Civil Society Isn't Built On 15 Minutes of Fame

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When a young heckler named Roman Dobrokhotov disrupted President Dmitry Medvedev's speech at the gathering of the Association of Russian Jurists on Friday, he apparently thought his act would go down in history as a display of civil heroism rivaling the historic protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by six young people on Red Square in August 1968.

The difference is huge. When Larisa Bogoraz and her friends staged their quiet protest on Red Square, they knew they were going straight to the gulag, where they might perish. Some of them did. That is why their act was so important, shaking the moral foundations of the Soviet system.

But Dobrokhotov knew he was risking no more than a chat with the local police chief, as Medvedev himself and celebrity lawyer Anatoly Kucherena from the Public Chamber rushed to his defense. Dobrokhotov got his 15 minutes of fame, but at the same time, he exposed how detached those who call themselves the "opposition to the regime" are from the country's real problems.

In contrast to Dobrokhotov's "battle" against changes to the Constitution, which had more to do with promoting himself than anything else, is the Movement Against Cancer, or MAC. This organization defends the rights of patients with life-threatening illnesses to decent health care and free medicine. These rights are guaranteed on paper, but are spottily implemented in different parts of the country.

MAC has been fighting an uphill battle to get regional health authorities to spend money on innovative, but expensive, medicine and treatment for cancer patients. In many regions, local health authorities force doctors to deny expensive treatment on the grounds that there is no money in the budget. This practice is illegal, since regional authorities are obligated to treat cancer patients under the state guarantee program.

By forcing doctors to not prescribe high-cost treatment options on the grounds that they are not warranted by the patient's diagnosis, the regional health authorities get away with murder -- literally. If the doctor does not order the treatment, there is no obligation on the part of authorities to provide funding for it.

MAC's activists are collecting data from patients who have been denied treatment. They expose the lies of the regional authorities and force them to pay for effective cancer treatment, sometimes through litigation.

This work is unlikely to get them a Freedom Defenders Award from the U.S. State Department, but it is transforming the way Russians view themselves as citizens of a civil society.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.