“It's true that most NGOs in Russia are mainly local grass-roots organisations working to improve welfare and the standard of everyday life. They may seem apolitical from the outside, as they do not want to - and in fact cannot - advertise an agenda aiming to change government policy,” points out Meri Kulmala, Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher from the Aleksanteri Institute.
However, it is possible to address social problems and change things for the better. Kulmala mentions the child protection sector as an example.
“Organisations have played a key part in improving the rights of children in Russia. The country’s dysfunctional orphanage system has been gradually dismantled, and the government has welcomed NGOs with open arms into this sector of family policy.
This means that in certain sectors of social policy, organisations may assume the role of governmental aide and executor.
As a side effect, organisations have been able to generate public debate on formerly taboo topics.
“Discussions on the rights of children or the disabled to public social services, or on intimate partner violence facing women have only recently gained more traction in Russia.”
Political motivations under scrutiny
In many areas of society and policy, the ability of NGOs to function is restricted, and governmental control is strict.
“Organisations are intimidated, with unpredictable legislation as well as uncertainty regarding resources and potential sanctions causing frustration among activists," Kulmala explains.
The work of NGOs which are critical of government policies is obstructed or interfered with. Human rights and environmental organisations, as well as movements promoting the rights of sexual, ethnic or religious minorities, are under particular scrutiny.
“The organisations which are thought to be political, or to be undermining traditional and conservative views on respectable Russian citizenship, face the most obstacles."
Regional authorities also have very different interpretations on what is considered undesirable political activism in the third sector.
In major cities, such as Moscow or St Petersburg, civil society is more professionally organised and capable of a broader spectrum of impact, partially thanks to international funding.
On the other hand, this means that governmental control is particularly strict, especially if foreign funding is involved.
“Non-governmental organisations can operate more freely on the regional level, but their activities aren't as strategically planned," Kulmala says.
Women as active citizens
Typical civic activists in Russia are educated middle-aged women, who were active in organisations during the Soviet period and know how the third sector works. Larger organisations with more nationwide impacts also have more male members.
Meanwhile, young women dominate volunteer activities. According to Kulmala, volunteering has become something of a trend in the larger Russian cities, particularly among students.
“There is a great desire to help and to be involved in helping children, for example.”
What of the future?
In her dissertation (2013), Kulmala studied civil society in the Sortavala district in Russian Karelia. She says that the situation has changed significantly during the past three years due to the financial crisis.
“The economic struggles have caused social cuts which impact people’s lives. More people are in need of support, while governmental funding for organisations in the social sector has decreased. Meanwhile, legal restrictions on international funding for organisations have led to certain organisations shutting down completely.”
According to Kulmala, the future of NGOs is uncertain:
“The general atmosphere in Russia is certainly not on its way to becoming more open, and control is likely to increase, particularly of organisations considered to have the potential to criticise or impact governmental policy.”
However, civil society remains functional. There is room to operate, particularly in the field of social services, as long as the activities of the organisations are framed and targeted according to governmental wishes.
Russian civil society primarily needs moral support.
Kulmala sums up, “International dialogue and cooperation should be used to communicate that a critical civil society and academic research should be given room to operate and opportunities to impact society. A more democratic Russia is in everyone’s interests.”
The discussion on Russian welfare and social policy will continue at the Aleksanteri Conference Life and Death in Russia at the University of Helsinki between 26 and 28 October 2016.
Read the article: Aleksanteri Conference looks at life and death in Russia