Russia's Fledgling Civil Society ; an Environmental Battle Fires Activism. but Many Doubt Whether Citizens Can Affect Government Policy

Article excerpt

When a Russian oil company announced plans to begin offshore drilling later this year just off the Curonian Spit, a unique nature reserve on the Baltic Sea, local environmental groups swung into action.

They hired lawyers, called on experts, and made extensive presentations at public hearings in May and June. They warned that a bad oil spill might destroy the fragile sandy isthmus, home to several endangered species and a UNESCO World Heritage site. And they cautioned that drilling rigs could wreck this westernmost Russian region's hopes of luring European tourists.

Their campaign was the latest episode in Russia's struggle to develop the citizen participation and give-and-take of a democratic civil society.

Though the environmentalists lost this round - after a drilling permit was awarded to the partly state-owned oil giant Lukoil - they still found something to celebrate: It was the first time in the Russian Baltic territory's history that an open public process had been held on an economic-development project.

"If this had come up even a few years ago, ecologists would have been able to do nothing but protest in the street," says Lena Gorbacheva, a lawyer for EcoDefense, the region's largest environmental group. "The legal basis for public input is very new. While we don't think it was used fairly in this case, the process certainly opens opportunities we couldn't have dreamed about before."

Whether citizen activists can actually affect public policy is unclear, however.

"Civil society is alive in Russia, but that is despite the efforts of the state not thanks to them," says Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank in Moscow. "In the past few years the state has grown much stronger and has managed to return to its traditional position at the head of everything. What we considered to be democracy in the 1990s in retrospect turns out to have been a temporary space created by the weakness of the state. Hence, the scope for public involvement in decisionmaking is narrowing. In fact, it's being locked into limited and formal mechanisms that create the impression that something is done, but which are totally under control.

"Nevertheless," Mr. Makarenko says, "the number of registered public organizations is growing, and at some point, we are bound to see a revival of civil society. But, for the moment, the picture is not hopeful."

Across the country, environmental activists say that President Vladimir Putin has made changes that effectively compel nongovernmental groups and protest movements to become more specialized and legally adept if they hope to get the ear of the state. While this may sound like a Western-style system, the activists say the new rules of engagement simply mask a partnership between government and business aimed at rapid economic development regardless of environmental cost.

"The authorities pretend to go through the motions of legal process, but business always gets what it wants," says Ivan Blokhov, director of campaigns for Greenpeace-Russia. …