Civil society is alive in Russia but it is not well

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Sarah Henderson

Civic organizations often act as “midwives” to democracy by serving as mediators between the state and society. The question for Research Fellow Sarah Henderson is just how strong a role citizen activism has played in Russia since the collapse of communism.

“To what degree are elements of civil society active in designing governance at the local and regional levels and what is the nature of this governance? Specifically, I want to trace the evolution of citizen activism and the effects of such activism on public policy in six of Russia’s regions.”

As authoritarianism has crumbled on every continent around the world, many countries have struggled to establish viable democratic institutions, said Henderson, an assistant professor of political science at OSU and co-author, with Alana Jeydel, of Participation and Protest: Women and Politics in a Global World (Oxford UP, 2006). While a variety of factors help cement fledgling institutions into working democracies, a strong and healthy civil society—the realm where citizens interact, exchange information, and pressure the government—is particularly critical to democratic stability.

“Civic organizations help build norms of citizen trust and activism. The groups also provide citizens with alternative methods of political expression beyond traditional electoral politics, particularly in countries with weak or poorly institutionalized political parties.”

While the institutions of democracy are in place in Russia, said Henderson, they often work poorly or not at all. “In particular, President Putin has acted in ways dangerous for democracy by further weakening the mechanisms of communication between society and state. Governors will now be appointed by Presidential fiat rather than through competitive elections. Critical voices of dissent within civil society have been muffled, the independent media has been brought into line, and many nongovernmental organizations have been effectively excluded from the policy process at the federal level.”

This grim prognosis at the federal level, however, masks a wide regional variation in civil society development and citizen input on policy across Russia’s eighty-nine regions. Henderson’s project assesses the internal, domestic factors that explain the nature and strength of linkages between the population, civil society organizations, and local governments, as well as the policy results from these linkages. During three visits to Russia she interviewed civic activists and local officials, and has done extensive collecting of documents, brochures and pamphlets, along with data on political and economic indicators, and she has surveyed more than 150 nongovernmental organizations in the target regions.

“The study will provide a window into the status of local democracy in the Russian Federation. It also will have significant policy implications for Western donors such as the World Bank and the European Union, who are involved in various civil society and democracy promotion activities in Russia. Assessing the degree to which nongovernmental organizations have been able to influence and impact policy, and the degree to which foreign aid can facilitate this process is of extreme importance . . . With the democracy building experiment underway in Iraq, it is increasingly critical that we understand the varied factors, domestic as well as external, that help strengthen democratic institutions.”