Essays in Eastern European Entanglements
Maria N. Todorova
The Cemetery at Leleszki
Most protests in Russia in recent years have not demanded the transformation of that country’s political regime. Instead, most of those protests have focused on specific policy goals that have reflected disruptions in the daily lives of groups of citizens. In 2017 a heated debate erupted when Sergei Sobianin, the Mayor of Moscow, announced a plan to demolish and replace hundreds of thousands of old apartments in that city. While many residents of those apartments welcomed that plan, many others charged that it threatened to infringe on their right of ownership of private property. The plan was subjected to vigorous criticism both at the grass roots level and the elite level. The national leadership and the government of Moscow became involved in revising the legislation to authorize Sobianin’s plan that had been introduced in the national legislature. Before the law was approved, the leaders had made a number of concessions to its critics.
Despite the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere in Russia and China, mass protests in both countries are pervasive, including protest motivated by environmental grievances. Existing scholarship often focuses on the sources, spread, or volume of mass mobilization, but few examine how civil society actors themselves evaluate the tactic. How does the state respond to environmentally-motivated mass mobilization? In light of the state’s response, how have activists altered their approach to mass mobilization over time? Using case studies and interviews, I find that Russian and Chinese environmental groups approach mass mobilization in distinct ways. Over time, Russian activists have increasingly turned to mass tactics, including coordinated regional protest. Meanwhile, Chinese ENGOs have reduced their formal involvement in such campaigns, limiting visible horizontal linkages between environmental groups. These approaches are shaped by the different historical legacies of mass mobilization in either country, which also shape state perceptions of the threat posed by environmental activism.
Alfred Evans and Eleanor Bindman
This article serves as an introduction to this special issue on recent developments in civil society organization and strategies in Russia. Despite the widespread assumption that the increased restrictions placed on NGO activity by the state in recent years have hampered their ability to operate, we argue that civil society in Russia continues to show signs of vitality. This is demonstrated by the fact that protests by ordinary Russians have grown and have often led to the formation of new groups and movements which have had some success in campaigning on specific issues. As the articles in this special issue highlight, one of the key tools affecting whether or not such movements can be successful in achieving their aims is that of framing. When organizations are able to frame the issue they are campaigning on in such a way as to resonate with ordinary people and avoid directly challenging the balance of power within Russia’s political system, they tend to enjoy more success than those groups which tend to take a more confrontational stance and thus face greater pushback and sanction from the authorities. This serves to highlight that NGOs and other civil society groups in Russia employ a range of different strategies and enjoy very different relationships with the authorities as a result.
Conventional wisdom holds that civil society is a sphere of activity separate from the state and the private realm. Due to a combination of historical, developmental and institutional factors, Russian civil society today is dominated by the state. While not all interactions with the state are seen as harmful, scholars acknowledge that most politically oriented or oppositional non-governmental organizations today face difficult conditions in Russia. In response to the restrictions on civil society and the unresponsive nature of Russia’s hybrid authoritarian regime, some civil society actors in Moscow have made the transition into organized politics at the local level. This transition was motivated by their desire to solve local problems and was facilitated by independent electoral initiatives which provided timely training and support for opposition political candidates running in municipal elections. Once elected, these activists turned municipal deputies are able to perform some of the functions traditionally ascribed to civil society, including enforcing greater accountability and transparency from the state and defending the interest of citizens.
With more than one million people living with HIV, Russia is facing the biggest HIV epidemic in Europe and is one of the few countries in the world where infection rates are increasing. The response to the epidemic is shaped by the way Russian state actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) view the issue of HIV and how they define policy priorities.
In order to understand the factors that underlie HIV policies in Russia, this contribution analyses the framing of HIV. It thereby makes use of framing theory. Based on document analysis and interviews with NGO experts, the article differentiates between four main framings in Russia: the framing of HIV as a medical issue, as a security threat, as a moral problem or as a human rights concern.
In Russia, the moral framing of HIV has become dominant over the past decade. The epidemic is increasingly viewed as the result of harmful influences from the West which need to be overcome. As a result, Russia has departed from evidence-based approaches to HIV. Instead, it solely focuses on strengthening so-called “traditional values”, e.g. by engaging in healthy lifestyle promotion. The moral framing of HIV has also impacted the mobilization potential of Russian NGOs, as it favour those organizations that relate to the dominant framing of HIV and support government priorities.
An important literature on Russian civil society discusses its evolution, challenges, and prospects under Vladimir Putin. In particular, scholars show how the regime skillfully uses a mixture of coercive and channeling strategies to direct civil society into the ‘right path’, namely in the service of the regime. Perhaps the most glaring example of channeling strategies is the direct creation of CSOs from above, such as pro-regime youth groups. These groups are mean to orient public participation into accepted limits fixed by the state, often mimicking and duplicating grassroot organizations. But to what extent have they been effective in creating loyalty for the regime? In this paper, I focus on the little success that one of the most famous pro-regime youth groups, Nashi (Ours), paradoxically achieved in channeling civil society. While Nashi undeniably brought important benefits to some participants at the individual level, its effects at the societal level are significantly more limited. This is because, I argue, Nashi’s fate, just like many other state-projects, depended primarily on internal competition among self-interested elites. Instead of representing a coherent state strategy toward the youth and civil society, Nashi was mirroring the influence of power-maximizing individuals. The arguments of this paper are drawn from participant observations and from interviews with (then) current and former Nashi activists, as well as with other civil society experts