In July 2012, the Kremlin enacted a controversial bill restricting foreign-funded NGOs on Russian soil. The government feared that those NGOs could be used to influence Russia's policies. The more important question is however, why Russian citizens don't support their parties and NGOs. A background article by Marion Messmer
Russian civil society remains influenced by Soviet legacies. In order to understand how certain remnants linger, let’s take a look at how Soviet institutions were perceived in the public eye. The Communist Party had a monopoly on all aspects of public life, providing an incredibly dense network of different organizations, from professional to social. This made non-participation nearly impossible for Soviet citizens. Children had to join the Party youth organization, The Young Pioneers, while adults usually had to join labor unions. These were the only associations available to them.
Fed up with government intervention
A civil society independent from Party activities was non-existent, and membership in Party organizations was meaningless as everyone had to join in order to enjoy certain privileges in society like being able to secure an apartment, or simply to avoid harassment from the state. Additionally, these associations were a way for the government to exercise control over its citizens. Members did enjoy privileges, but at the same time had to endure an invasion of their privacy through the state, on which they depended for jobs, income, consumer goods, education, housing, health care, as well as social and geographic mobility.
In contemporary Russia, membership in organizations is voluntary, but the attitude towards those institutions remains the same. Mark Howard, a professor at Georgetown University, conducted a series of interviews between 1998 and 2000 which reveal to what extent the Russian people mistrust formal organizations and are hesitant to join. His interviewees overall state that to be a member of an organization means to have an obligation towards that organization. Since they were forced to join organizations during the times of the Soviet Union, they now interpret their freedom of choice as the negative freedom not to participate. Even though these institutions are very different from the organizations during Soviet times, citizens use their past experience to evaluate them, which means they see them as rather intrusive.
Not a caretaker state
Another reason for low participation in the new organizations is a widespread disappointment with modern institutions. Even if they were once optimistic about the economic and political changes of the Yeltsin era, Russian citizens were quickly disillusioned by the little real change it brought them. Especially the high levels of corruption in the new democratic government, high unemployment and enormous economic suffering on parts of the working class made Russian citizens weary of the democratic experiment and the free market economy. The improvement of their economic situation during Putin's presidency has not increased involvement with democratic institutions, however.
Overall, Russian citizens feel that the state does not represent them, or cares for them. In this situation, the informal social networks prevalent during the Soviet Period remain strong. The high level of distrust for the state goes hand in hand with the high level of trust for family and friends. A large part of the population still relies on those personal ties to get certain goods and services that are hard to obtain because of high levels of corruption or other bureaucratic obstacles.
A new generation?
The trust in private networks might help to explain the protests and demonstrations, triggered by blatant election fraud in favor of Putin's party United Russia in the 2011 Duma elections. Those initial protests were dominated by students and young professionals who have been born after the fall of the Soviet Union, or who were very young at the time of the Soviet Union's demise. Ilya Yashin, a popular opposition leader who rallied people to protest, was only 28 years old when the protests began. He was previously involved with the youth wing of opposition party Yabloko but found a bigger following as an individual actor. He managed to inspire other protestors who had joined because they were outraged about obvious election fraud first during the Duma elections in December 2011 and then during the presidential elections in March 2012.
Most of the people who participated in those demonstrations, regardless of age group, were part of the middle class that has grown more important in Russia in recent years. It is important to note here that these protests were spontaneous and self-organized, using social media tools like Facebook events to gather people together. Organizations like the opposition parties used the momentum for their own cause, but were as surprised as the Kremlin that voters had taken to the streets. This is a testament to the "lone protestor" phenomenon: citizens distrust organizations even when it comes to matters as creating a more cohesive opposition. Another important factor is that Russian citizens are much more likely to participate in protests if the subject is close to them. The recent protest on January 13, 2013, in response to the adoption law, drew a particularly large crowd because participants saw children's rights being hurt.
Freer than the West?
Russian societiy is confronted with two new phenomena: the generational change away from the politically uninvolved, negatively integrated generation socialized during the Soviet Union, and the development of a stronger democratic consciousness of the middle class. This can lead to stronger democratic institutions in the long term, despite the Kremlin's meddling with civil society and liberties. While Soviet legacies have had a strong influence on the strength of democratic institutions in Russia in the short and medium term, we can expect them to grow less potent over time as changes in societal structure occur such as the ones we have been able to observe over the past year. This unique legacy might also be a reason why Russian citizens prefer direct involvement in civil society over membership in formal Western-style organizations.