By the end of 2021, all leading independent NGOs and individual human rights activists had been completely suppressed, and all issues deemed inconvenient for the Kremlin had been removed from the agenda of those still operating. This report focuses on the state of Russian civil society at the outset of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, as well as on how it was affected by the war and what are the prospects for its development in the future.
Since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been moving along the path of creating a fully state-controlled civil society in which the political potential of independent civil activism would be completely undermined. To achieve this goal, the Kremlin pro-actively advanced its network of government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) while simultaneously limiting foreign funding for NGOs.
Those who did not abide by the Kremlin’s rules were systematically discriminated against and persecuted under the so-called “foreign agent” laws. Meanwhile, local authorities have stopped all formal and informal interaction with “politicised” civil actors.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added further impetus to these trends and strengthened the Kremlin’s resolve to root out any sources of potential defiance. The independent professional NGOs that remained were in a deep crisis. Since February 2022, they have switched to survival mode. In all likelihood, they will either be co-opted by the state through a centralised system of financial support or cease to exist in the near future.
The niches that they have left – including in the field of human rights advocacy – are being quickly filled by GONGOs. With their colossal resources, wider media access, and connections in the government, GONGOs are able to attract more young people to join their ranks. In many regions, even the scanty of organised independent civic activism that existed before the war was neither there nor likely to re-emerge in the coming years.
In Russia, the level of involvement in NGOs has always been low and the population at large indifferent to the problems of civil society. Therefore, one should be wary of inflated expectations when contemplating the future of Russian civil activism. Even if Putin’s regime collapses, one can hardly anticipate a quick transition towards a truly independent and vibrant civil society.
The study was conducted on the basis of interviews with representatives of independent NGOs from various regions who, as of February 2022, were based in Russia. The geography of this survey was expanded as much as possible to make the study more reliable and better reflect the content of the processes underway in the country.
This analysis also shows that representatives from Moscow, large provincial cities, and the North Caucasus differ significantly in their perception of the current situation with civil society, whereas their visions for the future diverge considerably. A profound lack of communication among them only amplifies the divisions and fragmentations in Russia’s civil society.
The situation in the North Caucasus is of particular note. Albeit being severely weakened, local independent NGOs and activists are – in contrast with the rest of Russia – more disapproving of the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine but more optimistic about the future of their home regions. They pin their hopes on the revival of indigenous languages and cultures with the help of diasporas abroad and the emergence of civil society.
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