Russian NGOs and Civil Society: Under Influence?

by Maria Chertok

“There is a war against Russia. It is an announced information war which involves hundreds and thousands of people, agencies and organizations. Taking advantage of the imperfect and out-dated Russian legislation, multimillion dollar budgets come through international foundations to jeopardize the unity of our country, stability of the political structure, to destroy the peaceful life of our citizens.”

This is the opening paragraph of a petition of five GONGO-type organizations, which was published on the Internet a couple of months ago.

The petition proposes to introduce a piece of legislation that would force recipients of foreign funding to register as agents of foreign influence – something that is happening in the U.S. under Foreign Agents Registration Act. The petition so far has been supported by over 85,000 Internet users and, given the promise of new Russian President Vladimir Putin to legitimize citizens’ initiatives that get support of over 100,000 people, it has raised concern among the Public Chamber and NGOs that receive foreign funding.

Russia has a very long paranoid tradition with regard to foreign influence. Thousands of people were convicted as foreign spies and killed or sent to prison during the Stalin era. Nowadays, political opposition and human rights and campaigning NGOs have been many times suspected of being agents of foreign, primarily U.S., influence. Orange revolution in Ukraine and other recent political regime changes in the former Soviet Union countries and the Arab world add to this inborn fear. In 2006, right after events in Ukraine, additional reporting requirements were introduced for international NGOs working in Russia and recipients of foreign funding. The statistics obtained through this reporting and revealed recently by the Ministry of Justice, suggest that Russian NGOs received over $300 million from foreign sources in 2011 – a figure that seems far bigger than we could possibly imagine. Still, even if this figure is correct, it could hardly all go to support politically charged action or human rights work.

Although I don’t think that there is any real threat of this petition making any impact on the legislation, it raises again topical issue for Russian NGOs involved in campaigning, democracy building and human rights actions. Basically, close to 100% of this activity is still funded by foreign donors. Combined with very low public awareness of what human rights organizations do, it does present a problem of legitimacy and challenges the way human rights groups see their financing strategy.

The good news is that this stipulation has been true until recently, when all of a sudden Russian citizens developed an appetite to giving towards these causes. As we have written before, the famous anti-corruption activist and blogger Alexey Navalny was successful in raising considerable amounts for legal action on corruption cases via his blog. Expenses of the spring demonstrations were crowd-funded. And now legal aid to the victims of police abuse during the most recent street protests have been paid by private donations.

This latter case was described by the Russian Forbes magazine as an example of the successful application of entrepreneurial talent by a young activist, Maxim Katz, who invested his own money and mobilized professional lawyers on the same day the arrests happened. He was successful in raising enough funds to get back almost all of his initial investment. While lawyers were paid according to the market standard, the project was managed by volunteers and helped by others who drove the lawyers to police stations and brought them back with the rescued protesters. Forbes presents this case to demonstrate the power of social entrepreneurship for human rights work.

The second recent news from the same area that almost scandalized the Moscow community is the announcement that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has formed a partnership with a mid-size private bank to issue a co-branded credit card that will allow users to give 1% from all transactions to the foundation. If this and other initiatives come true, foreign funding may become a mere add-on to strong domestic giving to progressive causes. When this happens, our concerned politicians will face a new problem: they will have to accept that Russian people act on their own will when going on the streets and putting forward demands for more transparency, fair elections or freedom of association – rather than doing it because they are being paid with US dollars.

Maria Chertok is director of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) Russia and a board member of the Russian Donors Forum.