Building Civil Society in Russia - An Example from Krasnodar

Our correspondent traveled to Krasnodar and brings back a story of how civil society is evolving in Russia

Thu, Mar 17, 2016
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Workers from a bankrupt sugar plant demonstrating to save their jobs in 2013 (Click to enlarge)

Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. 

In October of 2015, she traveled to 6 cities in the Russian Federation and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians.

She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com.


Krasnodar, meaning "beautiful gift", is located in the Black Sea region of southern Russia.  After suffering a devastating level of damage during the Second World War, Krasnodar showed its independence and resourcefulness when it eschewed financial assistance from Moscow and embarked on its own rebuilding efforts.

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Workers from a bankrupt sugar plant demonstrating to save their jobs in 2013 (Click to enlarge)

Formerly a provincial town in a largely agricultural region, Krasnodar has recently evolved into a cosmopolitan city that is the 8th largest in the country.  It saw a such a high rate of civic construction in 2014 that it surpassed even Moscow.  As a consequence of the challenges presented by this rapid development, Krasnodar is showing its spirit of resourcefulness once again with the rise of the Public Council as an independent citizen initiative to make the city government's process more responsive to the needs and desires of the people living there.

It started when the destruction of old trees in the city sparked the outrage of a few residents during the Museum Day holiday in May of 2014.  Svetlana (not her real name), an academic historian, took photos and posted them to Facebook where awareness of and opposition to the practice spread.

 

Thoroughfare in downtown Krasnodar; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015
Elena Shuvalova, another concerned resident, knew the mayor and approached him about the issue.  She was encouraged to register the budding citizen group, which would evolve into the Public Council, with the mayor's office to facilitate quicker and easier communication with city officials. 

After the initial push and registration, city officials, especially a young city manager, have been supportive in terms of working with the group.  As a few members of the Public Council told me during an informal meeting, officials had previously made decisions and implemented them with no feedback or input from citizens.  Moreover, they were not inclined to listen to individual complaints but were now being responsive to group pressure, including comments and complaints made through the city's website.

These results led to the preservation of the city's old trees and the subsequent mobilization to save other resources, such as parks and buildings, from destruction in the rush to develop without sufficient foresight. 

Shuvalova, who would become chairperson of the Public Council, described the development blitz as "too much, too soon, without the requisite infrastructure being planned like transportation and schools."

The Public Council has received significant media attention, networked with youth groups and infrastructure specialists, and received foreign experts in urban planning, public arts, transportation and city marketing.  They are interested in pursuing cooperation with American experts with experience in city design and urban development, such as architecture firms and municipal offices, in the form of educational exchanges.  

They have also organized periodic clean-up and renovation days, which are sponsored by local businesses that donate use of equipment.  Currently, they are working on the creation of protected green zones, including one that connects all of the city's hiking paths and another to connect its 16 lakes.  

The group definitely has momentum and has received no opposition from any Russian authorities, but there are still obstacles.  All of the Public Council members I met with, men and women, professionals and students, young to middle age, attested to the fact that even when projects are officially approved, pressure must be kept up to ensure full implementation.  This was especially true for long-term projects.

Shuvalova spoke of another challenge:  "We need more human and financial resources.  We need to be able to get grants."

This underscores the complexity of developing civil society in Russia.  There is very little history of citizen initiative in Russian culture due to its thousand year history of authoritarian rule, with the exception of brief stretches around the time of the revolutionary period in the early 20th century and again during Gorbachev's rule.  Therefore, effective mechanisms are still being developed.  This includes creating sufficient infrastructure for the domestic funding of civil society, obviating the need or temptation to accept funding from foreign entities that are perceived as not always having the best interests of average Russians in mind.  Svetlana, who sat at the same table with Vladimir Putin at the 2006 Civic Forum, spoke to this very issue and said that the Russian president agreed on the need for such infrastructure. 

Though it may come as a surprise to many westerners due to the extreme vilification of the Russian president in the media, some civil society advocates I spoke with in Krasnodar credit Putin with encouraging the development of civil society with the first Civic Forum in 2001.  According to Svetlana, such an outreach to civil society never would have happened under Boris Yeltsin. There was initially division among civil society activists, due to concerns that the government was trying to exert too much control over the conference and was potentially trying to co-opt the emerging civil society movement.  However, citizen advocates successfully pressured the Kremlin into improving the organization of the conference, adding "a variety of round table discussions to incorporate a broad range of participants and topics," and the inclusion of previously uninvited human rights and environmental organizations.   

This does not mean that the development of civil society will happen as quickly as some western critics, who don't always have a good understanding of Russian culture or history, think it should. Or that it will follow the same trajectory as in the west, particularly the US with it's libertarian streak. 

The strong state has a long history in Russia, predating Communism.  And Putin, in his first address to the federal assembly in July of 2000, had spoken of the need for a strong state to tackle the profound challenges Russia faced at the time, such as massive poverty and crime, the need for reform of the economy and the armed forces, and the worst mortality crisis since World War II. He also cited the need for a meaningful civil society but implied that the best chance for success was for the state and civil society to work together, stating that there was a "false conflict" between the two.

Svetlana admitted that, overall, "the development of civil society in Russia [under Putin] looks vague." She states that Putin considers civil society to be comprised of legitimate and illegitimate groups.  The People's Front and the Public Chamber are among the legitimate groups that have been formed and supported with the use of administrative resources.  On the other hand, civil society organizations that have contacts with or receive financial assistance from foreign and international organizations are considered illegitimate and can be subject to pressure through the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor's office. 

Shuvalov agrees that Putin has his own ideas of what civil society in Russia should be, but is more optimistic of its development under the current president. "Not everything depends on Putin's personal desires...Russia is a big country with vast and very inert bureaucracies that are often corrupted.  A very long bureaucratic chain blurs and weakens any noble purposes and intentions.  To achieve results there must be a willingness of the society to initiate changes, there should be established horizontal linkages, local communities and entities should be formed. At the present moment they are virtually non-existent.  One of the most important barriers that impedes the development of civil society in Russia is a lack of trust of citizens in government."

Homegrown civil society development will take time, patience and an understanding that the path will not be without stalls or setbacks.  

As one example, a group of civil society workers I met with one evening expressed their disappointment with the foreign agents law.  Although they agreed that there was legitimate concern about some foreign actors who acted as provocateurs in Russia, they ultimately saw the law as a mistake as some authentic Russian NGO's were getting caught up in the dragnet.  A December poll from the Levada Center revealed that Russians in general are split on this policy. But to illustrate the complexity of current conditions in what is still a transitional society, the same poll also revealed that 2/3 of Russians feel free and a slightly higher number believe the re-establishment of a dictatorship is unlikely in today's Russia. 

Most of the civil society workers present intended to keep working toward correcting the problems with the law as well as advocating for citizen interests.

Shuvalova believes there is a perfect storm brewing that will eventually force the largely broken interaction between officials and citizens into a more effective relationship:  The first is the economic recession in the country, the second is pressure from the grassroots, and the third is pressure for limited native civil society development from the top - an acknowledgment that, although the state will continue to play a significant role, it cannot do everything.

Indeed, in his December Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin stated the need for civil society to play a role in monitoring corruption and assisting in providing certain social services. 

Nikita Baibik, another member of the Public Council who specializes in transportation issues, is cautiously optimistic about there being some space for constructive citizen engagement at the local level.  "I can't say we are seeing a very strong desire [for civil society development]. However, at the regional level we were able to to start an effective dialogue with the mayor.  We will continue to move in this direction and achieve positive results in the interaction with our local government."

In the case of Krasnodar's Public Council, although many people expressed skepticism at the beginning, the group's successes have brought interest from other communities, such as Volgograd, Kaluga and Rostov-on-Don, who are all considering the replication of the Public Council model.  

It has also brought acclaim from unexpected quarters.  In November, the Public Council won first prize in a competition of social projects sponsored jointly by Perpectiva Foundation and the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation.  In December, Elena Shuvalova was nominated as person of the year and won an award for her social activities by the Public Chamber of the Krasnodar region and Expert-South Magazine.  

 

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