The Rebirth of Russian Civil Society

The Rebirth of Russian Civil Society

A new generation of web-savvy civic activists are steadily builiding a participatory, nonideological and conspicuously patriotic movement against official corruption.


Last fall a group of environmentalists temporarily blocked the construction of a superhighway through protected wilderness in Khimki forest, near Moscow. In December Alexey Navalny, the anticorruption crusader dubbed Russia’s Julian Assange, launched RosPil, a website where people can anonymously report suspicious government deals—the site, which posts corporate documents exposing these corrupt deals, claims to have prevented more than $10 million worth of attempted misappropriations. In recent months activists from around Russia have rallied bikers against police indifference to motorcycle accidents, ordinary motorists against government officials’ flouting of road rules and preservationists against the razing of historical buildings by property developers.

Although state-controlled TV has kept the public largely in the dark about it, a new wave of civic activism is emerging in Russia. The country’s civil society, often considered a largely irrelevant, politicized and NGO-centric movement, is repositioning itself as a more participatory, nonideological and conspicuously patriotic one. As the state grows increasingly alienated from its people, civic leaders are carving out a small but growing space for online and grassroots protest. 

The movement celebrated a coming-out of sorts on June 17, when Navalny joined Khimki protest mastermind Yevgenia Chirikova and hundreds of community organizers from all over Russia at Anti-Seliger, a gathering held in Khimki forest and conceived in retort to Seliger, the annual summer camp organized for the pro-Putin youth group Nashi. 

“Our country is being colonized by Western business,” says Chirikova, condemning the lucrative involvement of a French company in the disputed highway project. “Our president is taking decisions to the benefit of foreign business and the oligarchs close to it, not the people. Our authorities have turned a great power into a raw materials depository for the West.” 

Such populist rhetoric seems odd coming from a middle-class small businesswoman and one of the new leaders of Russia’s opposition. The sector has been dominated by pro-Western, pro-business, center-right figures like chess champion-cum-dissident Garry Kasparov and anti-Putin politicians like Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov. But as the popularity of the civil society movement grows, comments like this are becoming more common among opponents of the so-called Medvedev-Putin “Tandem.”

“The regime has no ideology, and neither does the opposition,” says Nabi Abdullaev of the English-language daily Moscow Times. “Civil society groups each have very local aims, but they are prevented from achieving them by the existing government machine, which they therefore struggle against.” In fact, says writer and online activist Oleg Kozyrev, there is no movement as such to join formally: “People are unwilling to join organizations but are ready to solve particular problems.”

Most Russians consider the Medvedev-Putin political class to be the most corrupt in history. According to a May/June survey by the Levada Center, 52 percent believe corruption among the country’s leadership is higher now than it was even in the notorious 1990s (in 2007, only 16 percent of respondents felt this way). Yet to many, opposition leaders like Nemtsov remain irredeemably tarnished by links to the Yeltsin regime and the 1990s, and by their perceived elitism, tone-deafness and self-interest. (Nemtsov’s former party, the Union of Right Forces, dissolved after capturing less than 1 percent of the vote in 2007. Although PARNAS, a new party he co-founded, was recently denied registration under questionable circumstances, it would not likely have fared much better.)

By contrast, the new civil society activists are democrats with a small “d” and an even smaller appetite for the ideological grandstanding and deal-making of transactional politics. Such pragmatic localism better reflects the worries of ordinary people, who place corruption, abuse of privilege and lack of accountability well above authoritarianism on the list of the country’s biggest problems. A December 2010 Levada poll found that more than half of Russians prefer law and order even if it comes at the expense of some democratic rights. The Tandem’s diminishing ability to ensure the former (once a core factor of Putin’s popularity) has contributed to a gradual increase of interest in the latter.

The civil society movement’s new focus has paid off: Levada estimates that 68 percent of those who follow Navalny trust his reports of official corruption, and most believe that a current lawsuit against him by a state-owned timber company is politically motivated. However, only 6 percent of Russians have ever heard of him.

Lack of recognition remains the largest problem facing the Anti-Seliger crowd. Navalny and his allies are creatures of the Internet, but while Internet penetration has grown sixfold over the past decade, only about a third of Russians are regular users (about half the American figure). Online activism remains the preserve of younger, more educated and more affluent citizens concentrated in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. The result is what Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute has called a “tale of two nations”: an incestuous city-state of upwardly mobile, Internet-savvy young urbanites organizing and networking on Livejournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform; and an offline mass of older, poorer, disaffected but largely inert and atomized consumers of state-controlled TV.

According to Aron’s study of the role of the Internet in Russian civil society, people who rely on TV for the news outnumber Internet news consumers by around nine to one. This has created a dramatic gap between the TV-watching silent majority and a numerically marginal but disproportionately vocal culture trading in nyetizdat, a modern reincarnation of samizdat (Soviet underground publishing). Research by Bruce Etling of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society shows little overlap between topics discussed on state TV and in the blogosphere. What Leonid Parfyonov, the outspoken TV personality and former editor of Newsweek Russia, said of the liberal Kommersant newspaper—“One gets the impression that the country’s leading social/political newspaper…and the federal television channels talk about different Russias”—applies even more to the Internet. Not surprisingly, web-based activism has so far failed to connect with the “heartland.”

Even among its biggest users, the Internet may be a double-edged sword. “There are no obstacles to expressing yourself against the authorities online, and people love to grumble and get angry. But there is no action behind it,” says Masha Lipman, a civil society expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “This is actually very convenient for the government: people let off steam verbally, and there is no energy left for action.”

Ironically, Russia may be too free to inspire Soviet-style dissidents or sustain mass popular resistance. “The factors that made the USSR vulnerable are not there,” says Edward Lucas, international section editor of the Economist and author of The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West. Although political competition and TV media remain tightly state-controlled, most Russians have access to foreign travel, uncensored Internet, religious freedom and a wide range of consumer goods unimaginable in Soviet times or in fully authoritarian states like Iran or China.

However, this relative freedom and affluence have created burgeoning middle and lower-middle classes, which, while not active online, are ready to use collective action to defend their new consumer rights. The Federation of Russian Car Owners (FAR), for example, has brought out thousands of drivers to protest rising import duties, gas prices and police corruption.

Too big and mainstream to ignore or repress, with mass appeal among the government’s core demographic, FAR has become the most effective force in civil society. “In a place with zero civil society—but 42 percent car ownership—FAR is as good as it gets,” wrote journalist Julia Ioffe. As testament to FAR’s clout, in May Putin bowed to its demands to scrap mandatory vehicle inspections, which car owners complained could only be passed using bribes, until the end of the year.

Despite such isolated victories, civic activists still face big hurdles. The greatest obstacle is the pervasive cynicism and despondency endemic in Russian society. “Nobody trusts anyone except their closest family and friends, and particularly not representative institutions like government, courts, police and political parties,” says Lipman. Therefore, she says, even otherwise popular initiatives fail to attract mass support.

Though the movement is still in its infancy, activists like Navalny have made huge strides in restoring civic trust. Through RosPil, “Navalny makes people feel that they can effect change by inviting them to use the Internet to uncover abuses and corruption,” says Lipman. “He does not offer ideology; he offers action.” Navalny’s success can be measured by the record-breaking $120,000 worth of contributions he received in one week alone to fund the site. So palpable was the energy, enthusiasm and public-spiritedness surrounding the new activism that several older Anti-Seliger participants compared the atmosphere to the early days of glasnost.

For now, the movement remains too niche, elite and diffuse to challenge Russia’s status quo. But it has already shown that there can be life outside the officially sanctioned spaces. Its modest size does not faze activists like Kozyrev. “What’s important is that resistance to corruption and abuse of power is now coming from below,” he says. "Not from abroad and not from the old politicians—just ordinary people doing the right thing."

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