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Russia Profile
December 21, 2005
Friend or Foe?
Foreign NGOs Will Be What We Make Them
Comment by Alexei Pankin

Once again, the state and civil society are fighting. The state quite rightly wants to prevent the spread of terrorist ideology and the financing of political activity from abroad. And for these reasons, it is now passing amendments to the law on non-governmental organizations. Civil society, however, believes not without reason that the amendments will be given a very broad interpretation in practice and will be detrimental for all NGOs working with donations from abroad.

While the amendments may not be justified, they are logical. Despite all the power verticals and stabilization measures, the Russian state is weak and lacking in confidence. The authorities are haunted by the fear of a “colored” revolution and think that society could explode anywhere, at any time.

A paranoid state finds threats everywhere, but when it comes to the NGOs operating on Russian soil and receiving money from abroad, some of them could be perceived as potentially damaging. Take, for example, two major American political foundations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, headed respectively by Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, two figures with notorious reputations among the Russian authorities. Both of them are always pushing the absurd and provocative demand that Russia be excluded from the G8. It is thus understandable that any step by these organizations on Russian soil is going to be perceived as a threat.

The Russian authorities feel like they are sitting on top of a volcano and they start seeing challenges even where there are none. But as this fight continues, I find myself constantly recalling numerous examples of successful cooperation between the Russian state and NGOs receiving foreign money.

In 2002, for example, the Russian office of the Soros Foundation organized a meeting between then-Media Minister Mikhail Lesin and the heads of the leading foreign NGOs providing support to the Russian media. The meeting took place in the summer, and the Soros Foundation’s building was in a state of siege. The building’s owner had announced a sudden and steep rent hike and, in order to make his demands more clear, periodically turned off the water and plumbing and blockaded the entrances to the main building. Visitors, including Lesin, were forced to enter the building via the fire escape. Before the meeting began, the foundation’s president, Yekaterina Genieva, took him through the entire building to the front courtyard in order to update him on the conflict between the Foundation and the building owner. A policeman hired by the building owner sat in the security guard’s booth at the entrance.

“Perhaps you would care to stand up,” Lesin said, upon seeing him.

“And just who are you?” the policeman asked.

“I am a government minister,” Lesin replied.

“Do you have some ID?” the policeman asked.

Lesin handed the policeman his ID. The policeman lifted his legs from the windowsill and called his boss. Lesin, meanwhile, headed for his meeting. When the meeting was over he returned to the front courtyard and demanded to be let out through the main gate.

“You, a minister in the Russian government, are defending American interests!” the building owner let his indignation show.

“This is Russian soil!” Lesin bellowed.

The building owner turned pale and began opening the gate. “There you are, Mikhail Yuryevich, please, come out this way”, he said, his tone now fawning as he pandered to the minister.

But Lesin turned abruptly away. “I’ll leave through the back door, like all the Foundation’s other visitors,” he replied.

I suspect that the heads of the Western NGOs who came to the meeting did so primarily for the chance to set eyes on Minister Lesin the man who ‘strangled NTV, ’ the persecutor of all free-thinking journalists. And Lesin, for his part, no doubt felt a bit like a spy sent into the enemy camp. The ensuing dialogue revealed, however, that Lesin had quite a few interesting ideas on how to organize the Russian media market, and some of them coincided directly with the Western donors’ priorities in this area. Indeed, possibilities emerged for combining the Russian authorities’ administrative resources with Western money and Western experience to resolve some of the systemic problems facing the Russian media market. At the same time, neither side had to compromise its principles.

As I see it, the moral of all this, in brief, is that if Western philanthropic activities in Russia are perceived as a threat, they will turn into a threat. But if they are seen as a possibility for getting help in solving the problems that everyone, including the president, has identified as priorities, then Western financing of NGOs in Russia will bring nothing but benefits.