[Marxism] The Rebirth of Russian Civil Society

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 19 07:47:51 MDT 2011


The Rebirth of Russian Civil Society
Vadim Nikitin | July 18, 2011

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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