Russia, NGOs, and the Globalization of Sovereignty

The law restricting NGOs operations in Russia passed a second reading yesterday. According to the Moscow Times, the Duma threw out over 80 provisions based on recommendations from the Duma’s Public and Religious Organizations Committee. The debate took less than an hour. The revisions however don’t amount to much. Duma deputy and Yabloko Party member, Sergei Popov called the revisions “technical.” NGOs would still have to register with the government’s Federal Registration Service, but they will no long be required to set up separate Russian entities. I guess the wise deputies of the Duma realized that setting up Russian front groups didn’t really matter. Still, the law threatens to hamper the activities of many NGOs by making their accounting books open to State scrutiny. Mostly, the bill threatens to throw NGOs into a bureaucratic quagmire thus paralyzing them, as Yelena Rykovtseva of Russia Profile argues. One provision, which is directly related to Mikhail Khodokovsky, not only prevents a person convicted of extremism and money laundering from starting or funding an NGO, but even if they are suspected of such activities.

Unsurprisingly, for many the NGO bill has become representative of Russia’s general political path. In an editorial by New Eurasia Foundation President Andrei Kortunov in Izvestiia, the bill has split Russian political observers into “pessimists” and “optimists.” Kortunov agrees that pessimists outnumber and for good reason. However, he interestingly states, “optimists deserve at least being heard without attributing to the Kremlin sycophants and ardent supporters of manageable democracy beforehand.” The positives lie in the fact the NGO bill has generated a lot of much needed debate, despite the dire outcome, around the following questions:

“What kind of place should civil society institutions have in contemporary Russia? What should be the balance between protection of civil rights and social interests? What should be the balance between critique of the state and partnership with it, between social alarmism and solving of certain social problems? Probably, all these questions do not have unambiguous answers. But it is worth while asking them from time to time even for the most successful and well-to-do leaders of civil society.”

Good questions. And perhaps some discussion around these will attenuate some of the alarmist rhetoric from both sides. For, as Peter Levelle points out,

“Unfortunately, it would appear that those in the media who have criticized the NGO law have not read the legislation in detail. If they had, they might have come to the conclusion that Russia’s efforts to regulate NGOs, foreign ones in particular, is not much different from existing U.S. laws dealing with foreign NGOs.

What many foreign NGOs do in Russia today would be illegal in the United States. The Kremlin is set to emulate the United States by establishing its own version of the “Foreign Agents Registration Act.” The purpose of FARA, according to its Web site, is to ensure the American public and its lawmakers know the source of information (propaganda) intended to sway public opinion, policy and laws.”

Again, this begs the question of what the relationship between the state and civil society should be. Is it one of independence where civil society acts as the watchdog of the state? Or is it that the state regulates civil society’s ability to check its political influence thus reducing it to a mere charitable role? I think a lot of this depends on what one means by “civil society” itself—a term that has increased in usage over the last decade; usage which has only muddled its meaning. Traditionally, civil society meant social groups and organizations that stand relatively autonomous from the state, but exist within the borders of said state. An independent media is often cited as vital to a thriving civil society. But with globalization and the growth of non-governmental organizations, civil society has expanded to include international organizations that have no geographical fixity in their operations. Civil society has increasing become a global civil society which is increasingly positioning itself not below the sovereignty of states, but equal if not above them. But how then do states, which continue to be based on geographical sovereignty, reconcile with the “global” sovereignty of NGOs? Such a question makes the Russian bill not simply a measure of its democracy, but part of an increasing global issue as states confront more and more non-state agents that try to wield political power over and within them.

Unfortunately, the Russian state, like the American one, has increasingly resorted to the rhetoric of fighting terrorism as a way to not only shore up its internal sovereignty, but also expand its external jurisdiction. Whereas the Cold War fostered the establishment of geopolitical spheres of influence, fighting terrorism is providing a similar rational though with concerning additions. For the most part, the geopolitical spheres of influence of the Cold War were military-political. The United States and Soviet Union, for example, used military and political coercion and consent to manage their satellite states. The current reshuffling of geopolitical spheres are political-juridical, where states, led by the United States, are expanding its laws beyond its borders. This expansion of juridical sovereignty along with more traditional military and political variants makes the need for a strong global civil society to act as an international check on state activity increasingly necessary.

It is within this context that I read the Russian bill on NGOs. Its ramifications are specific to Russia, but its implications go beyond that. Given that the most prominent NGOs, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International etc, focus on human rights violations committed by states inside and outside their borders, the attempt to regulate NGOs is not reducible to the States’ traditional right to exercise political power within its borders, but to extend that prerogative outside them. In this light, Russia or even the United States’ claim that the controls over NGOs is about fighting terrorism is not mere rhetoric. It is precisely about this because they know and desire that the fight against terrorism extend their political, military and juridical sovereignty beyond its borders; a desire that puts them increasingly up against the roadblocks NGOs erect and barricade.