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Analysis & Opinion
22.04.08 Political Scapegoats
By Yelena Biberman

The Russian government’s active involvement in the knotty space between the citizen and the state appears to be aimed not at strengthening political accountability to the constituents, but at battling an imaginary dragon. This foe – the foreign meddler – is believed to hide in the nongovernmental and charitable organizations designed to serve those for whom the government fails to provide. These organizations are exceptionally vulnerable not only because they serve the voiceless and the marginalized, but also because they are an easy target. While those who have abused the system can afford to elude the state, those who play by the rules are the easiest to find, fine and finish off.

In its witch hunt for spies, the Russian government has made a target of those who need its support the most. The social and demographic goals set for this year, officially designated as the Year of the Family, so far appear to stem more from the temptation of the recent campaign season than from real intentions. In the Soviet days, the family served as the only space available to house civil society, with the kitchen acting as the hub. Today, the corruption of the space separating the individual from the state is accompanied by a break-down of the family institution, thus stripping the individual not only of a foundation for collective action, which is necessary for ensuring government accountability, but also of all social safety nets.

Organizations buttressing the Russian civil society have appealed to the Russian business community for assistance. If the government can take advantage of this moment by bringing back Russian companies’ tax incentives for supporting nongovernmental and charitable organizations, it will be able to kill three birds with one stone. Firstly, it would minimize the appeal of foreign financing and, thus, the threat of foreign meddling in Russia. Secondly, it would allow millions of impoverished, orphaned and disabled Russians to regain their constitutional rights, so eloquently spelled out in Article 7 of the First Chapter of the Russian Constitution. Thirdly, it would help to institutionalize the notion of “giving” in Russian culture, at a time when not only the Russian intelligentsia, but also the policymakers lament the fact that values and spirituality have taken the back seat to hedonism.

So far, it looks like the government prefers to spend money on organizations that make a science out of studying all the ways in which nongovernmental organizations can “corrupt” the democratic process, rather than on those that empower Russian citizens to exercise their constitutional and basic human rights.

Handicapped saboteurs

On April 17, the Moscow branch of the All-Russian Public Organization of Businesswomen brought together Russian entrepreneurs and grassroots activists to address the contemporary challenges faced by the social institution of the family. The goal was to formulate a resolution and address it to concerned regional and federal government representatives.

One major problem identified by the participants is that while the government is unable to support millions of its citizens who are in desperate need of social services, it constantly acts to undermine the civil organizations that act as the last beacon of hope for the marginalized members of the Russian society.

“Starting in 2002, NGOs faced a wave of assaults from the government based on charges such as espionage,” described Nadezhda Belkova, head of Pilgrim, an interregional civic organization for the disabled.

Today, Belkova’s organization is stretched thin. Many of its partner ventures have closed down, and the organization itself is forced to pay taxes “almost like a commercial structure.” Meanwhile, business sponsors are hard to come by due to a lack of tax incentives for charitable giving. The amount of paperwork has also increased so much that it took Pilgrim over a year to find an accountant willing to labor over all the new bureaucratic requirements for less than $500 per month, which is all Pilgrim can afford to pay. One example of these requirements forces the organization to keep tabs on any child who receives more than 4,000 rubles (just over $170 dollars) worth of services per year. Once the child reaches the age of 18, he or she will be presented with a bill for all the “extra” services. As an organization that struggles just to survive, Pilgrim has no time to adequately challenge this policy.

“I have gone fifteen years without taking time off for a vacation, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep going,” Belkova admitted.

Belkova also emphasized the need for the government to support single mothers, especially those raising disabled children. “These mothers are left completely alone since very often their husbands leave them, because they are unable to cope with the stresses associated with having a disabled child. After years of taking care of their children all by themselves, without any real help from the state, many of these brave women themselves become invalids.”

Nikolai Galkin, president of the Inva-Academy of Arts and Social Rehabilitation, has developed a program in which disabled children learn skills that allow them to earn some income. “In these difficult conditions, we all need to learn how to survive,” he said.

At an April 18 RIA Novosti press-conference introducing her new book “Orange Networks: from Belgrade to Bishkek,” Natalia Narotchnitskaya, head of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris and former vice chairman of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, warned that nongovernmental organizations may be used as a tool by foreigners looking to corrupt Russia’s democratic path. The book offers a study of how nongovernmental organizations have been used for organizing and carrying out revolutions in former Soviet states and satellites.

Narotchnitskaya argues that it is important to separate organizations that are involved in the political process from those that are not. She said that this is because nongovernmental organizations that influence the course of Russian politics have not been “checked” by the election process, and therefore represent individual as opposed to public interests. The situation is made worse if this individual interest stems from abroad.

The grassroots activists assembled by the All-Russian Public Organization of Businesswomen, however, pointed out that the situation on the ground is messier than Narotchnitskaya believes, and that, given that politics is “all around us,” it’s virtually impossible to be completely apolitical. Vera Veselova, the organization’s vice-president and a former businesswoman who dedicated herself to empowering women, pointed out that charitable organizations are often used for “splashing out all the adrenaline” (i.e. used as scapegoats) by officials who are fighting those who have actually broken the law. Veselova also noted that she had invited six government representatives to the meeting, but only two of them agreed to come. None actually made it. “When they are collecting votes, they are eager to come to these meetings,” Veselova said. “But, today, these individuals who are supposed to represent us don’t bother listening.”
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