Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Post-Soviet "Political"? "Social" and "Political" in the Work of Russian Socially Oriented Csos

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Post-Soviet "Political"? "Social" and "Political" in the Work of Russian Socially Oriented Csos

Article excerpt

The role of citizens' associations, other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society organizations (CSOs) is debated in all societies today. Depending on the framework of the debate, a common functional distinction is to divide them into two crucial roles: promoting societal change through advocacy work and social welfare-oriented support of (vulnerable) people. The former is usually labeled as political activity, through which such organizations or groups aim at having an impact on common issues and defending people's rights and interests. The latter is tightly connected to groups' effort to provide social welfare services. Their engagement in these roles also links to the question of the location of citizens' groups within the state in a given context.

The first of these roles is often viewed through the democratization framework, according to which civil society and popular participation through organized forms of action are seen as a necessity for democracy. The other role, in turn, is discussed within the economically oriented welfare framework, in which CSOs are usually understood as part of the non-profit voluntary third sector, which can compensate for the dysfunctionality of the state in welfare provision. Consequently, social welfare or service-oriented organizations are generally recognized as core concerns of the welfare framework, while organizations engaged in advocacy are treated more frequently in the democratization literature. The related research has become somewhat bifurcated into these separate frameworks and consequently into two distinctive categories and roles for CSOs.1

The role of CSOs in the post-Soviet context is a topic that has fascinated many social scientists. The majority of Russian civil society organizations seem to work with questions concerning social welfare. 2 In the democratization framework - which has dominated Russian civil society studies3 - these Russian CSOs have been most often depicted as apolitical helpers of the Russian state, with the social assistance provided to their beneficiaries as their primary function and consequently lacking much political ability and impact. In this article, I focus on Russian socially oriented civil society organizations (SO CSOs), which have in fact recently received much attention - and support - from the Russian government.4 Such organizations are typically overlooked in the Western scholarly investigations of Russian civil society, which have focused on the post-Soviet democratization process and consequently emphasized the oppositional activities and related political/advocacy role of Russian citizens' groups. The "political potential" of SO CSOs has attracted only episodic analytical attention.5

I seek to understand the role of these organizations in contemporary Russian society. I am particularly interested in whether such organizations carry alongside their more obvious social (service provision) role any political (advocacy) role and the possible interconnections of the "political" and "social" in their work. My particular aim is to uncover what can be understood as political action in the given setting.

In addition to its focus on less-studied socially oriented organizations in general, my investigation includes the so-called Soviet-type voluntary organizations, which have been almost completely neglected by Western scholarship on Russian civil society, which deems them as somewhat illegitimate and not counting as civil society due to their statist, Soviet legacy.6 Hence, my research covers "illegitimate" Soviet-type organizations that have been traditionally active in the social field as well as the more recent socially oriented organizations that have been established in post-Soviet Russia. Due to the differences in the logic of action of these two categories of SO CSOs, I label the old Soviet-legacy organizations as membership organizations and those more recently established as social welfare organizations. …

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