Civil Society and a new ‘Agenda for Russia’

By Oksana  Antonenko

This year’s EBRD Transition Report highlights the importance of civil society for generating and sustaining economic reforms. From this vantage point, the longer term prospects for reinvigorating Russia’s transition are looking up.

The recent political awakening of Russia’s new middle class may not have produced major changes at the top echelon of power. But it continues to work its way through the grassroots of Russia’s society, generating more demand and capacity for strengthening democratic institutions.

Last Saturday I attended the first All-Russia Civil Society Forum, convened by the former finance minister turned civic activist Alexei Kudrin and his Committee for Civic Initiatives, which unites experts providing an independent review of draft laws and policy initiatives.

The forum in Moscow brought together around 1000 civil society representatives from all 83 regions of Russia with an ambitious goal to begin drafting a new “Agenda for Russia,” a set of ideas on key reforms which the Committee wants to develop through dialogue with civil society.

Having attended many similar gatherings in the past, I was struck by offered number of things that made this one different.

The first was that people who gathered in Moscow represented very diverse political views. Among the participants in the hall I saw many familiar faces, from human rights activists and democratic opposition leaders to leftist activists, Cossacks and even moderate nationalists.

Discussions at 30 small round tables – I attended the one on People’s Power and Political Pluralism – were therefore very lively and at times heated. The atmosphere felt less like an opposition gathering, where all participants agree on key issues, and more a town hall meeting where the only thing in common is activism and desire for change.

The second distinctive feature of the event was the presence of many influential business associations, including the head of Russian Banking Association, the Head of the Association of Russian Insurers and Vice-President of Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

One section of the forum was dedicated to the development of relations between the business community and the government and improving the mechanism for business NGOs and associations for influencing economic policy. It is rare that this block of issues is discussed at the same platform as political activists and NGOs. Yet all three have real stakes in good governance and the anti-corruption agenda.

The third interesting take away from the forum was that its many discussions focussed not so much on how to change the political regime at the top, but rather how to improve democratic accountability and governance at the local and regional level.

It was striking how speakers –from political, economic and social perspectives – all talked about the importance of municipal and local elections for Russia’s democratic future.

Business often deals with this level of governance when it tries to address very important practical issues for SMEs and larger investors. People are often mobilised into civic activism on the basis of local issues. And various political parties are now focussed on municipal and local elections at which the opposition has a much greater chance of winning and making a difference.

The concept of the forum, not a one-off event but a living expert platform, is promising. Organisers hope that it will create a network of ongoing expert discussions – online and in regional meetings – to continue developing the agenda for Russia’s reforms.

It is too early to say whether this connectivity will be sustained once participants return to their regions. What seems to be beyond doubt is that the level of activism at the regional level will continue to grow.

It is in the interests of both civil society and the authorities in Russia that this activism is channelled into expert discussions and dialogue between the state and its citizens, rather than confrontation and extremism. Last week’s forum was definitely a step in the right direction.

Oksana Antonenko is a Senior Political Counsellor at the EBRD.