Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Kremlin's Civic Forum: Cooperation or Co-Optation for Civil Society in Russia?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Kremlin's Civic Forum: Cooperation or Co-Optation for Civil Society in Russia?

Article excerpt

Alexander Nikitin is the director of the Russian Coalition for the Environment and Human Rights, in St. Petersburg, Russia. He attended the Civic Forum in November. Jane Buchanan is the Human Rights Watch 2002-03 Michael Bloomberg Fellow. The authors would like to thank the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies for its generous support of this and other research. The opinions in this article are strictly the authors' and do not reflect the position of any institution.

On 20-21 November 2001 the Kremlin hosted the Civic Forum, an unprecedented event that brought some 3,500 representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and members of the Russian government together for a two-day conference involving plenary sessions and roundtable discussions on current issues facing Russia's civil society. The meaning and goals of such a forum were, from the outset, not explicit, and they were throughout the process interpreted variously by governmental and nongovernmental participants and observers. Many--particularly human rights, environmental, and other "oppositional" groups--approached the forum with caution, even antipathy. Many believed that the forum was, at best, little more than President Vladimir Putin's attempt to rally unified societal support for his policies, or, at worst, an effort to draw civil society into governmental structures, consistent with Putin's consolidation of an administrative "vertical" and "dictatorship of the law" in the country. The administration portrayed the event as a gesture toward opening new lines of communication between government and society. Although nothing permanent or binding emerged from two hectic days of meetings, the Civic Forum itself and its formulation nevertheless represent a unique moment in the development of Russian civil society and society-authority relations in Russia.

In this article we begin by describing the process of development leading up to the forum, including the contrasting perspectives of Putin administration representatives and members of the NGO community as well as the extensive debates about the meaning of the forum among NGOs themselves. We then examine the events of the forum and evaluate the outcomes with a view toward long-term implications for relations between the Russian state and civil society. Much of the discussion focuses on the perspectives and experiences of human rights and environmental NGOs, not because they constitute all of Russian civil society or even the vast majority of it, but rather because for these groups the very idea and realization of a Civic Forum entailed the greatest dilemmas and greatest potential impact.

Origins of the Civic Forum

The ultimate structure and stated goals of the Civic Forum evolved extensively over a six-month period starting in June 2001. A Kremlin-sponsored meeting on 12 June between ten civic leaders, President Putin, and a handful of administration representatives marked the initial formal discussion of an attempt to increase interaction between the first (governmental) and third (nongovernmental, noncommercial) sectors through the creation of an all-Russian Civic Forum. The masterminds of the meeting and much of the process that followed included two well-known Kremlin technocrats: Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin adviser and director of the Fund for Effective Policy, and Viacheslav Surkov, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, known as a "PR manager supreme" and architect of the merger between the Unity and Fatherland Parties. 1 These original organizers envisioned the establishment of a "Union of Civic Organizations" or another permanent organ through which civil society representatives would communicate with federal authorities. In an address after the 12 June meeting, NGO representatives of the initial organizing meeting called for a Civic Forum to contribute to the realization of a "Great Russia" founded on the "best national traditions of service to society. …

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