PRAGUE — The accepted narrative about Russia is simple: Vladimir Putin rules and a lemming-like society submits. The reality is more complicated. Despite crackdowns, Russias political and civil opposition is far stronger and more active than the West appreciates. And in order to thrive, it needs more consistent European support.
Over the past month, thousands of Russians have taken to the streets all over the country. Demonstrations have taken different forms, including local rallies against toxic landfills, urban flash mobs throwing paper planes to protest internet censorship, and nationwide protests decrying Putins czar-like grip on power.
So far, these different movements have failed to coalesce into a coherent whole. Protests focused on social and environmental issues remain local, while the rallies organized by opposition activist Alexei Navalny or Telegram founder Pavel Durov are confined to younger urban elites.
To be sure, Putins authoritarianism has shrunk the space for civic activism, which faces levels of restriction last seen in the 1990s. Today, the Kremlin defames NGOs as traitors and “foreign agents,” and represses independent thought in society more widely. Freedom of assembly is severely limited, while censorship has risen steeply, not just on the internet, but also in arts and education.
Despite this crackdown, Russian civil society has shown an impressive ability to adapt. A 2017 study by the Centre for Economic and Political Reform shows a significant increase in protests throughout the country — even if outright political rallies remained rare. Of a total of 1,100 protests staged between January and September 2017, about three-fourths concerned local socio-economic issues such as unpaid wages, layoffs, closures of industrial plants and pollution.
Many Russian NGOs and new civic movements are keen to find Western partners, share know-how and connect to wider civil society networks.
The wave of “garbage uprisings” against toxic landfills outside Moscow is just the most recent example. It is a genuine grassroots movement. Local residents blocked roads, picketed plants, signed online petitions and openly called for the resignation of local officials.
Distinctions between various social groups are becoming more blurred. In 2017, protests by angry Moscow citizens against Mayor Sergey Sobyanins new housing scheme drew a diverse mix of local residents from all demographic and social classes. Environmental activist groups also unite segments of society that are usually invisible, or actively opposed to one another. They include traditional activists, old babushkas, liberal students and even Cossacks who normally defend the Kremlin line.
Most of the big U.S. funders of Russian civil society have pulled their funding, leaving the EU as the main foreign donor. The EU has a vital interest to offer support. Many Russian NGOs and new civic movements are keen to find Western partners, share know-how and connect to wider civil society networks. Despite fierce Kremlin anti-Western propaganda, prominent human rights activists such as Ludmilla Alexeeva have called on the West to uphold its support and solidarity.
Europe should move fast to increase its political, economic and moral support of those pushing for change in Russia. Amid Russias growing political self-isolation, it is crucial that the countrys civic vanguard stays connected to Europe. As powerful and unending as Putins regime may appear today, supporting Russias beleaguered civil society is the best tool at Europes disposal. Societal change can only take root if it is supported from the bottom up.
Russian President Vladimir Putin | Grigory Dukor/AFP via Getty Images
So far, EU policies are less than promising: Basic funding for Russian civil society has not significantly increased in recent years, amounting to just €7 million to €9 million a year, and it accepts only some 10 percent of all applications for funding it receives from Russia. This is inadequate. Neither Russian civil society nor the EU can afford to let so much potential go untapped.
The EU also needs to step up expert staff in its Moscow delegation, and reach out beyond traditional NGOs to wider civil society, including bloggers, lawyers, film producers, artists, designers and urban developers.
As Russias civic space continues to shrink, funding provided through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) will be crucial.
Sadly, however, the European Commissions recent proposal to merge this core program for EU democracy and human rights support with other funding into a single external instrument is a step in the wrong direction. Instruments that lend support to civil society groups should become smaller, more flexible and easier to access for Russian partners, not more convoluted and unwieldy.
The goal should be to build a diverse “ecosystem” of civic networks that connect Russian civic activists with partners not only in the EU, but also across the entire post-Soviet region. At a time where Europes relations with Russia are frozen, support for Russias civil society is the Continents best opportunity to gain influence and rein in Putins aggressive behavior.
Barbara von Ow-Freytag is a journalist, political scientist and adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre.