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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civil Society Caught in a Vicious Circle

On Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev met with the 35-member human rights council that was created by then-President Vladimir Putin in 2004 to improve ties between the government and civil society. Council chairwoman Ella Pamfilova expressed her concern about Medvedev’s plan to fight corruption. “There is one serious problem,” Pamfilova said. “Who will carry out this plan, and how will it be carried out?”

Medvedev answered, “Only you and I will, together with government officials and representatives of civil society.”

You can’t argue with the president on this point. Consider the tragedy of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who paid with his life for blowing the whistle on a major corruption scam involving top government officials. And this is not an isolated case. Many journalists and workers at nongovernmental organizations who investigated big corruption scandals have been eliminated through contract killings.

Efforts made by NGOs to fight corruption could also be undermined by an ambiguity in the Russian law on NGOs. While a new amendment to the law makes life easier for “socially oriented” organizations, it still gives authorities carte blanche to limit their activities by claiming that a NGO is “extremist” or that it unlawfully accepted money from foreign sources.

There is little, if any, opportunity for civil society to control government abuses through free elections, a free press or lawful protests. It is obvious that battling corruption is meaningless without first instituting fundamental changes to the political system by making it more open, transparent and accountable to the public.

While Medvedev has repeatedly acknowledged that corruption is the biggest problem in the country, he is unwilling — or simply unable — to make the changes necessary to fight it. Thus, NGO activities are permitted, but only under the watchful eye of the state and only if it doesn’t involve criticizing authorities — including the government’s methods to control corruption.

NGOs and other members of civil society are trying to fight corruption by battling the very officials who claim to be fighting their own war on corruption. This includes deputies in the State Duma who claim to pass strict laws on corruption and members of the police, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Federal Security Service and other government agencies who claim to execute these laws mercilessly.

This comment appeared as an editorial in Vedomosti.