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Solidarity or death: what are the real challenges for German and EU civil society regarding Russia?

The Kremlin has placed many repressive measures on Russian civil society. These moves are largely based on encouraging self-censorship and dividing the sector into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ organisations. This process has had a devastating effect on public policy and has caused a crisis of representation at all levels. Despite this, the Kremlin appears eager to use these same measures outside the country in order to divide civil societies across the EU states.

August 27, 2021 - Anastasiia Sergeeva - Articles and Commentary

The President of Germany Joachim Gauck speaking at the opening of the Center for Liberal Modernity in 2017. It is among the German NGOs whose activities have now been restricted by Russian authorities. Photo: Fkmh wikimedia.org

Certain Russian experts have argued that the Kremlin possesses a very specific perception of internal and foreign policy. Vladimir Putin and his close circle always use one to influence the other. Indeed, they often use the same instruments to “kill two birds with one stone”. The recent attack on German NGOs is a good example of this practice. Three NGOs from the country were recently added to the list of so-called “undesirable organisations” in Russia. In this context, the ways and mechanisms by which the Kremlin has divided and devastated Russian civil society over many years take on new meaning.

In 2006 new NGO legislation was introduced in Russia. It restructured the civil society sector and changed the principles of registration and reporting policy for NGOs. The new bill also introduced various limitations and additional obligations for accepting foreign funding.

During this time the Russian parliament was proclaimed to be “not a venue for discussions” related to NGOs specifically. As a result, the ‘Public Chamber’, an additional semi-governmental body, was introduced as a place for discussion between civil society and the authorities.

The Public Chamber became the first important point in a long-term policy of “divide and rule”. The process of nomination to the chamber was not transparent and was mostly dependent on the decisions of the presidential administration. Due to this, every NGO leader in Russia quickly understood that they must join the Public Chamber or risk being marginalised without any option for dialogue. Of course, for the most part the sector opted for the first option, which brought its own risks of self-censorship in order to maintain the image of a ‘good’ NGO. The leaders of the Public Chamber’s Charity Commission even introduced special amendments for “useful NGOs”, which would allow certain groups special rights to accept foreign funding.

Self-censorship is an especially difficult issue for organisations such as NGOs. This is not only because these organisations and their leaders have to carefully think about what they can say in public. Certainly, they also have to restrict their partnerships and avoid any ‘toxic’ relations with marginalised organisations. Those most affected by this process were the various foreign NGOs present in Moscow as well as human rights and civic education organizations. Their employees were not invited to certain events and working groups and were totally blocked from higher levels of the discussion process. These groups naturally became more isolated, as they were unable to initiate their own discussions and partnerships with local NGOs. This was particularly noticeable in the human rights and civic education sectors. As a result, discourse within Russian civil society quickly changed and in two to three years the entire sector and its leaders were moved to the periphery of the country’s public space.

As soon as the ability of these groups to network and cooperate was stopped, it was even more simple for the Kremlin to take its next steps in isolating these organisations. For example, the government easily introduced the “foreign agents” law in 2012, as they simply built on the idea that NGOs were ‘guilty’ of receiving foreign funding. At this point, even apolitical organisations felt that they had to pick between cooperating with the authorities or face joining a number of bodies that now faced numerous risks.

During this period, it was clear that there was a lack of solidarity in the sector. The short-term benefits of entering the ‘good part’ of civil society seemed more desirable than a long-term fight for equal rights within the sector. The Kremlin now clearly understood that they could simply break the sector up piece by piece by making the criteria for entering the ‘good part’ even more restrictive. This was achieved by introducing various additional legal acts on “foreign agents”, amendments to the state treason bill and the “undesirable organisations” concept. NGOs and their leaders who found themselves ‘undesirable’ also increasingly faced prosecution and media campaigns designed to marginalise them further. By the end of the 2010s, any traditional understanding of the civil society sector in Russia had been dismantled by the state. Many groups have been pushed out of the legal space, criminalised, and made incapable of continuing their everyday operations at both a national and international level. ‘Official’ NGOs have no influence on state policy and often find themselves to be operating as an outsourced governmental social service. Those who would like to truly change lives in their communities now have to work as part of unregistered informal groups. They must also find increasingly innovative and creative ways to continue their activities. As a result, Russia now suffers from a huge problem in relation to representation. This issue was recently the subject of a special report that was edited by Professor Grigory Yudin.

The Kremlin now uses similar practices to manage any negative perceptions of the state at the international level and the results of this campaign are now clear across the EU. For instance, some member states insist on pursuing dialogue with Putin on his conditions and do not want to help find a shared EU position.

As aforementioned, the Russian government recently attacked a number of German NGOs by using the same tactics that it has used internally. Three NGOs were listed as “undesirable” in Russia following a recent wave of repressions. One of these groups works with the Russian-speaking diaspora in Germany, while two others have been working with Russian partners to develop civic education and exchange programmes. Their leaders were also involved in the ‘Petersburg Dialogue’, which is a long-term civil society dialogue programme officially supported by Germany and Russia. Despite this, four members of the Petersburg Dialogue now represent “undesirable organisations” according to Moscow. Should these members now step back to sustain the entire dialogue, or should all of the body’s members stand in solidarity with their colleagues and defend them?

Overall, the question ought to be much wider than this. Should German NGOs working in Russia stand in solidarity with their “undesirable colleagues” or attempt to maintain their various projects with Russian civic partners? At the same time, what does Russian civil society hope that their German partners will do in this situation? It is not yet clear if they would simply expect them to work with the Kremlin or pursue campaigns aimed at publicising the difficult situation that NGOs now face in Russia. Finally, how should civil society organisations in other EU States react to this situation? Should they stand in solidarity with each other or continue working on their own individual goals?

At the moment, there has been no answer to these issues in Germany. There has not even been discussion related to this issue at the EU level. However, I believe that any decision should not be made without taking into account the Kremlin’s previous attacks on Russian civil society. This experience shows us clearly that NGOs will simply disappear one by one unless these groups practice solidarity.

Anastasiia Sergeeva is a Russian civil society activist and political scientist. She is a member of the board of the Association Za Wolną Rosję (For Free Russia), chair of the board of WOT Foundation, Poland. Anastasiia has worked for Russian civil society sector for over 15 years, half of this time in exile from Warsaw, building a diaspora network with close connection to pro-democracy civic and political movements inside Russia. Anastasiia is a member of advocacy group of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and co-author of a number of analytical and policy papers.

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