Is Putin Out To Destroy Civil Society In Russia?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 21

Human rights groups in Russia and in the West have reacted strongly to President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation speech last Wednesday, in which he darkly warned Russian civil society that it was too dependent on foreign money. Clearly, when Putin talked about civic groups that “cannot bite the hand that feeds them” he had in mind organizations financed by oligarchs such as the jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky and exiled Boris Berezovsky. Earlier this month Justice Ministry official Valerii Krayev said that Berezovsky was paying 163 groups between US$5000 and US$15,000 each per month. Krayev said, “We have records of telephone conversations and in some cases, we have Berezovsky’s ears sticking out” (RIA Novosti, May 7).

Yet Russian conservatives were also dismayed by Putin’s speech, which failed to mention any of their pet themes – national identity, spiritual values, the union with Belarus, and so on. On the contrary, Putin spoke of pride in Russians as “free people in a free country” who have rejoined the Western community of nations. Putin also outlined a series of liberal economic reforms that critics such as Stanislav Belkovsky regard as the abandonment of state paternalism in favor of Western individualism (Moscow Times, May 27).

Belkovsky heads the National Strategy Institute, which released the influential report last spring that predicted – and encouraged – the attack on Yukos. So which is the real Mr. Putin, reactionary, or reformer? Is he sacrificing human rights on the altar of economic reform?

First, it is important to remember that Putin’s speech does not represent a change of course. The Putin administration has never been favorably inclined towards human rights organizations with foreign ties. On the contrary, there has been a consistent and vigorous campaign to make life difficult for them. Recall for example the December 2002 termination of the Peace Corps program, and the ejection of Irene Stevenson, who headed the AFL/CIO affiliate in Moscow. Still more disturbing was the jailing of Russians working for Western organizations on the grounds that they are leaking state secrets — a fate that befell arms control researcher Igor Sutyagin and environmental journalist Aleksandr Niktin.

Second, we should remember that words mean different things to different people. When Putin talks about the need for civil society, he does not have in mind Adam Smith’s pin manufacturers. Still less does he want to see social protest movements like Solidarity in Poland that helped defeat communism. Rather, Putin’s civil society is a network of social organizations that are formally independent of the state but that reach out into society to help fulfill the state’s agenda. This sounds familiar: it replicates Vladimir Lenin’s policy towards Russia’s trade unions, that were turned into “transmission belts” for Communist Party policy.

Since Putin came to power, the state has tried to formalize its relations with civil society, granting official endorsement to certain groups and bringing them into the decision-making process. Putin started regular meetings with the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE), and invited them to help draft legislation. In 2001 the state created a new, loyal Media Union to challenge the more independent-minded Russian Union of Journalists ( ,

In 2000 Putin created a new bureaucratic structure: seven federal districts each headed by a presidential representative, with federal inspectors in each of Russia’s 89 regions. These inspectors set up social bureaus whose task is to monitor public opinion and help organize local civic groups. The whole idea of the state organizing civil society is a contradiction in terms. And even from the point of view of the state’s own interests, the process is problematic. Bringing these groups into the decision-making process gives them access, information and hence, power. Putin does not have a Communist Party to enforce discipline and ideological conformity. With the business community, for example, relations with the RUIE deteriorated during the Yukos affair, and the state started to encourage other business groups, such as Yevgenny Primakov’s Chamber of Commerce.

In addition, cracking down on ties with foreigners might threaten the economic integration with the West that is the central plank of Putin’s national revival strategy. This week, reports surfaced that Federal Security Service officials were investigating the headquarters of the TNK/BP oil company, created last September when UK-based BP bought out TNK. According to a 1995 law, information about oil reserves is classified as a state secret. It will be rather difficult for BP to run the company if its managers are to be denied access to such information (Vedomosti, May 31).

Putin sees a need to mobilize Russian society to help modernize the country. Given the anemic state of political parties, he is trying to use civil society to help realize his political agenda. At the same time, in trying to beat back a political challenge from the oligarchs, Putin has systematically introduced policies that constrain free development of civil society in Russia. And he has encouraged the security services and prosecutors to crack down on anyone who stands in the way of the state’s program. These are contradictory and self-defeating policies. In pursuing both modernization and control, Putin will end up with neither.