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.
This month the Jackson Foundation partnered with the World Affairs Council of Seattle on a program to focus on recent, troubling events in Russia — with a particular emphasis on the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov steps away from the Kremlin. The event, which was sold out, featured a panel including Jacqueline Miller, President and CEO of the World Affairs Council and a specialist in Russian foreign policy and U.S.-Russia relations; and Dr. Vladimir Raskin, a Seattle attorney who in the early 1990s co-founded Moscow Center for Human Rights; I joined the panel as well. Carol Vipperman, Senior Advisor to the Foundation and formerly president of the Foundation for Russian and American Economic Cooperation, moderated.
The mood was somber, given the recent assassination and its implications for the future of Russian society and political life. My remarks focused on the diminishing space for civil society and NGOs and described the crackdown on the media in Russia today. Vladimir reflected on the span of more than twenty years since the hopeful time when the USSR collapsed and civil society emerged. That spark of energy and excitement about the possibility of a more democratic Russia has largely dissipated in the wake of this murder and all the murders, draconian laws and political aggression that has been evident in President Putin’s Russia of late. Jackie Miller highlighted the complexity of relations between the U.S. and Russia and spoke about the impact of sanctions on the Russian domestic economy. She underlined the uncertainty in Russia’s foreign policy in 2015. “At least during the Cold War, we understood the rules of the game. Now it’s anyone’s guess.”
The crowd had many questions, ranging from the prospects for Russia’s opposition politicians after Nemtsov to the rise of nationalism and what role the West should be playing. The war in Ukraine loomed large, both in panelists’ remarks and in the questions posed. Panelists differed as to their predictions about what Putin intended next: where would he stop? Were the Baltics next? Moldova? Would he be satisfied with Crimea, or Eastern Ukraine? The discussion reflected Putin’s success at surprising his critics and Western observers today.
In response to a question regarding which Russia specialists to follow to best assess the situation today, Jackie pointed to an op-ed that I authored in Crosscut, the online magazine, on the murder of Nemtsov and implications for Russia’s future.
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.