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Analysis: Putin Learns That Paying The Fiddler Means Calling The Tune

One of the few controversial moments in President Vladimir Putin's 26 May annual address to the Federal Assembly came when he turned his attention to the country's nascent civil society. "There are thousands of citizens' associations and unions working constructively in our country, but far from all of them are geared toward defending people's real interests," Putin said toward the end of his speech. "For some of these organizations, the priority is rather different -- obtaining funding from influential foreign or domestic foundations. For others it is servicing dubious groups and commercial interests."

This statement, which seems to imply that only the state's agenda is "constructive" and seems to resent the "influence" of nonstate groups, points directly to a key paradox that has bedeviled Putin's entire term in office -- building a vibrant society with the active participation of the public at all levels without giving up control of where that society is going. Putin concluded his speech by noting: "I believe that the creation of a free society of free people in Russia is our most important task, as well as the most complex one. It is the most important because an individual who is not free and not independent is incapable of taking care of himself, his family or his motherland. It is complex because freedom is not always valued, and even rarer is the ability to use it."

Putin's remarks, incidentally, contained an eerie echo of a recent comment by Vladimir Kraev, first deputy head of the Justice Ministry's Corrections Department. Kraev on 7 May said that "some so-called human rights groups have been given financial support from criminal groups," apparently in response to complaints from such organizations about conditions in Russian prisons. Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin later rebuked Kraev for his unsubstantiated allegations and urged him rather to focus on responding substantially to the human rights activists' reports.

The dilemma reaches far beyond the human rights community, touching economic life, science and education, political parties, and more. The Kremlin seems to be seeking a way around the old maxim that the one who pays the fiddler calls the tune; that is, it would like to get others to foot the bills, but seeks to keep fairly tight control over the agenda.

Many observers have charged that the Putin government has spent much of its time and energy reining in the freedoms of those who, in the Kremlin's eyes, don't have "the ability to use" them. The assault on Media-MOST, the drive to bring the regions to heel, various efforts to manipulate local and national elections, the taming of the Federal Assembly, the charges against oil giant Yukos and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii, and other events have frequently been viewed in these terms.
"Chasing after Western grants is distracting human rights activists from the fundamental task of defending citizens' rights." -- political analyst Gleb Pavlovskii

Putin's administration has labored hard to develop semi-state/semi-private institutions to resolve this paradox, but these efforts have generally been viewed merely as thinly veiled government control. For instance, the private NTV of former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii has been replaced by the quasi-private NTV owned by state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom. Reputedly Kremlin-tied political parties have emerged on the left and the right sides of the spectrum, in both cases edging out genuine opposition parties. Independent organizations within the Muslim and Jewish communities have been supplanted by ones with the Kremlin's ear, and so on.

Asked by journalists to comment on Putin's remark about the funding of NGOs, Lukin said on 27 May that "this is a very serious issue that needs a serious discussion." He said that many organizations are wholly dependent on grants and that "the role of foreign grants is growing seriously."

However, he noted that the alternatives might be even less palatable. "But what do we get if we eliminate the grants?" Lukin said. "Oligarchs? Small and medium-sized business, which is underdeveloped? We get monopolies at the federal, regional, and municipal levels. This leads not to the creation of a civil society but to something else."

As might have been expected, calls for the state to take control of the funding of NGOs came immediately in the wake of Putin's speech. Political consultant and Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovskii told reporters on 27 May that the government must "create the conditions for raising funds domestically." He alleged that "chasing after Western grants is distracting human rights activists from the fundamental task of defending citizens' rights." It is worth noting that Pavlovskii's comments, which were covered on state-controlled media such as RTR television and the ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti news agencies, were presented in the offices of a little-known NGO called Unity in the Name of Russia, an unsubtle echo of the name of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

Pavlovskii went still further, naming Kremlin-friendly areas where human rights advocates should be more active, presumably instead of looking into Russian prisons or the situation in Chechnya. Pavlovskii argued that activists could have done more to help Moscow resolve the recent crisis in the Georgian autonomous region of Adjara and to bring pressure to bear on the Latvian government to improve conditions for ethnic Russians in those countries.

Since a leading function of human rights organizations in general is to protect citizens from their government, it is natural to wonder whether the concern of Putin, Kraev, Pavlovskii, and others was provoked because these groups are not effective enough or because they are too effective.

The discussion of NGOs parallels similar debates concerning the funding of science and education. On 18 May, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov addressed the Russian Academy of Sciences and urged scientists to do more to attract private funding for their projects. He lauded an initiative of the academy and oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Norilsk Nickel to study hydrogen-powered engines.

However, many Russian scholars and scientists in recent years have been hounded by the government for their ties to foreign and commercial interests. One of the earliest initiatives of Putin's administration was to adopt a decree compelling all scientists to report to the Federal Security Service (FSB) their contacts with foreigners. The government has used vague and secret laws and decrees on state secrets to prosecute scientists who stray from the state's research agenda. A court recently convicted Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada researcher Igor Sutyagin of espionage even though the judge refused to allow the jury to rule on Sutyagin's contention that all of the information he shared with foreign colleagues was publicly available.

Just this week, Russian media reported that the FSB is investigating oil giant TNK-BP on the grounds that the foreign managers of the high-profile joint venture have gained access to Russian state secrets regarding the extent and location of oil and natural-gas reserves. If that probe gathers steam, it will most certainly have a chilling effect on foreign investment in Russia generally.

Clearly, if Russia is to be a fully competitive modern state, the government cannot control and drive all aspects of political, economic, and social life. Putin and his administration so far seem uncomfortable allowing the level of private initiative in key areas of public life that is necessary to achieve the president's goal of creating "a free society of free people." Overwhelmingly, the thrust of Kremlin policy over the last four years has been to channel and control private initiative, but the ultimate effect of that policy could be to kill such initiative off altogether.

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