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
#9 - JRL 9310 - JRL Home
Date: Thu, 01 Dec 2005
From: "George E. Hudson" <ghudson@wittenberg.edu>
Subject: Discussion on Materials from #9308

I am enjoying the commentary based on the articles that you selected for us in #9308. I have two points in addition to those I have read. First, to judge from the reporting about Putin and NGOs, it would seem that all that matters with respect to the NGO sector happens at the center, that is, whatever the center does has a direct impact on NGOs. This is patently not true. Russia’s regions are a locus of great NGO activity. There, the relationship to local and regional government is normally more important to the local actors than what happens at the center because the NGOs are trying to influence local, not national, legislation and are trying to get local, not national, funds. It is edifying to know that, increasingly, NGOs are benefiting from competitions at regional levels to get funds for their activities and are entering into agreements with regional governments which formalize­and guarantee­contacts between NGOs and local and regional governments. Such arrangements are beginning to spread across Russia (not evenly, of course) benefiting the NGO and government sectors, since the NGOs receive money and influence and the governments get important social services taken care of (which they often cannot provide otherwise), particularly in the areas of health care, but also in some environmental concerns. Two examples spring to my mind: the Samara-based Desnitsa NGO, which is an organization for people in wheelchairs, helping them to become more integrated into society and to pursue professions; and the Volgograd-based “Crossroads of Civilization” NGO, which has successfully lobbied for the creation of a park across the river from Volgograd that acts as a filter for water flowing into the Volga. I, myself, have seen their projects and have spoken with their representatives. But there are many more such projects, too. An example of a formalized government arrangement between NGOs and a regional government comes from Samara, in agreements between the NGO Center Povolzh’e and the Samara Oblast Governor and the Samara Oblast Duma. These agreements oblige the exchange of information and permit interest group activity to go on. The arrangement seems to be working well.

My second point concerns the limitations on foreign funding, as proposed in Duma legislation. I agree that it is too bad that “national-patriotic” elements have taken charge in the Duma (the U.S. Congress is also affected in this way). Foreign organizations such as Soros have provided needed funding for many social service projects, as has IREX. Soros has left Russia, but IREX is still present as a funder. But, as stated above, regional and local governments (and some Russian business, in spite of the lack of tax breaks) are increasingly becoming the source for NGO funding. Sixteen community foundations just for this purpose have been set up in Russia’s regions, according to USAID. Whether they will take the place of foreign organizations remains to be seen, but, importantly, they are domestic, home-grown sources of support that lend legitimacy to the NGO enterprise, potentially leading to more effective NGOs because the public supports them more than if they were solely funded from abroad. A number of scholars­Sarah Henderson is a good example in her book, Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia­have documented the problems that foreign funding have caused for NGOs, including legitimacy problems, but also excessive dependence on foreign funds and tailoring projects just to get funding (sometimes with little relationship to the real needs of the communities in which the NGOs operate). As I see it, foreign funding over the long term, tends to stifle creativity, hurt legitimacy, and leave unmet the needs of communities. The conclusion here is that limitations on foreign funding could actually create the conditions for a more vibrant NGO sector, not a less vibrant one.

In conclusion, journalists do not treat Russia poorly, they just see only part of the picture­that which happens at the center. And, it’s true that the trends towards centralization of the NGO, political party, and mass media organizations are not pretty. But, as some of the previous commentators have noted, journalists are often not trained in the nuances of Russian politics today. Russia is not the Soviet Union, whatever some journalists (and not a few academics) think.

George E. (Gerry) Hudson
Department of Political Science
Wittenberg University.