20 years under Putin: a timeline

In June, under Russia’s presidency of the G20, the Civil20 (C20) Summit was held in Moscow. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk discusses the discrepancy between the declarations and the practices of the Russian authorities.



The Civil20 is considered one of the major components of the so-called outreach dialogue that accompanies the activity of the G20 and, along with the C20, includes B-20 (big business), Think-20 (think tanks), G20Yes (young businessmen), G(irls)20 (women’s outlook), L20 (the departments of labor and trade unions), and Y20 (youth). As part of the Civil20, seven working groups were created; the groups were to address priority issues identified during Russia’s presidency, including environmental sustainability and energy, food security, anti-corruption, post-2015 Millennium Development Goals, financial inclusion and financial education, jobs and employment, and global financial architecture.

According to the Civil20 Address to the G20 leaders, “The Civil20 format has made it possible to set up a constructive and result-oriented dialogue between civil society and the government officials responsible for drawing up state policy.” It was expected that in that format, the participants would be guided by the principles of openness, accountability, inclusion of all interest groups, and transparency of decisions. Russia became the first state that decided to include civil society as an “equal partner” in the “consultations process” of the G20.

Under current conditions, there is no place for civil society in Russia.

Looking at this context, one might assume that the process of civil society development is one of priority on the Russian authorities’ agenda and that Russia is becoming the world leader in terms of advancing its ideals. One more aware of reality, however, would see a different picture—it would demonstrate conflict between the offered image and the real story. As Elena Panfilova, executive director at Transparency International Russia, stated, on the one hand Russian authorities talk about the importance of civil society in contributing to “transparency, review and evaluation processes” and, at the same time, “su[e] us for tens of thousands of dollars for doing this job.”

It would not be a surprise to many that today “constructive” dialogue between Russian authorities and representatives of civil society (primarily, NGOs) is either non-existent or permeated with negativity. The overall situation has been worsening; in 2012 a series of restrictive laws was enacted, and today observers argue that a maturing Russian civil society has become “the Kremlin’s worst nightmare.” Within this context, the authorities’ attitude toward civil society is often described as “tightening the screws,” “unprecedented assault,” “crackdown,” or “the witch-hunt.” One of the conclusions that emerge in commentaries is that today’s Russia faces a “state-directed civil catastrophe in the making”; under current conditions, there is no place for civil society.

In fact, much depends on the interpretation of the term “civil society.” Several Civil20 documents offer the following definition of “civil society”:

Civil Society encompasses all individuals and organizations that are not governmental. Therefore, included are: grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics, think tanks, individuals who do not presently work for any level of government or governmental organizations, and the private or for-profit sector.

At first sight, there is nothing wrong with this IMF definition used by the Civil20, and all mentioned components are present in Russia. But there is a period after those words, which limits the definition of civil society to exclusively structural elements. It is important to understand the principles and values that form the foundation of and are advanced by civil society. These principles and values are currently under “assault.” As a well-known statement suggests: “no civil society, no democracy.”1 Similarly, where civil society is destroyed, democracy ends. Pressure on civil society organizations is one of the reasons why Russia is currently characterized as “managed democracy,” “(competitive) authoritarianism,” or “consolidated authoritarian regime.”2, 3


The Russian authorities prefer to talk with civil society though the security services (pictured here: the office of Memorial Society).


According to the recent Freedom House report “Nations in Transit 2013: Authoritarian aggression and the pressures of austerity,” the situation with civil society in Russia worsened significantly within the last year: while previous assessments pointed out restrictions and limitations on civil society organizations, recent comments emphasize that “the new round of initiatives were designed to neuter or eliminate any groups that dealt even tangentially with political or public-policy matters.” Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute has recently stated that “Every assault on civil society is a tragedy for Russia. Nongovernmental organizations are, first and foremost, schools of democracy, teaching personal responsibility, self-organization, peaceful dissent and compromise.” Russian authorities, however, do not think they are creating any kind of tragedy, quite the opposite—since March, the “interaction” with “schools of democracy” has acquired the form of inspections and legal actions.

As a reminder, at the end of 2012 the law on “foreign agent” status for NGOs financed from abroad and participating in “political activities” was enacted; and since March 2013, mass inspections of Russian NGOs have been underway. NGOs argue that the law is in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, regard the term “foreign agent” as insulting and carrying significant reputational losses for NGOs, and believe that the term “political activity” may include almost anything. The official version is that the inspections are “preventive in nature” and are “performed to identify 'foreign agents' and force them to obey the law.” The website of Radio Free Europe shows a map and chart demonstrating the scope of “preventive measures”—the list of organizations required to register as “foreign agents” has been regularly (and irrespective of anything) expanding.

At the end of 2012 the law on “foreign agent” status for NGOs financed from abroad and participating in “political activities” was enacted.

Interestingly enough, at the end of the Civil20 Summit, Alexei Kudrin, former Russian finance minister, suggested amending the “foreign agents” law that, in his words, undermines trust to NGO activities, and narrowing down the definition of “political activity.” Kudrin’s suggestion was supported by Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights. Even Vladimir Putin, despite his personal belief in the idea that the Russian NGO law is “liberal,” stated that he wanted to assess the law's application and think about improving it, so that "it doesn't get in anyone's way," and the state does not become suspicious toward particular organizations. At the same time, The Presnensky District Court in Moscow rejected the appeal against the decision requiring Russia’s independent election monitoring agency Golos to register as a “foreign agent” and pay a fine. A few days later, the Russian government approved amendments to the NGO law: as the newspaper Vedomosti reported, unannounced inspections are likely to be targeted not only at organizations receiving foreign funding, but any kind of NGOs. This means that now “the whole [of Russia’s] third sector may become an “agent.”

It is typically believed that the G20 events are of considerable importance, and one might expect that the Civil20 would become a significant element of dialogue. At least, this is what even those targeted to be labeled as “foreign agents” think. As Huguette Labelle, chair of Transparency International, has recently stated, NGOs are interested in maintaining and advancing their voice in decision-making at different platforms, including the C20.

Despite the importance of the C20, however, it is important to ensure that everything said at the event does not contradict reality and the actions that follow. Currently, contradiction is evident. Interaction with civil society should not be limited to non-recurrent events, which, to a significant extent, pursue the image-making purpose, and one might at least somewhat believe in the “purity” of the authorities’ intentions to conduct a constructive dialogue with civil society only when civil society organizations are removed from the line of fire.


1 Gellner, E. (1994). Conditions of liberty: Civil society and its rivals, London: Hamish Hamilton.

2 Economist Intelligence Unit. (2013). Democracy index 2012: Democracy at a standstill. London.

3 Freedom House. (2013). Nations in transit 2013: Authoritarian aggression and the pressures of austerity. Washington, D.C.