Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Washington Post
December 2, 2001
Social Activists Size Up Putin
Russian Leader's Overtures Elicit Wary Responses
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service

MOSCOW -- The other day, President Vladimir Putin sat at the head of a vast gathering of civic organizations in what at first glance might have seemed a display of national unity.

Normally, the Russian national anthem would have kicked off such a meeting. But the assembly at the cavernous Kremlin Palace of Congresses opened without it.

The reason: Many organization heads, some of whom were Soviet-era dissidents, objected to the tune, which was the hymn of the Soviet Union.

Thus began the delicate courtship between Putin and Russia's growing array of independent civic action groups, organizations that work on human rights, health, labor, small business, child rights, anti-draft, housing, ecological and a host of other issues.

The Nov. 21-22 meeting of a group called the Civic Forum reflected the Kremlin's tardy recognition that "civil society" is a growing force in Russia. Hundreds of groups represent the needs of hundreds of thousands of citizens who have been left adrift by Russia's lumbering, inattentive bureaucracy. Civil society first put down roots during the perestroika era in the 1980s and grew quietly but steadily during the years of neglect under the first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin.

The activists marched into the unprecedented gathering full of doubts. A big question dogged their Kremlin debut: Is Putin, with his authoritarian reputation, simply out to dominate this force?

Opposition politicians and independent observers warned of a trap. Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the social democratic Yabloko party, attacked the gathering as a "purely image-making activity" for Putin.

Civic leaders wondered whether Putin was just trying to burnish his image, now that he is an ally in the West's anti-terrorism war.

"We didn't want to be part of a show, and we don't want to be under the Kremlin's control," said Alexander Auzen, head of the Consumers Federation. "On the other hand, it's good to have a dialogue. Many problems have to be solved in conjunction with the government, so it is useless to stay outside."

"For years, we have been sending letters to officials, Soviet and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling for dialogue. It was hard to say no the first time the authorities invited us for a talk," said Arseny Roginsky, director of the Moscow branch of Memorial, the human rights organization.

The gathering was remarkable for the variety of non-governmental organizations on hand. Besides well-known consumer, environmental, housing and human rights groups, there were delegates from Boy Scout groups, ethnic communities, treatment agencies for alcohol abuse, chess players, athletes and even a representative of "the International Monarchical Court" on behalf of someone named Prince Bugayev-Ponyatovsky. In all, 5,000 delegates crowded into the hall for the first day.

Putin kicked off the affair with a speech extolling the need for a "dialogue of equals." He took pains to assure the delegates that the Kremlin was not trying to co-opt them. "Civil society should evolve independently, feeding on the spirit of freedom."

Delegates were nevertheless mindful that Putin, upon taking power almost two years ago, proclaimed the need for establishing "vertical power," with himself at the top. Since then, he has taken the popular steps of curbing the influence of big business in government. But he has also cowed the mainstream media and the only independent television network faces extinction at the hands of a Kremlin-connected shareholder.

Prosecutors have pursued journalists who have uncovered military misdeeds and hindered access to Chechnya, where Putin's government has waged an inconclusive, two-year war. Putin appointed unelected commissars to oversee Russia's governors and reduced the legislative clout of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

As Putin sat on the dais listening to 90 minutes of speeches, petitions from the audience piled up on his desk. Some appealed for dismissal of corrupt state workers; others included requests to have pictures taken with the president. Putin pledged to "reply to everyone."

Civic leaders insisted that no votes on any declarations be taken, nor should any permanent council be formed under the Kremlin.

They also made sure that the bulk of the event was dedicated to small meetings between delegates and government ministers. In short, they wanted to avoid the appearance of a Soviet-style "people's" congress in which delegates paid homage to, and rubber-stamped, authorities' proposals.

Organizers on the Kremlin's behalf said Putin would still like to establish a permanent council as a liaison between civic organizations and the government.

This is just the kind of thing the delegates to the forum were dead set against. Putin deleted a part of his speech suggesting such a council, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a public relations operative who works closely with the Kremlin. Pavlovsky was one of the main promoters of the Civic Forum on the president's behalf.

"Suspicions stand in the way of this proposal," he said. "But these suspicions are inertial, from the past. They will fade."

Back to the Top    Next Article