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  • Rethinking Civil SocietyRussia's Fourth Transition
  • M. Steven Fish (bio)

During the decade that has passed since Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the pinnacle of the Soviet empire, Russia has experienced momentous changes and dramatic twists of history. Unfortunately, the emergence of a robust civil society cannot be numbered among these developments. Civil society—defined here as the realm of autonomous, voluntary associations that pursue limited ends in the public sphere1—remains inchoate and underdeveloped. Why is civil society in Russia so weak? With the old regime in ruins, does the strength of civil society even matter for the consolidation of democracy? Can a vigorous civil society possibly evolve in Russia? If not, what alternatives remain?

Russia during the Gorbachev era never produced a well-developed civil society of the type found in the West or in many developing countries. It nevertheless witnessed the rise of myriad organizations growing out of social movements, most of which focused their energies on bringing down the communist regime and ushering in some form of democracy. Some of these organizations, including the umbrella group known as Democratic Russia (DemRossiya), referred to themselves as movements; others, including many of DemRossiya's member associations, called themselves political parties. Some groups, such as Memorial, sought to prepare the way for democratization by exposing the crimes of the regime and reviving the nation's historical memory. Few if any of these groups, however, managed to assume genuine intermediary functions—which would have been impossible under Soviet rule anyway. Nonetheless, many of these organizations did develop significant mobilizational and expressive capacities. They roused public [End Page 31] opposition and organized demonstrations of popular discontent with the regime. They published extensively and helped to break the state's monopoly on mass communications.

Most of the groups that spearheaded the democratic movement during communism's twilight have not fared well in the post-Soviet setting. Instead of evolving into more coherent and better-organized formations, many have weakened and fragmented, or even disappeared altogether. For example, of the half-dozen parties that made up the core of DemRossiya, only the Democratic Party of Russia gained the backing necessary to run candidates in the parliamentary elections of December 1993, and it barely surpassed the 5-percent threshold for representation in the new parliament. Nor have labor groups like the massive, politically muscular coal miners' organizations of the late Soviet period become well-structured and effective trade unions. Newer organizations have arisen, though many of them, including religious cults, criminal gangs, and associations of Russian chauvinists, cannot be regarded as elements of a civil society.

The chief causes behind the persistent weakness of Russia's civil society are the decay, corruption, and disorganization of state institutions, as well as the broader socioeconomic and political legacies of totalitarian rule.

The enfeeblement and fragmentation of state institutions in Russia pose formidable barriers to the development of civil society. While the erosion of the state's hegemony under Gorbachev was crucial to the emergence of autonomous political actors, there comes a point at which the withering of state institutions may actually hinder the growth of a strong civil society. The presence of a decrepit state structure—one whose offices can be bought or coopted by private interests—engenders patterns of interest organization that deviate sharply from those associated with a normal civil society. One crucial function of the institutions of a civil society is to advance the interests of their members by applying pressure on the state. The organizations of civil society must enjoy independence from the state in order to function normally, but state institutions also must possess a degree of autonomy if they are to respond to demands in a manner that encourages pluralist competition. In post-Soviet Russia, however, the functions of state agencies are highly nebulous. Constrained neither by laws nor by firmly established norms, the custodians of those agencies employ their offices largely to reap private gain; their services and favors are available to the highest bidder. Such conditions stimulate the growth of criminal syndicates, informal [End Page 32] alliances between officials and holders of private wealth, and "mafias," rather than interest groups, political parties, labor unions, and the like...


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