Freedoms, which allocates grants to various social and human-rights programs such as the Sakharov Museum and the Alexander Yakovlev Foundation, which is collecting archive material on Soviet-era repressions.

The second reason is financial. The Kremlin is worried by the fact that almost all Russian public organizations survive on foreign money. For Russian officials with their paranoia – whether real or merely tribute to current fashion in the Kremlin – and visions of plots by foreign secret services at every turn, the fact that money is coming in from abroad and isn’t controlled by the state is obvious cause for concern.

"Most of this money is normal, ‘clean’ money, of course," said one highly placed Kremlin official. "But we know full well that some of it, especially coming through Islamic organizations, is sent by extremists to fund terrorism and anti-state activities. And some of it comes from foreign intelligence services." This is about the most liberal opinion coming from the Kremlin.

Finally, the third reason for the state’s interest – though it won’t admit it – is that these public organizations have become a serious force that is ever harder to ignore. The state became particularly aware of this when environmental organizations took only three months to collect 2.5 million signatures for a demand that a referendum be held on bringing foreign nuclear waste into Russia.

The Kremlin’s initial strategy was to build up loyal organizations in parallel with the "awkward" ones, which would gradually push genuine opponents of the authorities to the sidelines, take their place at negotiations with government officials and act as representatives on the international scene.

Pavlovsky later tried to explain the fact that major organizations – such as Memorial or the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers – weren’t invited to take part in a forum held in June by saying that the organizers didn’t want to frighten the authorities right away. In fact, the organizers tried to invite Alexander Auzan, the head of the Consumers Confederation, without inviting other members of Narodnaya Assambleya. As a result, Auzan refused to take part.

"The Kremlin’s mistake is that civil society isn’t the field in which the authorities can be virtually the sole player," Auzan said. "The consolidation process that Pavlovsky calls for is already under way. After what happened in June, it has been moving even faster. They’ve only made us stronger."

The June attempt to build a loyal civil society didn’t work, and the Kremlin found itself having to agree to cooperate with the "awkward" organizations. But, having agreed to play by rules not of their own making, the civil-society organizations find themselves always one step behind. It’s entirely possible that next week’s forum could make what many NGO leaders have feared a reality, even though they continue working in the forum’s organizing committee – namely, that the authorities will find a way to go back on their agreements and will simply use the independent organizations’ names and authority to pursue their own aims.

The first of these aims is purely organizational – to create an administrative structure to represent Russian civil society at the international level and to engage in dialogue with the president. Obviously, this structure has to be a "comfortable" one for Putin. Most unpleasant for the NGO leaders is that the Kremlin has already begun creating this structure, only not from above, but from below, by turning to regional associations with little knowledge of Moscow politics but with an intuitive, Soviet-style attraction to power.

The second aim is ideological and propagandistic. Pavlovsky has been busy repeating it the last few weeks. After the events of Sept. 11, the idea goes, society’s main task today is to help the state ensure national security and help broaden the president’s powers.

As for any idea of debate, Kremlin officials say that if anyone wants to raise controversial issues at the forum, they’re free to do so and can speak their minds. The main thing is that by the end of the forum, the president should have a loyal, organized civil society ready to give all his policies its full support.

(The writer is a political correspondent for Yezhenedelny Zhurnal.)

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