Marcia A. Weigle is an associate professor of comparative politics and international relations at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.
On 21-22 November 2001, an extraordinary event took place in the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin, members of his cabinet, and other government officials met with representatives of more than three hundred nongovernmental and noncommercial organizations (NGOs and NKOs) to discuss practical measures for solving Russia's social problems. The president and government ministers, attempting to strengthen the state after a decade of turmoil, made overtures to Russia's slowly developing civil society, claiming that an effective and democratic state requires a strong, well-organized, and independent society. President Yeltsin had also reached out to social groups, seeking a "social accord" to support his political and economic reforms in 1992 and 1994. But the 2001 meeting differed from Yeltsin's populist-driven sessions. Russia's growing civil society, although still undeveloped by contemporary standards, is now more structured, and its practitioners operate from a more interest-driven set of priorities. Independent activists are now able to engage the president from a position of increased strength, as evidenced by the fact that they rejected Putin's attempts to privilege certain NGOs over others, exacerbate disagreements between NGOs and some human rights groups, and determine the composition and orientation of the Civic Forum. 1 Russia's independent groups organized their own participation in the conference, put their mark on the structure of the forum, and composed an agenda for future action. Although Russian civil society, as its activists realize, is in no position to engage the state as an equal partner, the Putin-initiated Civic Forum was a recognition of the social and political importance of independent groups as they organize to consolidate their resources.
Still, the nagging question of motivation remains. Was the Civic Forum merely an attempt by a wily Putin to co-opt Russia's independent associations, to "tame" them using "open dialogue" to mask authoritarian plans? 2 Or was this meeting indicative of a new model of state-society relations, heralding an unprecedented opportunity for independent groups to gain legitimacy, obtain resources, hold state officials accountable, and help address social problems? 3 On these questions the jury is still out. It is clear that Putin, disingenuously or not, is now publicly articulating what theorists and activists have been saying for a long time: civil society is essential for the consolidation of democracy. The very public recognition of that fact legitimates the goals of civil society in official discourse and offers a presidential commitment to steer federal resources toward the institutionalization of civil society activity. It also challenges independent groups to organize at the federal level, dispense with debilitating bickering, pool their resources, and develop strategies to cooperate with state officials in the pursuit of common goals while holding those officials accountable for their actions.
Despite an overconceptualization of the term and disagreements over definitions, attributes, orientations, and levels of development, "civil society" has entered the parlance of transition theories and practice, as the Russian literature indicates. Civil society contributes to the consolidation of democracy for several reasons: the liberal (as opposed to communal) self-organization of society promotes values of democratic citizenship, 4 creates a support base for democratic leaders, 5 goes hand in hand with a free enterprise market economy, 6 strengthens the activity of democratic political parties, 7 prevents the state from drifting toward authoritarianism, 8 makes the executive and legislative branches from the local to the federal level more effective and responsive, 9 promotes a more efficient use of local resources, 10 and addresses social problems more effectively than the government can. …