Last week we had an opportunity to hear from Natalia Arno, the highly capable and passionate president and founder of the Free Russia Foundation (FRF). We’ve worked with FRF on two major programs in Washington, DC: the first connected political actors and activists with technology experts to see how technology could help the democracy movement in Russia; the second celebrated the results of that help by bringing in ten young, newly-elected politicians from local city councils around Moscow and elsewhere in Russia who had won elections in 2017 and 2018 despite the heavy-handed opposition of the State apparatus. We had Board members, staff, Jackson Fellows and community members in attendance, but I wish even more people could have heard Natalia describe the work that FRF is doing to promote Russian democracy. She stressed the importance of bringing people together to strategize in 2014, at a time of great political disenchantment because of the crackdown on civil society and the unlawful seizure by Russia of Crimea. Our conference allowed people to gather in a safe place and to, in her words, get re-energized and re-focused on the struggle ahead. Natalia sees a straight line from that gathering – both the public conference and the substantial private workshops to go over strategy and tactics – that led to successes in local elections in 2017 and 2018. Our second conference this past May featured the victorious democratic players and made a strong case for the power of local politics even in a politically repressive environment.
Natalia spoke movingly of what she sees as the connection between Senator Jackson and the famous Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which tied free emigration for Soviet Jews to trading rights for the USSR with the U.S., to today’s Sergei Magnitsky Act, which penalizes corruption and human rights abuses by Russian actors through targeted sanctions. (A Global Magnitsky Act now extends to countries beyond Russia.) Free Russia Foundation’s work seeks to convey a deeper understanding of Russia’s political goals and activities at home and abroad, something unfortunately we have all become too familiar with in this brave new world.
We were one of the first foundations to support the Free Russia Foundation in 2016 and helped put it on the map. Our staff has continued to be impressed with how well they leverage our money and that of other supporters to share their stories with key players in the administration, Congress, the State Department, and with other agencies and NGOs throughout Washington.
I hope that we will continue to partner with the Free Russia Foundation, as they are a group that understands the legacy of Senator Jackson and appreciates the value that a strategic investment by the Foundation can make in promoting democratic values in Russia.
I recently had the opportunity to be part of an invitation-only discussion on supporting civil society in Russia. The small conference under the auspices of the European Union Civil Society Forum was held in London, and featured European foundations and a few larger U.S. foundations. The Jackson Foundation was invited given its 30 year role funding in Russia and promoting concerns of U.S.-Russian relations and rule of law. It was very interesting to hear the European perspective on the ongoing civil society crisis in Russia – after all, they are next door to the Russian bear – and to share the thoughts of the Jackson Foundation with colleagues.
Given the crackdown on civil society in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, worsening since 2012, there is a dramatically smaller space for civil society in Russia today. Funders discussed why they should keep funding in Russia, and how best to do it, given the risks to NGOs and the barriers placed on foreign funds. Many of us felt that one goal of giving money to Russian NGOs has to be to try to retain and bolster that civic space to ensure it doesn’t shrink any further. Yet with the Russian government’s demonizing of Western countries – especially the U.S., and particularly of Western money flowing to NGOs, how can a foundation do that effectively? The obstacles placed by the Russian government in terms of regulations, laws, and the threat of NGOs being labeled “foreign agents” – and faced with fines and organizational closure – has put a damper on the ability of Western foundations to be strategic and effective with their dollars.
Given the stakes, some reaffirmed their belief in “core support” for NGOs – i.e., basic, institutional grants given with the aim of paying salaries and rent and allowing work to continue. Yet foundation staff are hearing from disillusioned Board members who wonder if the resources are being used strategically. Donor fatigue and burnout, given the trajectory of Putin’s Russia, is impacting the field.
Smaller foundations such as the Jackson Foundation have to utilize different strategies to be effective in this climate, given the much reduced resources available for grants and programs. I was heartened to see that some of the tactics we have used in the last several years were seen as useful, both by the Russian NGOs and by foundations with significantly more resources. Specifically, we have been:
Supporting delegations of Russian civil society activists on study tours to the U.S., with in-depth training and peer-to-peer consultations. Last year we brought a delegation to the U.S. to learn from colleagues in U.S. nongovernmental organizations. Every person who has had an opportunity to experience a study tour returns and briefs others with what she has learned. It is hard to overstate the person-to-person value of such programs; and
Raising awareness through programs in Washington, DC and Seattle about what is going on in Russia today in domestic and foreign policy, the impact on U.S.-Russian relations, the state of civil society and the NGO community, the development of the next generation of civil sector leaders, and the like. We plan more in the years ahead.
In my two decades at the Jackson Foundation, one of the oft-quoted phrases from those who knew Senator Jackson is his belief to “stay the course.” The meaning is clear: when the going gets tough, you keep steady in what you believe in. In keeping with that tradition and with the Senator’s legacy of promoting democracy, Foundation will continue find strategic and effective means to make civil society in Russia a priority.
With all of the negative news about Russia, it is great to have a story to share about how a Russian NGO, Vera Hospice Charity Fund, is helping children with severe neuromuscular conditions obtain individual medical ventilators. By using Global Giving, a crowdfunding platform to raise funds, it means that more children are able to be home with their families instead of being cared for in hospitals.
During our March NGO Counterpart Exchange, funded by the U.S. State Department’s U.S. -Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program, the Foundation organized a meeting for the delegation with Global Giving. The Russian NGO leaders were all very interested in learning how they could use Global Giving’s platform to raise funds worldwide. We are very pleased that Vera Hospice Charity Fund was one of the first to seize the opportunity.
Vera Hospice Charity Fund has been helping terminally ill children in Russia for many years and is well-respected for its work. Please take a moment and look at their campaign and share it with others. It is a deserving project.
The Jackson Foundation is committed to the development of a healthy civil society in Russia. We are pleased that a program that we initiated has successfully connected U.S. and Russian NGOs in this meaningful manner.
As part of the Foundation’s work with civil society activists in Russia, I recently interviewed leading journalists, human rights advocates and civic leaders in Moscow about current trends and concerns in Russia’s civil society. Uniformly, people are not hopeful about the direction Russia is heading. Read my thoughts in today’s op ed piece: