GONGOs returning in force in Russia today
By Paul Goble
GONGOs – “government organized non-governmental organizations” – are increasingly being used by the powers that be in Russia to elbow aside genuine NGOs just as they did in the late Soviet period, thus contributing to a situation in which “history and farce” coexist, according to a leading Moscow human rights activist.
In an essay in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Aleksandr Podrabinek says that in Russia today, there exist at one and the same time genuine NGOs and “a parody” of them, the GONGOs, although “the latter of course do not call themselves that,” seek to be equated with the former, and often are taken as such by others (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=10295).
“Such counterfeit organizations began to appear already in Soviet times, but recently they have become more numerous an active, Podrabinek suggests. “The classical example” of a GONGO was the International Commission on Human Rights set up by Moscow in1987 and headed by Fedor Burlatsky, a communist functionary.
That organization sought to take over “all foreign contacts” about human rights in the Soviet Union and thus push to the side “the remains of the dissident movement and the new independent human rights groups.” Despite some successes in individual cases, the rights activist says, “it didn’t succeed” very often.
“Today,” Podrabinek continues, “Russia’s GONGOs are more numerous and varied,” although “the designation of ‘public’ organizations as ‘government’ ones is conditional” because “in their founding documents, they do not declare their ties with the state.” Nonetheless, it is possible to identify them.
There are two basic indicators. On the one hand, “on essential questions, they support the powers that be; and on the other, “financing for their activities they receive from domestic government structures.” (That distinguishes them from a third kind of NGO, the DONGO or donor-organized NGO, the status of which Podrabinek does not discuss here.)
He gives as an example of one NGO that meets these GONGO standards, the “Resistance’ Movement, which receives budgetary financing for its activities and was tasked with distributing 170 million rubles (5.8 million US dollars) in grants to other bodies during 2009.
This movement is headed by Olga Kostina, the wife of the deputy chief of the domestic politics administration of the Presidential Administration, and her “human rights defense credo” is reflected in her declaration that “over the course of decades, Russian human rights defense has been formed and conceived exclusively as a political force opposed to the powers that be.”
Instead, she suggested, such activities should be redirected. “Today, the social demand both in Russia and in world practice focuses on the side of the resolution of social tasks,” a definition that the Kremlin could certainly be happy with but one that has little connection to the world of genuine human rights NGO activity.
Kostina’s “Resistance” is hardly alone. In 2009, the human rights activist says, four other similarly “little known organizations” were given budgetary funds amounting to 1.2 billion rubles (40 million US dollars) for further distribution, an astronomical sum compared to the shoestring budgets of most genuine NGOs in Russia.
“Pillaging the budget,” of course, “is an everyday activity in present-day Russia,” Podrabinek says, and consequently, it is more interesting to track the ways in which these groups and their spokesmen appear in the public space, often creating the impression that the human rights community is on the side of whatever the powers that be want.
All too often, he continues, genuine human rights activists are tempted to get involved with GONGOs, but “unfortunately, it has evolved so that the movement between NGOs and GONGOs is a one-way street.” NGOs “drift toward the government ones, and never the other way around.”
An example of this is the willingness of some “human rights activists, including some extremely well-known ones” to join “the social councils of those very government structures which are the sources of the violation of human rights, such as the force ministries, the Presidential Administration and the Government.”
But most genuine activists “do not permit themselves” that luxury. But among those who join, only a few, like Oleg Orlov or most recently Ella Pamfilova, decide to leave. The rest who have joined such institutions “prefer to take the risks to their reputations for the special status such memberships provide.”
Those who try to combine human rights activities and GONGO membership are a manifestation of the conditions of the time, Podrabinek writes. “On the one hand,” they are “public and independent;” but “on the other, they exist “on the basis of support from the state in the interests of the powers that be.”
“Today, the clearest examples of such organizations are the youth movements created by state patronage. They act in the interests of the powers that be in playing with public enthusiasm,” especially among the young. And these youth groups provide yet another characteristic of GONGOs, one that helps identify them.
“Life in such GONGOs is rich but not long-lived.” Those standing behind them are constantly renaming and reorganizing them, not only to confuse society but also to allow for more theft from the budget. Moreover, Podrabinek says, GONGOs and their members “do not have any special need to be concerned about their own reputations.”
It is quite another matter for genuine human rights activists, he concludes. The basis of their successful operation rests on that, and “cooperation with the institutions of the powers that be will not strengthen the reputations” of those human rights activists who may be tempted to cooperate with them.Paul Goble