The Return of GONGOs

  • 2000-06-08
WASHINGTON - The Russian government appears to be reviving the Soviet-era practice of creating governmentally organized non-governmental organizations - long known familiarly as GONGOs - in a bid to increase state control while projecting an image in the West as someone committed to an emerging civil society.

The latest example concerns the Kremlin's handling of two major Jewish organizations. In recent weeks, independent journalist Yevgeniya Albats points out in the June 1 Moscow Times, the Russian authorities have sought to isolate and otherwise weaken the Russian Jewish Congress, an umbrella organization of 60 independent groups.

A major reason for that, Albats concedes, is because the president of the RJC is Vladimir Gusinsky, "whose Media-MOST is now at odds with the Kremlin" and whose offices the Russian authorities raided last month as part of what many see as a broader effort to intimidate independent Russian media.

But now the Russian authorities have taken another step against the Congress, one that recalls the Soviet past and may have more far-reaching consequences. Albats reports that the Kremlin is supporting another group, the Federation of Jewish Communities, "which will be loyal to its creators and pronounced as the only representative of the community."

The Kremlin administration appears to have decided to do so, according to Micah Naftalin of the United States-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, after the Russian authorities tried and failed to create a completely government-organized Jewish group.

The constituent congress of the FJC took place last November, but the new group has been given additional prominence over the last month as the Kremlin's clash with Gusinsky has broken out.

Albats cites as evidence of this the following development: On Wednesday, the Kremlin administration called Adolf Shayevich, the chief rabbi of Russia and a member of the presidium of the RJC, and asked him to resign from that organization. His departure would significantly reduce the status of the RJC and thereby raise the status of the Kremlin's now-favored group.

According to Albats, "such quasi-civic organizations are the only ones a bureaucratic state can tolerate." But more than that, she argues, this approach points to the emergence in Russian government circles of what she calls "that old/new way: 'manageable democracy.'"

Such an approach will mean, Albats argues, that democratic institutions will be preserved in form, but their content will be transformed "so that those assumed to be representatives of society will be de facto representatives of the state: obedient" and "indebted to those who chose them."

The Soviet government pioneered this approach, creating a variety of state-organized and controlled groups that were nominally the analogues of Western groups. The various Soviet Peace Committees were perhaps the best known and led some in the West to argue that they represented the harbinger of the emergence of a civil society in the USSR.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did most of the GONGOs. In their place emerged some genuine if often weak non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. And many in the West argued that their rise presaged or even guaranteed the emergence of civil society in Russia and other post-Soviet states.

But both this Western view and the interests of some post-Soviet regimes in increasing their control has had some unexpected consequences. On the one hand, these regimes have an interest in pointing to the flowering of NGOs precisely because many Western governments use that as the key measure of democratization.

And on the other hand, many of these regimes are interested in gaining control over institutions that often oppose government policy.

Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka was probably the first post-Soviet leader to use this device, routinely creating institutions that paralleled existing NGOs and then insisting that his creations rather than the self-created NGOs were the genuine representatives of Belarusian society.

Because of his many other authoritarian actions, Lukashenka's efforts to use GONGOs to advance his case in the West have generally fallen flat, with Western NGOs and Western governments decrying what he has done.

But now the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin appears to be doing much the same thing, but he may have more success than Lukashenka not only because of Moscow's much greater power, something that has allowed it to escape criticism in the past, but also because of Putin's own much more sophisticated approach, one that has attracted more than a little Western praise.

But Albats' article represents a clear warning that the rise of GONGOs represents a severe threat to Russia's civil society and hence to its prospects for democratization in the future.