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Civil Society and Democratic Space in Russia

In the context of contemporary Russian civil society, elements of change and continuity, tradition and innovation coexist and interact. Certain key patterns in Russian civil society continue from the Soviet and pre-Soviet periods and have proved to be major hurdles in the path of development of strong and vibrant democratic civil society institutions. The state's intolerance of political opposition clearly has repercussions on its long-term stability and in no small measure contributes towards the prevailing insecurity.

Civil Society andDemocratic Space in Russia

In the context of contemporary Russian civil society, elements of change and continuity, tradition and innovation coexist and interact. Certain key patterns in Russian civil society continue from the Soviet and pre-Soviet periods and have proved to be major hurdles in the path of development of strong and vibrant democratic civil society institutions. The state’s intolerance of political opposition clearly has repercussions on its long-term stability and in no small measure contributes towards the prevailing insecurity.


he brutal killing of Novaya Gazeta journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, an ardent critic of president Vladimir Putin and his Chechen policy, on October 7, 2006 in her Moscow apartment is a clear pointer to the hold that the “uncivil society” has on the polity of Russia. Hailed by many as “Russia’s lost moral conscience”, Anna Politkovskaya’s fearless reporting on the war in Chechnya and the denouncement of Putin, for stifling civil liberties on the pretext of waging a war against terrorism, clearly was a sore point with the ruling establishment.

Close on the heels of this high profile killing came the October 9, murder of Alexander Plokhin, the director of a Moscow branch of Russia’s state-owned foreign trade bank Vneshtorgbank. Both these murders have come weeks after the September 14, 2006 high profile assassination of Andrei Kozlov, a respected first chairman of the Central Bank who had led a fearless campaign to close banks suspected of involvement in money laundering. These killings raise serious questions about the health of civil society institutions in Russia and president Putin’s own role in undermining these institutions in pursuit of his declared goal of strengthening the Russian state and enhancing its power status. Observers point out that during the six years of his tenure as president, Putin has not only undermined every independent source of political power but has indicated in no uncertain terms his preference for organisations that share his enthusiasm for strong state, nationalistic themes and Russian values. Paradoxically, while on the one hand Putin has made statements giving token endorsement for the development of civil society, on the other hand he has been very vocal about his vision of civil society institutions, which can at best be described as “quasi-civil society” – in which social organisations are subordinate to the authority of the state and express demands within the parameters of the programme of the highest executive leadership [Lipman 2005]. It was during Putin’s first term in office (Putin was elected first in Mach 2000 and again in March 2004) that it became fairly clear that journalists and environmentalists who were too critical of the government’s policies in sensitive areas, the Chechen policy being one such, would have to face the music.

Civil Society Institutions

Civil society institutions were encouraged to play a collaborative role. An indication towards this intent was the 2001 announcement to convene a Civic Forum in Moscow in November to enable 5,000 representatives of NGOs to meet with government officials. The idea clearly was to integrate civil society organisations throughout Russia into a single corporatist body that would allow them an official consultative role with the government. What was expected from social organisations engaged in voluntary activism was to sacrifice their independence in order to gain institutionalised consultation of their interests and a share of the benefits allocated by the state [Squier 2002]. The plan, could not take off mainly due to the vocal protests by social activists across the spectrum. However, the failure of the same has not diluted the resolve of the government to tighten the vertical structuring of power of the state. There are sufficient evidences to prove that the consolidation of the state’s power has concretised itself and Russian democracy today can at best be described as “managed democracy” [McFaul 2004].

The terms “civil society” like “democracy”, although a part of the daily fare of public discourses in Russia, mean different things to different people, their meaning have changed over time and across geographies. Even the term society denotes a complex array of ideas, notions, imaginings and possibilities. Apparently the word suggests a measure of homogeneity whereas the varied and multiple universes within which Russians interact defy any singular meaning of the term. It is thus fairly clear that there is no one definition as to what civil society institutions are. It is a contested concept and has become a tool of political struggle, both in the west and in Russia itself. However, there is some amount of consensus on the irreducible minimum requirements for civil society to come to exist in any society. These requirements are: empowerment which would include opportunities for full participation in decisionmaking processes, devolution of power and easy access to the judiciary; awareness which is intrinsically linked to education; stability and continuity of the basic political and constitutional structures; rationality; compassion and goodwill; and freedom. Clearly, a political and a cultural environment based on these six principles are critical for the establishment and strengthening of civil society institutions.

In the context of contemporary Russian civil society, it is abundantly clear that elements of change and continuity, tradition and innovation, coexist and interact. Certain key patterns in Russian civil society continue from the Soviet and pre-Soviet periods and have proved to be major hurdles in the path of development of strong and vibrant democratic civil society institutions. These include general reluctance of citizens to participate in civic associations, weak institutionalisation of existing NGOs, the need for organised groups in society to communicate with the state via connections with key individuals and the role of the state as a dominant actor in the political sphere. The role of foreign assistance in supporting many NGOs also presents an entirely new dilemma for Russian civil society actors that are struggling to navigate life in post-communist Russia [Henderson 2003].

What particularly stands out is the role of non-state actors like organised crime groups and the business sector as critical factors in shaping the social context in which civil society operates. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the structure

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006 of the Russian economy has been dramatically transformed and large private business corporations have come to dominate both the economic and political scene in the state. It is significant that in a span of 15 years Russia could transform itself from a society where entrepreneurship was not legally permitted to one that by 2004 had produced 36 individual billionaires [Rutland 2006:75]. The process of globalisation that preceded, accompanied and followed the demise of the Soviet state has been an important factor in Russian politics and have led to the emergence of a group of powerful business class known as the Oligarchs. The Oligarchs, enterprising businessmen with political connections, have successfully controlled the lucrative extractive industries of the state like oil, gas and other mineral resources. As control over these natural resources demands a collaborative role with the state, the business class seems disinclined to challenge the authority of the state. The present regime is determined that all businesses remain subservient to the state. The October 2003 Yukos affair, which led to the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia and the founder of the Yukos oil company proves Putin’s determination to have a firm grip on the business class by laying clear limits to its political independence [Tompson 2005].

‘Uncivil Society’

Organised criminal groups in Russia, though not created by the state have bypassed formal rules and developed close linkages with the state machinery at every level. This marriage of convenience clearly promotes the mutual economic and political interest of both state officials and criminal groups. What distinguishes these groups from contemporary civil society groups in Russia like the human rights, women’s groups, environmental groups, soldiers’ rights groups, disability organisations and groups espousing the cause of migrants is the fact that crime groups do not favour a transparent or freer society. As democracy and openness hits at their power base by limiting their political and economic influence, these groups seek an unaccountable and ineffective legal system that thrives on corruptible government officials andweak implementation of laws [Taylor 2006]. It was in the mid-1980s that the Russian criminal world became visible in a very big way although they had been operating in the previous decades too particularly in the Caucasus region. The criminal world was peopled mainly by ethnic groups who figured prominently in the criminal cultures of the labour camps of the Stalinist era. Later with the inclusion of professional athletes, Afghan veterans and juvenile delinquents, the professional criminal world became more diversified [Volkov 2002:11]. Throughout the 1990s, crime groups increased in number and membership across the country including within its fold different nationalities – Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Kazaks, Abkhaz and others.

The Russian criminal world operates at three levels – local, regional and international. While the local level specialises in burglary, armed robbery and racketeering, the middle level groups run illegal credit operations in the financial sphere besides trade in narcotics, illegal alcohol and contraband. At the third level are groups having large financial interests in banks, real estate, joint ventures, casinos and private protection services. They have an informational network, including their own television stations and newspapers, besides extensive involvement in several sectors of the legitimate economy. What makes these groups particularly notorious is their ability to deploy violence both within Russia and also overseas. The precision in the execution of contract killings and other violent acts can be mainly attributed to the fact that within the ranks of Russian organised crime are many ex-Soviet military personnel who had served in the Afghan war. Some of its members are also known to have worked with the intelligence agencies. High levels of violence and contract killing, define the crime scene in Russia. The division of urban territory among different crime groups and the consequent territorial battles have resulted in Russia acquiring the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent countries in the world. Another defining feature is the consolidation of the criminal and political nexus as evident through the election of criminals to local, regional and national office and also of the financing of both local and national elections by criminal groups. A noteworthy development is that over the years, serious attempts have been made by many such actors to transform themselves as legitimate businessman and philanthropists. The most preferred route towards this end has been through donations to churches, which owing to the neglect in the Soviet era are in dire need of resources, educational institutions and social welfare programmes.

If civil society is to be understood as the keystone to democratisation, then clearly organised crime groups with established links with the political establishment have proved to be the biggest stumbling block in its formation. This is mainly evident in a variety of ways. Criminal groups intervene in governance at all levels and more often than not have been successful in swaying state policies to their advantage. They have also not hesitated to openly threaten journalists and other civic groups who stand in their way. This clearly sends a powerful message to citizens that healthy contact between civil society and the state is not only not impossible but also undesirable. The most effected groups are the feminist organisations, environmentalists and human rights advocates. The fact that most of these organisations are heavily dependent on western funding leaves them vulnerable to the charge of serving western interests. These organisations not only lack broad popular followings but also can be easily marginalised and replaced by surrogate associations sponsored by the state.

Civil Society in Perspective

In the Russian context, the relationship between state and society has varied dramatically among distinct phases of history. There have been periods, such as the late tsarist decades and the years of the disintegration of the communist party control when society has enjoyed greater autonomy in comparison to other periods that witnessed state suppression of the independence of social organisations. The Stalin era stands out as the most extreme example of state suppression. However, a major fact that comes out from the reading of history is that the opportunities for citizens to form self-governing institutions has fluctuated periodically depending among the nature of relationship between state and society. Another fact that emerges is that, Russian citizens in different and widely separated periods have demonstrated the capacity of creating and leading organisations that create a vibrant civil society. What has been particularly noteworthy in contemporary Russia is that civil society institutions typically seek a productive dialogue with state institutions and view state and civil society as partners more than opponents. There seems to be a clear tilt towards the adherence of a “strong state-strong society” model, which forcefully advocates the notion that the institutionalisation of state power is a prerequisite for civil society development, and a strong civil society is vital to ensuring the state’s democratic orientation [Weigle 2002: 127]. This model is clearly in tune with the designs of president Putin.

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

In the aftermath of the September 2004 Beslan terrorist attacks that resulted in the killing of over 330 people, a majority of them school children, Putin has been unequivocal about his intentions to tighten the vertical structuring of power. It is desirable for civil society institutions, in his over all scheme of things, to organise as a “public chamber” for facilitating extensive dialogue over citizens’ initiatives. In December 2004, Putin submitted a bill on the public chamber to the Duma. The draft legislation specified that the president would choose 42 members who in turn would pick 42 members. The 84 members of the chamber thus selected would select the remaining 42 members. The decision of the public chamber would have the status of recommendations to the government [Farizova 2004]. On March 16, 2005 the bill on public chamber was adopted by the Duma and was approved by the federation council on March 16, 2005. Putin gave his assent to the law on March 23, 2005.

Putin’s vision of civil society has been criticised as “an attempt to create a dummy of a civil society” that fits perfectly in his scheme of reinforcing the vertical chain of command by building civil society from the top down [BBC Monitoring 2005]. Dialogue with the society has to be routed through a controlled forum, i e, the public chamber that would serve as a substitute for the articulation of citizen’s demands by independent social groups. It thus becomes abundantly clear that Russian civil society encompasses elements of both continuity and change. Soviet era practices and institutions continue to impact the statesociety interface. Although citizens’ voluntary groups have come up with innovative ways to address contemporary challenges, their own foundation remains slippery. Search for stable resource base, lack of sufficient following and the need to navigate between the politics of personalism and the new formally democratic laws and institutions are some of the serious challenges confronting civil society institutions in Russia. The contradiction between the rapid appearance of civil society actors – social, economic and political – and their limited power in practice is too glaring to go unnoticed. The law enforcement agencies remain corrupt, lack public trust and are often guilty of torture and other serious violations of human rights. This is particularly so in Chechnya where gross human rights violations are known to have been committed by law enforcement agencies such as the ministry of internal affairs. The fact that Anna Politkovskaya was murdered just two days before her investigative story on human rights abuses in Chechnya was to hit the stands assumes significance. The Russian “national project” in its contemporary form characterised by patriotism that refuses to look beyond the motherland; antiwesternism; imperialism expressed in the desire to reunite the former Soviet republics, the Slavic ones in particular; orthodox clericalism as evident in the desire to strengthen the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church; militarism; authoritarianism; xenophobia, which manifests itself in distrust and suspicion of members of other races, nations and faiths; economic dirigisme which is evident through the nationalisation of strategic branches of the economy and widespread state interference in economic decision-making, is clearly an antithesis of the liberal project that prevailed in Russian politics in the 1990s [Poliannikov 2006]. Clearly, civil society groups, particularly the ones that want genuine democracy, face tough challenges from multiple sources.




BBC Monitoring (2005): ‘Rights Campaigners

Blast Moscow’s Public Forum Bill’, January 12. Farizova, Suzanne (2004): ‘Vladimir Putin Organises the Public’, Kommersant, December 9, reprinted in LexisNexis,

Henderson, Sarah L (2003): Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia: Western Support for Grassroots Organisations, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Lipman, Masha (2005): ‘How Russia Is Not Ukraine: The Closing of Russian Civil Society’, Russian and Eurasian Project Policy Outlook, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January.

McFaul, Michael (2004): ‘Putin’s Strong Hand Is failing Russia’, Washington Post, September 12, reprinted in Johnson’s Russia List,, No 8362, September 12.

Poliannikov, Timur (2006): ‘The Logic of Authoritarianism’, Russian Social Science Review, Vol 47, No 3, pp 21-29.

Rutland, Peter (2006): ‘Business and Civil Society in Russia’ in Alfred B Evans, Jr, Laura A Henry and Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, Russian Civil Society: A Critical Assessment, M E Sharpe, Armonk, New York.

Squier, John (2004): ‘Civil Society and the Challenge of Russian Gosudarstvennost’, Demokratizatsiya, 10, No 2 (Spring): 166-82.

Taylor, Brian (2006): ‘Law Enforcement and Civil Society in Russia’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol 58, No 2, March, pp 193-213.

Tompson, William (2005): ‘Putting Yukos in Perspective, Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol 21, No 2, pp 159-81.

Volkov, Vadim (2002): Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Weigle, M A (2002): ‘On the Road to the Civic Forum: State and Civil Society from Yel’tsin to Putin’, Demokratizatsiya, 10, No 2 (Spring).

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

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