Struggling for Citizenship: Civic Participation and the State in Russia

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper discusses the shifting relationships between civic organizations and the state in contemporary Russia. Drawing on a case study of the provincial city of Tver, the paper explores how local activists and authorities interpret citizenship and draw the state-society boundaries at the juncture between the Socialist past and the capitalism of today. The paper argues that the authorities advocate a statist model of citizenship that conceives of civic organizations as an auxiliary of the state, taking over formerly state-provided services and activating citizens to assist the state in governance. Organizations founded during the Soviet era attempt to retain the Soviet citizenship model and the paternalist social contract underpinning it, while organizations founded during the post-Soviet period call for more participatory notions of citizenship.

Keywords: citizenship, civic organizations, Russia, state

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"I think these notions are somewhat strange to us, that there should be an agreement, public decision, some joint symposia, congresses, compacts, deals. People power. Today, we need strict power--I may be wrong though--but it should be a strict vertical power arrangement, to establish some kind of order in our country."

This quotation from an official of the regional government in Tver, contemplating whether citizens and their organizations should have more say about local issues, captures the prevailing ethos in state-society relations in contemporary Russia. While during the Yeltsin era the political landscape was characterized by the dispersion of power from the federal to the regional and municipal levels and the mushrooming of independent civic organizations, Vladimir Putin's and Dmitry Medvedev's terms in office have been marked by a recentralization of power and a more active and interventionist role of the state in steering social development in the spirit of "sovereign democracy."

In terms of civic activism, this process has been riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, civic organizations and governmental structures have started collaborating with one another more than before, and various mechanisms of cooperation have been established. For example, two federal-level civic forums were organized in Moscow in 2001 and 2008, followed by a number of similar regional forums, and a system of federal and regional public chambers (obshchestvennye palaty) has been created that seeks to foster dialogue between the state and society. (1) The authorities have also begun distributing funding to civic organizations, prioritizing in particular youth and social-welfare initiatives. (2) The political elite also actively circulate the concept of civil society in public discourse and emphasize its importance--implying that the concept has certain symbolic value in their own concept of political development. (3)

On the other hand, the state has also placed several new restrictions on activism and increased its bureaucratic control, most importantly via amendments made to the law on civic associations in 2006. (4) This law gives the authorities considerable powers to investigate, and ultimately close down, any organization suspected of threatening "the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, unique character, cultural heritage, and national interests of the Russian Federation." (5) According to the Russia-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, the law has created massive bureaucracy, complicated the registration of organizations, and increasingly marginalized independent civic activism. (6) Moreover, at the same time that organizations enjoying Western funding have been frequently labeled in public as "unpatriotic" and "stooges" of foreign intelligence agencies, and public protests organized by the political opposition have been forcefully suppressed, the Russian public sphere has witnessed a mushrooming of youth organizations, such as Nashi, which are closely connected with and enjoy considerable financial support from the government. …