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Problems of Civil Society

 

On the whole, the progress in the emergence of the structures of civil society in Russia looks quite impressive displaying a plethora of organizations and associations active in all sections of public life. No doubt that, compared with the Soviet past, this in itself is a great achievement.

Russian TV reports on the first meeting of the Civic Chamber on 1 October 2005. Photo: ntv.ru

An important step to recognition of importance of the grassroots organizations in Russia was the Civic Forum of 2001, the largest gathering of non-governmental organizations that expressed interest in interaction with authorities. The practice of conducting forums was continued in 2002 in Toliatti  and in 2003 in Nizhny Novgorod under the name of "Russian Forum".

In 2005, the Law "On Creation of the Civic Chamber" was initiated by President Putin. The Civic Chamber was conceived as a new superstructure for community organizations. Comprised of 126 representatives of civil society and appointed through a three-tier selection process, the organization has direct access to federal policymakers. Its remit is to provide expert advice on key state decisions and new legislation of national importance that are likely to have major impact on the country's development.

At the same time, civil society organizations and civil society in general in Russia are often treated with suspicion by the authorities.  In 2005, stricter regulations of NGOs were introduced. NGOs had to re-register with the Ministry of Justice and to provide regular financial reports. The Duma and the Ministry of Justice accused human rights groups of having links with organized crime and working for "the West's money."

In January 2006, the "spy rock" diplomatic scandal between Britain and Russia was used as a justification for tougher regulation of NGOs including  restrictions on foreign grants to non-governmental organizations in Russia.

As a result, two conflicting processes seem to be affecting community organizations. On the one hand, a new superstructure for community organizations is taking shape: the Civic Chamber. On the other, many non-government organizations created at the grassroots level are being eliminated or are coming under state surveillance. Community activism seems to be faced with a choice: either operating within the framework of the new Civic Chamber, or ceasing their activities.

The condition of civil society in Russia reflects the transitional and incomplete nature of the current period when the structure of public interests and the countrys social structure itself have not yet fully crystallized. The main problems of civil society in Russia include:

  • Limited character of feedback with various social groups

  • Insufficient clarity regarding the role of community organizations in societal development

  • Poor understanding of the various forms of interaction between community organizations and governmental agencies at the federal and regional levels

Public participation continues to oscillate between protest forms (such as, protest voting and actions of protest, including hunger strikes) and political apathy (such as, low turnout at elections).

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