Russia’s Prospects for a Vibrant Environmental Civil Society – by David Feldman

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s emerging civil society has seen an increase in the number of environmental groups determined for their message to be heard.  Despite facing obstacles in the form of apathy, state-imposed constraints on their activities, and agency reluctance to confer on decisions, these groups have achieved some real succeses in their bid to promote and protect environmental interests.

Amidst the talk of “Arab springs” and democratization of many third world nations, there is sometimes an ignoring of other efforts – perhaps more gradual and certainly less dramatic – which portend change in a more participatory and civically-engaged manner worldwide. One of these is the remarkable progress – in the face of continued adversity – being made by non-governmental civil society groups in Russia. While Russia’s democracy is far from a perfectly-crafted and smooth running model of accountability, progress on many fronts is being made, especially as regards the formation, nurturing, and flexing of power of non-governmental groups and other organizations on a variety of issues. Protection of the environment is one of these. Ivan Blokov (Head of Greenpeace Russia) and I have found several challenges in this effort worth noting.

First, students of post-communist Russia have pointed to a deficit of popular trust in government as a harbinger of the willingness to participate in voluntary organizations, and thus the likelihood that Russians will learn the civic skills necessary to be able to effectively challenge the state. However, revelations about the role of trust in Russian society offer a more optimistic view. The noticeable reticence of the Russian citizenry to join civic groups may not mean that commonly perceived avenues for engendering trust are essential for its production. Membership in voluntary organizations may be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for trust to emerge.

Another positive indicator of the prospects for a vibrant environmental civil society in Russia is revealed by the activities of environmental movement organizations (EMOs) we have studied. They have been successful, since the mid-1990s, in reusing networks and strategies established during the Soviet period to achieve their objectives. Despite a paucity of resources, and constant political impediments to their presence, these environmental organizations have achieved much change – halting an oil pipeline in Siberia, gaining attentiveness to the need for environmental cleanup of former nuclear production sites, and the like.

 

Can they continue success along the same path, or are major structural and institutional changes required to achieve further reform?

A cautionary lesson is that Western financial support for Russian environmental and other NGOs has caused environmental groups to mimic the tactical repertoires employed by Western advocacy groups as funding has often been contingent upon adherence to Western organizational standards. While adherence to these stipulations might suggest restricted organizational flexibility, it has also granted Russian environmental NGOs access to many organizational strategies that otherwise might have eluded them. Can such cooperation further strengthen these EMOs, or will regime opposition to external support harden over time? And, even if it does not harden, will the public support organizations be seen as allied to foreign sources?

We believe that Russia has a civil society that must be acknowledged as being different than that found in Europe or North America. When comparing our findings with the extensive literature on civil society movements in Russia, we feel confident in asserting that what has emerged since 1991 is a ‘guided’ model of civil society–government interchange. Where we differ from the more critical accounts of what this means is that we do not immediately draw the conclusion that democracy is a failure. This is simplistic as well as unfair. Instead, Russia seems poised to transition itself into a kind of managed civil society not unlike that which emerged in the early twentieth century in, for example, Mexico and Turkey, and, by the end of the century, Brazil and some other emerging democratic states. It is a genuine civil society and a robust one that is far different than what has gone before. This can be gauged by several documented trends: (1) the sheer number of groups, particularly environmental groups, is growing; (2) the presence of a public chamber and its affiliates has not dampened the enthusiasm for these groups in taking contrary positions and/or demanding attention to their needs/concerns; (3) the mere fact that the state feels the need to ‘manage’ rather than suppress these groups is a concession to the need to embrace their concerns to achieve political legitimacy – this would have been unthinkable under communism; and (4) as we move further from 1991, we find these groups increasingly emboldened in their sense of entitlement to be consulted on policy.

Russia will probably not have an American style free-wheeling pluralism of clientele groups working hand in hand with party leaders and regional alliances to force new policies onto the agenda or, conversely, to obstruct or veto unwanted policy changes – at least not in the foreseeable future. While our model fits the USA and its liberal–democratic origins well (although it had to evolve into its current state), Russia’s model is organically consistent with its political culture, which remains nationalistic, distinctively non-European when it sees itself as under threat from the ‘free-for-all’ libertarianism Russians detest, and simply acceptable in a society that still sees security – domestically and from foreign adversaries – as a high societal priority. Over time it may evolve to become more like the USA, the UK, and other mature democratic polities. For now, however, it is a real civil society and has numerous vital signs that are also amplified by our survey findings.

Further detail can be found in the forthcoming publication ‘The Politics Of Environmental Policy In Russia‘, co-authored by David Feldman and Ivan Blokov.

David Lewis Feldman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Planning, Policy and Design at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on water resources policy and global change issues, energy problems, and risk. He teaches courses in public policy, environmental ethics, and sustainable development. When he’s not teaching and writing, he road-bikes throughout Southern California and plays the drums.  

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