Staunton, December 7 – Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a key role as an intermediary between state and society in democratic countries. Indeed, their role is so critical that many analysts, especially in the West, equate the level of the presence of NGOs in a society as a measure of its democratization.
But Vladimir Putin has drawn on a practice that Soviet officials routinely used in the last decades of the existence of the USSR: creating and controlling government-organized NGOs – or GONGOs as they are often known – to promote the idea that his regime is more democratic than it is while marginalizing or even destroying legitimate NGOs in Russia.
Writing on the Znak portal, journalist Yekaterina Vinokurova says that as a result “a class of pseudo-social activists” has emerged in the Putin era, that this group is interfering with the work of real NGOs, and that Russia as a result is a country of fake ones (znak.com/2016-12-06/klass_psevdoobchestvennikov_meshaet_realnym_obchestvennikam_chto_delat).
Because of the efforts of the Putin regime, “a significant part” of what many call Russia’s public sector is “not real,” something that may fool some people some of the time but won’t fool everyone all of the time because it has real and serious consequences for the Russian Federation and its people, she writes.
These groups are only “imitations” of reality and reflect the fact that “the Kremlin being afraid of dealing closely with real social activists is surrounding itself with operetta personages, the most colorful of which is” Putin’s biker friend Aleksandr ‘the Surgeon’ Zaldostanov. But there are others who are having a more noxious impact even if they don’t get the same attention.
Last year, for instance, the presidential administration chose not to give a grant to the Vera group which supports hospices but instead to fund a biker club which promised to organize children’s games; and it gave money to Anton Tsvetkov’s Officers of Russia group which “in Black Hundreds fashion” has disrupted exhibits without the police interfering.
And the Kremlin also gave money to a GONGO called “The Truth about Food,” whose purpose is to teach Russians to buy “cheaper Russian goods” so that the country will be less dependent on foreign suppliers. This notorious list, Vinokurova say, could be extended almost at will.
Of course, there are “imitations” of public activity of “a higher order” such as the All-Russian Popular Front. But even with these added it, “it is difficult to say what good they bring to society.” Nonetheless, the Kremlin now is in a situation from which it will be difficult to get out: Even these imitations may oppose the regime if it doesn’t continue to fund them.
The Znak journalist spoke with five analysts about this phenomenon. Abbas Galyamov, a political scientist, said that the regime need to stop trying to block real NGOs because if it continues to support GONGOs, no one in Russia will pay any attention to them regardless of their propaganda value abroad.
Another political scientist, Maksim Zharov, said that the current situation was the result of the Kremlin’s actions in 2009-2011 when it worked hard to destroy real NGOs and then found that there was an empty space to its left. It decided that it had no choice but to try to create a substitute for the organizations it had closed or gelded.
Aleksey Chesnakov, the head of the Moscow Center for Political Conjunctures, said that unless Russia does away with these imitation NGOs, it will be “impossible” for the country to move forward. But he acknowledged that doing so will be hard even though the GONGOs in fact are nothing more than “ballast” holding back society.
Konstantin Kalachev, the head of the Moscow Political Experts Group, said it would be harder to do that than many imagine because regional officials would not understand an order from Moscow to “cleanse” the political scene of the GONGOs lest they provoke even more dissent from below or even provoke some in the GONGOs to oppose them.
And Andrey Kolyadin, a former staffer of the Presidential Administration, said that even that understates the problem. The only way to get rid of GONGOs would be to conduct a political reform equivalent to that which Mikhail Gorbachev attempted. Given what happened to him and to the USSR, Putin is unlikely to agree to that -- at least voluntarily.