Ukraine – What Next? Is Civil Society the Answer?

Sergej Ljubownikow

Over a week into Putin’s war in Ukraine, speculation on why, for what reason , remain high – but also to what end.

Putin appears to have a variety of conflicting, and spurious aims (some only beknownst to him) with this invasion; both with regards to Ukraine, and highly likely beyond.

Western response has been focused on weakening the Russian economy, and the sanctioning of key individuals and oligarchs (though if you have several billion, and lose a few, you probably still have enough for a good life, even in Russia). Yet for a while now, the West has had time and opportunity to take preventative action. Punishing Putin for his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Taking steps to stop Putin from ‘practising war’ in Syria. Going after ‘dirty money’ earlier – it has been swamping places like the UK or Cyprus for years. Yet none of this excuses the acts of an increasingly isolated and volatile dictator.

Moreover, Putin felt emboldened to invade Ukraine because it has become near impossible to remove him from power using democratic mechanisms. So is civil society the answer?

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, research has illustrated that Russia civil society has struggled to gain traction, particularly at the national level. Some of this is down to path dependencies created in the early 1990s. During that time, resources (mainly funding and skills training) were provided by western donor agencies such as USAID or DFID. These resources were directed primarily at rights-based issues, specifically human, women’s, the environment, which at the time did not resonate with the broader public who were struggling with the impact of economic shock therapy, and its impact on living standards. As a result, public engagement with NGOs remained low.

When Putin came to power, he set out to rebuild the bureaucratic system after the ‘chaos’ of the Yeltsin years. Yet this ‘rebuild’ did not address some the fundamental failings that emerged from the ‘chaos’ such as the importance of individuals above bureaucratic process, the ambiguity of regulations, and (intentional) haphazard regulatory enforcement. Through a series of legistalive instruments, Putin also sought to limit the activity of NGOs. In order to survive, NGOs now need to maintain (close) ties to various state organs, often substituting for them in the provision of welfare and services. This clearly limits such groups’ ability to openly oppose to the state. There are also harsh penalties for those who do. See the recent closure of Human Rights organisation Memorial, for example.  

At regional levels, NGOs can work with and oppose (regional) state authorities, but this is unlikely to challenge the regime at the Federal level. Although these regional experiences might be seen as green shoots that could come together to form a wider movement; whether these can grow into a nationwide movement over Russia’s vast geography, is questionable. Indeed, such growth would need to be fast to challenge the regime and its inhuman war in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs of anti-war demonstrations across Russia, although accompanied by the associated police crackdown on dissent seen in the past. In the meantime, we all hope for an end to this war to prevent further human suffering, and our thoughts remain with all Ukrainians.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow, an expert in the former Soviet Union, is Lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield University and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

You Still Need Society! Authoritarianism and COVID-19

Covid Anniversary Blog

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with insights into different political regimes’ responses to what is now a prolonged, unpredictable, and difficult to manage crisis.

Parts of Eastern Europe had initially been considered as the models for how to respond to the pandemic. Nearly a year on, with cases surging and the state struggling to control the pandemic, this no longer holds.

In the Russian Federation, despite bringing the worlds first COVID-19 vaccine to market, the state has struggled to deal with the sluggish domestic take up and so it has failed to make a discernible impact on cases. This might be a surprise given the assumption that in authoritarian contexts, individuals are not only more accepting of restrictions of their individual freedoms but that the state is often more strict at enforcing compliance. One could have assumed that authoritarian regimes might have put to use their expansion of individual surveillance under the guise of combatting COVID-19, to encourage or even enforce vaccinations. Even if this failed, national pride at its scientific achievement would surely have had people queuing up to be vaccinated, but it seems not to be the case.

The nature of state-society relations might help us consider some of the issues impacting vaccine take-up rates. In the Russian Federation, political, legislative, financial and cultural limits impact the ability and reach of third sector groups to mobilise the public. In addition, the state’s, often arbitrary, use of institutions such as the judiciary, is unconducive to building public trust in such institutions.

Yet a successful vaccination programme requires both trust and mobilisation.

This is particularly true for mobilising and engaging hard-to-reach segments of society, a task and role that NPOs tend to perform much better than state institutions. Can third sector groups play a role in this process, given the restrictive context they operate in? If they do, will this enable them to receive concessions from the state with regards to the activities they can engage in? Could this lead to a reshaping of state-society relations?

A year on, answers to questions around the future shape of state-society relations in an authoritarian context remain unclear. It is too early to tell whether or not third sector groups in an authoritarian context such as Russia will be able to take advantage of arising opportunities to reshape their relationship with the state.

The imprisonment of critics such as Alexander Navalny suggests that the Russian state is not overtly open to reshaping state-society relations at the national level. However, as stated a year ago, things might play out different at local and regional levels – and thus present opportunities for change.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School. He is an expert scholar in Russian civil society development and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

Photo by Ivan Lapyrin on Unsplash

Who Needs Society? Authoritarianism and COVID-19

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that ‘western democracies’ should look to Eastern Europe to how it contained the COVID-19 pandemic. With some Eastern European countries first ignoring or diminishing the COVID-19 threat (Russia) or asserting the benefits of ‘alternative’ therapies such as the encouragement of steam baths, eating garlic, and drinking Vodka – the Eastern European approach needs to be understood with more nuance. Of course a key assertion here is not that these ‘alternative’ approaches have merit, but more that is that people in Eastern Europe, because of the legacies of their communist past, are much more accepting of restriction on their individual freedoms. At the core of this assertion is the nature of state-society relations.

State-society relations are a core part of governance arrangements in all sort of political regimes. In western democracies, be they of a liberal-capitalist or social-democratic persuasion, they tend to be open and transparent involving the ability for frequent interaction and open critique. This enables individuals, groups and organisations, often in the form of non-profit organisations to engage in a range of activities to ensure the accountability of government.

In non-democratic regimes, state-society relations tend to be used to reinforce the status quo, rather than challenge it. The current pandemic has thus provided an opportunity for authoritarian regimes to further shape state-society relations to ensure their continued existence.

The academic literature highlights that authoritarian regimes ensure their resilience and survival by adapting their governance arrangements. COVID-19 has already been a godsend for them in terms of their ability to curb individual freedoms (such as freedom of movement or assembly) and a way to justifiably increasing ‘big brother’ tendencies and to further centralise power. Likely they will find it difficult to walk these back when the pandemic is over. Conversely, such regimes may now be more reliant on non-profit organisations to ‘manage’ the response to the pandemic – both in terms of protecting the vulnerable, but also identifying who the vulnerable are in the first place.

A good example is the Russian Federation. Over the years it has used political, legislative, financial and cultural means to limit the ability and reach of NPOs (albeit keeping a few organisations going to maintain a veneer of democracy). At the same time, the state has worked directly with some non-profit organisations to help address key social problems. These have become an important part in maintaining social order, particularly at a local and regional level. In the event of this health crisis, it is likley that state is now reliant on such NPOs to access ‘hard to reach’ vulnerable groups including drug addicts and victims of domestic abuse. Might NPOs be able to take advantage of this opportunity to reshape their relationship with the state? Will the Russian states new abilities to surveille the individual mean that there is less of a need to control what NPOs do? But also maybe less of a need to engage with them? One thing is for sure, state-society relations in Russia and elsewhere are unlikely to be the same again.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School and an expert scholar in Russian civil society development.