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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Civil Society Paradox

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A few months ago, I attended a lecture given at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, by Irina Yasina, the deputy chair of the Open Russia foundation, whose mission is to support nongovernmental agencies in Russia. Yasina was talking about civil society and the Putin regime. Her main argument was anything but new. She claimed that President Vladimir Putin's Russia was moving toward authoritarianism, that Putin was suspicious of civil society, and so trying to get rid of it, and that the Leviathan, led by former KGB officers, was regaining its power and was not going to tolerate competitors.

Russian liberals all agree that civil society under Putin is facing difficult times. Actually, no one is happy with the progress of civic associations and movements in Russia. This is not a particularly new problem. According to the logic of the liberals, the 1990s, which are sometimes considered to have been the glory days of freedom and democracy, would have been the best time to set up a strong, independent and efficient civil society. But this did not happen. However widespread the social disappointment with former-President Boris Yeltsin's reforms was and however serious the problems people faced in their everyday lives became, the conditions did not lead to the formation of well-organized and active civic associations. Civil society in post-Soviet Russia, with few exceptions, appeared in the form of sluggish remnants of Soviet institutions and new creations in the form of small NGOs that had relatively low profiles and owed their existence solely to Western financial help.

Paradoxically, in the last few years, when the authorities have appeared absolutely unenthusiastic about independent social activity, we have witnessed some organizational efforts aimed at the creation of efficient policy issue groups. Those who rallied to the support of Oleg Shcherbinsky, the luckless driver who was involved in the car accident in which Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov was killed, managed to organize a national campaign and get him released from jail. The environmentalists protesting against the construction of a pipeline along the Lake Baikal shoreline eventually won. Independent trade unions are becoming more vigorous and zealous in defending employees' rights. These are just a few of many examples.

Social scientists have long studied the problem of collective action, which was first formulated by Mancur Olson, an American economist. Olson's simple argument merely described the behavior of a rational actor. First, people or firms do not tend to create organizations to solve their problems if they can solve them individually. Second, even if there is a collective interest that requires joint action, people in large groups will not act to achieve their common goals in the absence of coercion or individual interests. In fact, the impact of each member of a large group would be so small that a rational individual does not have any incentive to contribute to the common cause, even if the members know that final success ultimately depends on their joint efforts. Most people in Moscow, for example, would prefer to live in a clean city, but they continue to throw garbage on the streets. To get people to act collectively, you need to use compulsion (often applied by the state) or create additional membership rewards (to paraphrase a popular Russian novel, the beer has to be for union members only if the union is to continue to exist).

So, instead of complaining that civil society does not exist, it might be more reasonable to ask why it should. Russians have invented a lot of ways to cope with inefficient institutions in order to solve their everyday problems. Businesspeople dealing with rank-and-file tax officials do not need to act through business associations to avoid excessive tax payments. They know from past experience what tax officers want from them. There are many ways to be exempted from military service without joining civil rights organizations or campaigning for changes in conscription rules. Every driver knows it is easier to pay a small bribe to a cop and keep breaking traffic regulations than to join with other drivers to pressure the authorities to tackle the traffic problem. There is no need for civic organizations when you can easily find an informal way to deal with your problems.

Simon Kordonsky, former head of the expert department in Putin's administration, argued in a recent article in Otechestvenniye Zapiski magazine that informal networks and the patronage system (read: corruption) represent a specific Russian type of civil society. There is no way to introduce Western-type civic associations in Russia, Kordonsky claims, because they would be artificial.

The problem with this argument is that our corrupt version of civil society is inefficient. First, it does not produce public goods, since everyone looks for an informal solution that deals only with their own, individual problems. People with sufficient financial resources or connections are usually able to get their problem fixed, whereas the poor and disadvantaged, who still constitute the majority of Russians, often fail to overcome their difficulties. Second, informal solutions are costly in terms of the time and effort required. Third, in many cases this is simply harmful to society. People do have to pay taxes and comply with traffic regulations instead of bribing tax officers and traffic cops. At the end of the day, the informal civil society increases transaction costs in the economy and impedes economic growth.

Is the transition from corrupt, informal social structures to the proper institutions of civil society possible? The answer is yes, but the role of the state will be crucial in this development. It may sound paradoxical, but a strong state is a prerequisite for an efficient civil society. A strong state, though, does not mean aggressive, statist rhetoric or bureaucratic omnipotence but, instead, the rule of law and the ability on the part of the government to control its own officials. If corruption was eliminated -- or at least reduced -- people would have an incentive to tackle social problems in an organized way rather than look for individual solutions.

According to Olson's argument, even then people will still need separate incentives to join large organizations. The creation of these incentives for the formation of trade unions, consumer associations and other types of civic organizations will to a large extent depend on legislation and state policy toward them. Thus, contrary to popular wisdom, the state not only can, but must play an important role in the creation of civil society in Russia.

Alexey Bessudnov is a doctoral student in sociology at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford.