chapter  2
20 Pages

Civil society, NGOs and the Russian state

This statement by a St. Petersburg public health expert shows what many researchers of Russian politics are familiar with: that the notion of grazhdanskoe obshchestvo – a literal translation of “civil society” – does not enjoy great popularity in present-day Russia. For most Russians, “civil society”, like “democracy”, remains an abstract concept that does not have much to do with the reality of their everyday life. This perception was also shared by many NGO representatives who were interviewed for this study. Some described the concept of “civil society” as inapplicable or useless; others associated it with a political programme, unsuitable or even harmful for their country. When discussing the work of specific civil society organisations, however, interviewees sketched a completely different picture. Both staff members of HIV/AIDS NGOs and their counterparts at state-run health care institutions agreed on the crucial role of these organisations in the fight against HIV/AIDS and emphasised the need to strengthen their involvement. Despite widespread scepticism regarding the concept of “civil society” and its applicability to the Russian context in general, HIV/AIDS NGOs as concrete examples of civil society were thus recognised for their capacity to voice public interests, mobilise citizens’ participation and respond to the social policy challenges posed by Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV/AIDS NGOs do not stand alone. They form a part of the many civil society organisations that against many odds have emerged in post-Soviet Russia during the last two decades. According to the Ministry of Justice, more than 125,000 public associations were officially registered in Russia in 2008. Their overall number includes public organisations, charitable foundations, professional unions, as well as branches of international NGOs (Goskomstat 2010b). Civil society organisations in Russia are active in a wide variety of fields,

ranging from education to housing, culture and environmental protection. About one-third of Russia’s NGOs are involved in social welfare and provide services to the most vulnerable groups in Russian society, including the elderly, the disabled and the chronically ill (Cook and Vinogradova 2006: 28). This raises a number of questions: What is the reality for civil society organisations in Russia? How do they work under the given conditions? And what factors affect their ability to function within Russian society? This chapter sets out to locate HIV/AIDS NGOs in the broader context of civil society development in post-Soviet Russia. In order to investigate how HIV/AIDS NGOs are working in present-day Russia, how they interact with state institutions as well as with the public, and to what extent they have been able to influence policy-making in the field of HIV/ AIDS, we first of all need to understand their embeddedness in Russian society, as well as the institutional context that determines the conditions for their functioning. The chapter clarifies the basic theoretical concepts underlying this study and relates them to the specific situation of post-Soviet Russia. To begin, an overview of civil society theories will be provided, which is essential for understanding how different scholars give meaning to this popular, but in general usage often vague concept. Along with establishing working definitions for central theoretical terms, special attention will be paid to the functions of civil society as well as its interrelation with the state and the market. Second, the chapter will focus on the situation in post-Soviet Russia in order to discuss how the development of Russian civil society can be assessed against the background of the previously elaborated theoretical considerations. This includes a discussion of various studies conducted to highlight the state of civil society in Russia today. This theoretically inspired section will be followed by an overview of the legal and institutional context that shapes the conditions for civil society organisations in today’s Russia. Particular attention will be paid to the laws that regulate work of civil society organisations in Russia as well as the institutional framework of state-society relations. The questions posed in this chapter are: (1) What is civil society? (2) What does it mean in the political context of postSoviet Russia? (3) How did civil society develop in post-Soviet Russia? and (4) What are the conditions for civil society organisations in Russia today? The chapter will conclude with a brief characterisation of Russian civil society, which subsequently will serve as a basis for the investigation of NGOs in the field of HIV/AIDS.