Civil Activism without NGOs: The Communist Party as a Civil Society Substitute

Article excerpt

After a decade of postcommunist development in Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) remains the largest political force in the country. The regions of the so-called Red Belt (mostly in agrarian southern Russia) are still politically dominated by the communists. Although inhabitants of big cities even in those regions usually vote for more liberal parties (such as Yabloko or SPS), people in small cities and in the villages support KPRF candidates. The virtual absence of civil society institutions is also commonplace, according to reports from such regions. That phenomenon is usually seen as a result of the conservatism or indifference of the agrarian population, the tight control of local authorities over the election processes, or economic impediments. All of those factors do exist. However, such statements prevent analysts from looking into the mechanisms of political interactions at the local level. In fact, many small cities of the Red Belt have many institutions of civil society, which work on local problems and defend the interests of the "common man" before the state authorities. To see them, one merely needs to eliminate the ideological dimension from one's analysis and realize that those institutions exist within the KPRF. A model example of such a situation may be seen in Uryupinsk, in the Volgograd region.

From many viewpoints Uryupinsk is the "capital city of Russia's provinces." Its name is so widely used in anecdotes about Russian "country bumpkins" that many Russians believe that it is the creation of some storyteller. Uryupinsk, however, really exists. About forty thousand inhabitants enjoy a healthy and picturesque environment on the river Khoper, three hundred kilometers (about two hundred miles) from Volgograd. This old Cossack town is now the center of a rural district. Major industries include the production of sunflower oil and agricultural machinery, but city authorities hope that the engine for the city's future economy will be goat down. Women there knit shawls that are not only warm, but also very beautiful. City mayor Valery Sushko entertains hopes that Uryupinsk shawls will compete with Angora knitted goods. He has publicly boasted that there are more goats in Uryupinsk than there are people, in part exploiting the anecdotal image of the city to attract more attention.

Given Russia's current economic and social turmoil, Uryupinsk is doing pretty well for a Russian provincial city. It has an active population and ambitious city authorities. Unlike many Russian provincial towns, it has a sense of community, and citizens of Uryupinsk tend to be proud of their city. Uryupinsk is situated far away from the major Volgograd-Moscow highway that siphons the most active population to either the national or regional capital. It is one of the few Russian provincial cities to win a grant from the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) for the promotion of city development. Mayor Sushko was invited to the United States recently for a tour that was sponsored in part by Soros.

Western observers may be surprised that a relatively large and prosperous city is solving its problems and developing a civil society without the active participation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which often play a key role in developing and sustaining robust civil societies. The local cell of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, however, appears to have taken the place of NGOs in Uryupinsk. The KPRF is not only the largest organization in Uryupinsk, it is also the only active one. Uryupinsk citizens support KPRF candidates in all national and regional elections. In the 2000 presidential elections, Putin lost in Uryupinsk to KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov by 41.5 percent to 47.4 percent, while even in the surrounding Uryupinsk district (rayon) Putin won 45.8 percent to 44.8 percent. (1) The city also voted for Communist incumbent governor Nikolai Maksyuta in the Volgograd gubernatorial elections on 24 December 2000. …