Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to increased oppression against opposition activists, NGOs, and journalists within the country. Civil society organizations are trying to survive under the new political and economic conditions, with many activists and experts fleeing Russia.
To be sure, the political climate was not particularly favorable towards Russian civil society organizations even before the beginning of the war in Ukraine: in fact, pressure on NGOs, activists, and journalists had been steadily increasing over the past few years. However, the last two and a half months have contributed to a new atmosphere of fear, oppression, and further limitations for civil society in the country.
New restrictive legislation regarding public speech, including on social media (such as the legislation on ‘fake-news’ or ‘discreditation of the Russian army’) has made professional and private statements — including political and civic positions — much more difficult, both for individuals and civil society organizations. All this is happening at a time when critical media outlets and social media platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) are being banned by the government and only available through VPN, while some local media outlets have been shut down completely.
Protesting the war
Public protests against the war, which occurred on a larger scale in the early days of the invasion, have resulted in over 15,000 people being detained across the country since February 24th, according to an OVD-info human rights watch group. Many of those detained have been beaten, psychologically and physically abused, and fined as a result of administrative court cases. Moreover, several protesters have been charged with criminal offenses (as per the new legislation) and imprisoned. Over the past few weeks, most street protests have been largely individual, with artistic performances and anti-war feminist movement activities as the most visible and vocal ones. Many human rights NGOs continue monitoring arrests, abuses, and further cases of oppressions whilst spreading information, assisting with free legal help, and providing training on personal, legal, and digital security. Local support groups are helping those detained with food, medication, and other essentials, while there are numerous crowdfunding campaigns to gather money to pay administrative fines for activists and NGO experts.
Impact on CSOs
These restrictions also have a direct impact on civil society organizations’ work in the country. Starting from individual protests and the expression of political and civic positions, many NGO members have been personally targeted for their antiwar views. Some of them have been detained, while others’ houses have been searched. A recent case in a point is the story of Ilya Fomintsev, the Executive Director of the “Nenaprasno” (“Not in vain”) charity foundation, which worked in the area of cancer prevention. Following his detention after participating in a street protest and an attempted home police search, he decided to leave Russia. His case is not unique: thousands of Russians with anti-war positions have left the country since February, including human rights activists and journalists, civil society organizations’ representatives, and social and environmental NGOs’ members. Due to security concerns, not all of them are willing to speak publicly or disclose their current location.
Clearly, not all NGOs can leave Russia now, even under harsh political and economic conditions. Many organizations are essential for social, medical and legal help to the most socially disadvantaged groups. For the organizations still operating in Russia, working conditions have also become far more difficult. In addition to direct political pressure, many NGOs have faced serious financial challenges. Those who worked with international funding organizations are experiencing difficulties getting their bank transfers to Russia (due to the SWIFT ban and other sanctions). Moreover, within Russia, many donation and crowd-funding schemes are experiencing technical problems along with a drop in corporate and private donations.
Reportedly, some NGOs’donations have dropped by almost a third since the beginning of the war. A number of NGOs working with medical help programmes are also bearing the brunt of rising prices and/or regional medicines deficits produced outside of Russia, especially those for rare diseases.
In addition to political and economic challenges, many civil society organizations working in Russia will also face numerous ethical choices in the near future. Their ability to express their anti-war position is already limited; however, they might also be looked at and expected to demonstrate support for the government’s agenda in the future. This might not come in the form of direct support of the war (or the ‘special military operation’), but rather as support for a rhetoric that Russia is now cutting ties with ‘unfriendly’ countries and has to ‘get together’ and rebuild the economic, social, and civic sectors in the face of the ‘new economic situation’ and ‘new economic challenges”. The statements about the need to combine all the efforts together (including civil society) in an attempt to withstand economic pressure from the West and provide social help to various sections of the population has been heard a lot in recent weeks in Russia’s domestic political agenda, including at the regional and city levels (crucially, most social care NGOsworked with authorities at these levels). Some NGOs have already reported experiencing difficulties referring or bringing cases from international (European or the US) experience in their communication with local authorities. Russia’s cutting of ties with the West and support of the isolationist agenda will also lead to a rolling back of many achievements in the civil society sector, as the general political and public environment will get ever more hostile.
Consequences for environmental and climate CSOs
Many environmental and climate CSOs in Russia have also been having a hard time since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Since late February, several NGOs and private citizens have been denounced as ‘foreign agents’ in the country; for example, the “Friends of the Baltic” environmental organization, which has long worked in the area of climate, sustainability, marine ecology, and plastic pollution was added to the list. Moreover, pro-state Russian GONGOs are demanding the government add Greenpeace and WWF Russia to the list of ‘foreign agents”.
Furthermore, under the current conditions of growing sanctions and a looming economic crisis, there have been attempts at the state level to roll back some of the environmental regulation, including the one on state environmental expertise, further easing rules for infrastructure construction in nature-protected areas, lowering standards for wastewater discharges — including the Baikal lake area — pushing forward deadlines for the introduction of the Best Available Technologies and industrial pollution monitoring systems, including introducing an air pollution control experiment through a quote allocation system (rationing) for polluting industries. All this leads to the need for further advocacy and media campaigns at a time when pressure on CSOs in general is increasing, criticism of state actions (especially from CSOs) can be met with rigid oppression, and public protest campaigns are growing increasingly difficult.
Still, across many regions in Russia local environmental campaigns and protests are still continuing and some activists are still being prosecuted and charged. A Telegram channel dedicated to environmental protests in Russia tells stories of recent protest campaigns across the country. An environmental activist from the Moscow region, Alexey Dmitriev, who’s been fighting new highrise housing construction along the local river, was detained in March and is threatened with a criminal case against him now. Unfortunately, such cases these days get relatively little media attention, with critical media outlets and social media channels concentrating mainly on anti-war actions.
What future for Russia’s CSOs?
All these trends raise crucial questions that are being discussed within the Russian NGO community. How can charities survive under the current conditions? To further complicate matters, it is worth noting that even within some civil society communities there have been fierce debates around the reasons for the war and contrasting attitudes towards it, which have led to communities and networks breaking up and members ending communication with each other (just like some family members with completely opposite opinions on the war have also stopped talking to and seeing one another). I’ve experienced that in a number of cases with environmental mailing lists and specialized environmental Telegram channels. These splits have come as a shock to many activists and observers of recent developments within Russian civil society.
For many years, as the pressure on civil society was increasing, some NGOs consciously made a decision to work according to a ‘theory of small deeds’, trying to achieve some changes in their sectors within their area of influence without interfering or talking about larger ‘deeds’, such as free elections, the rule of law, freedom of the press, or the right to political expression. Now, the larger ‘deeds’ seem to have crushed many of the results and achievements of the smaller ones. This all leads to ongoing discussions within the sector about what could have been done differently and how larger groups of people in Russia could have been involved in civil society activities and informally educated (for instance, through political and media literacy). Many of such discussions have landed on an ultimate question: ”Have we done enough?”.
Further disputes about the future of civil society in Russia — both for organizations and experts as well as activists within and outside the country — have only just begun and the vision is still not there. This is also significantly influenced by continuing war developments and the political situation in Russia in general. However, this will certainly be needed for civil society groups and experts, who are now struggling to survive, continuing their work and trying to change the political, social, and environmental situation – both from within and outside the country.