Translation: Grigory Yavlinsky Slams the New NGO Laws

Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party and political old-timer, argues in a Vedomosti editorial that the Kremlin’s crackdown on NGOs is not only ethically wrong but ultimately self-crippling.

The Exile of Citizens from Politics

Unfortunately, the Russian nomenklatura has an exceedingly poor understanding of why we need independent public organizations, and the meaning of citizen control and social feedbacks. Hence the rhetoric of “a billion dollars in four months,” the war against those who help children, and the branding of crane sanctuaries as foreign agents. {Translator: Refers to alleged scale of foreign NGO financing, and the woes of the Crane Homeland).

But this isn’t the full extent of the problem. The state’s deliberate defamation of NGOs that fulfill vital functions of citizen supervision in various spheres of life is but a continuation of the same pattern that includes systemic electoral falsifications, the creation of a compliant parliament, and the open and insolent rejection of the separation of powers written into the Constitution. This amounts to nothing less than an exile of citizens from politics and social life, and the transformation of the socio-political sphere into the exclusive prerogative of the state.

The issue of foreign involvement in NGO financing is of secondary importance. The government simple took advantage of a situation inherited from the 1990s – when not only NGOs, but many vitally-important national institutions in science and culture – were forced to apply for foreign grants just to survive and continue operating. To this day there are no transparent, nonpartisan, and autonomous state or private financial groups in Russia that could act as interested and impartial sponsors 0f educational programs and citizen control. So it turns out that the only way out is to get financing from abroad. This is not to say this makes anyone particularly happy – from our conversations with NGO representatives, we are well aware that that foreign bureaucratized structures neither have a good understanding of what is really happening in Russia, nor are they all that interested in it for that matter. But expecting anything from within Russia is even more pointless: Our oligarchs think even less about the development of their own country than do foreigners.

These indiscriminate charges of foreign financing are nothing more a stigma, intended to make people buy into the government’s siege mentality. In this case, stupid references to American norms and traditions – as in many other cases – are totally inapplicable to our situation, and only underscore the brazen impudence of the entire exercise.

There are other, similar stigmas, which do not contain the word “foreigner” – for instance, “enemies.” And the bureaucracy, in implementing this policy, considers its enemies to be anyone who shows independence and autonomy.

The mass checks of NGO finances, and the resulting absurdities that accompany them, are part of that policy. The aim is to dredge out the undesirable elements from public life – as they are understood by the government – and pit them against the “majority,” “healthy society,” and the country itself. Moreover, those undesirable elements include not only human rights defenders, but also independent politicians, deputies, and public figures for whom the powers that be wish to a sort of latter day “philosopher’s ship.”

This is contrary to Russia’s interests. Squeezing everybody independent, civilly active, and passionate – and hence, dissenting – from political and public life only serves to further weaken the unstable and problematic relationship of the state with its citizens. As far as national development is concerned, this is a strategic stalemate. The state must, if anything, thank NGOs for the civic, supervisory, and advisory roles they perform – even if the level and slant of several groups leaves something to be desired (but that is just a mirror of what is happening in general). Meanwhile, many other NGOs, even those in dire financial straits – it’s not like foreigners actually give out billions – perform exceptionally high-quality and critically important work for the benefit of Russia, which will be valued by history and which the Russian state should already be valuing today.

The author is a Russian politician.

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