A FSU Civic Activists' Guide

Paul Goble, over at Window On Eurasia, found a guide to civic activism in Russia on Live Journal (Russia's main blog platform) from a blogger called Noblesse Oblige. Noblesse Oblige has come up with several principles for "Civic Activists in Russia who Don't Want to Get Beat in the Head." Paul has translated and I've copied his text, so blame him if you don't like it (unfortunately, his links to the original don't work).

These are by far the most useful guidelines for FSU civic activism that I've come across. More importantly, they are applicable to most of the countries in the FSU, not just Russia. I say that as someone who spent three years trying, without any measurable success, to encourage civic activism in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. My only quibble is that NO could have elaborated a little bit more. I'd love to read some examples of how these principles have or haven't worked in real life.

What I really like about them is that they are lessons that can only be taught by someone who understands the political environment of the FSU at a native level and who has learned from personal experience that many of the principles taught by well-meaning "experts" from western Europe or America are pretty much useless. It might be retitled "Think like an Apparatchik!"

Here are Noblesse Oblige's  suggestions.

Understand the Rules of the Game: The fundamental reality that in Russia, all officials are locked in conflict with other officials. Learn to complain by setting regions against the cities, the federal government against the regions and one part of the federal government against another.

This one is pretty much universally applicable. It's always important to remember that power structures are not monolithic and are riven with internal conflicts. I'd love it if NO would provide some examples of how this has worked.

Don’t focus on elections. In today’s Russia, they are simply “a holiday for the masses,” a time when officials only care about keeping everything on their territories “quiet and happy.” Disturbing that will only make them angry without achieving any of your goals in complaining in the first place.

I think this one is particularly important. Too much time and resources are wasted on trying to change the pre-ordained outcome of elections. Now that FSU regimes are getting much smarter and better able to co-opt the language and symbols of liberal democracy, elections are useless tools to measure democratic development (unless, of course, western democracies have an interest in making fraudulent elections look less stinky, like in Azerbaijan, but that's a different post).  Personally, I object to the amount of attention the dog and pony shows in places like Russia and Kazakhstan get in the western media and resent that they are even called elections. Coronations might be a better term.

Use the media. Understand that it is not the media reporting itself that is important but rather that you must act in a way that allows the subordinates of your target to include a reference to what you write in their summaries and digests of media reports. That puts a premium on brevity, specificity and memorability.

I wish NO would elaborate on this a little bit more, because I think it's potentially important. When the media operates on completely different principles than "reporting what happens," clever activists learn how to exploit those principles. Too often western "experts" drop in and try to teach activists media techniques, forgetting that 90% of them are useless in the post-soviet media environment.

Don’t go to the FSB. However powerful it may be and however useful as an ally it might appear, Noblesse Oblige says, the FSB is an organization the Russian civic activist who wants to succeed without problems must avoid. If you get into its clutches, you may never get out again.

I wish NO had gone into more detail about this one, too. I'm not sure in what circumstances an activist would want to do this in the first place, but if he/she's advising against it, people must think it's a good idea from time to time.

Write letters: Aim not for a solution but to get an interview. All Russian institutions, in the best “Soviet” tradition, have offices that are charged with responding to letters from the population. Make use of this fact of life, but make sure your letters stand out.

  • Never write as an individual but always as a member of an organization.
  • Get the signatures of important people or at least people with academic degrees.
  • Never write the president; list him as getting a copy
  • Never write letters longer than a page
  • Always carefully address them to a particular individual.
  • Prepare your letters as if they were on official forms. That means making sure there is a number on it – and make that number long enough to ensure that the officials who see it will believe you are a serious institution.
  • Cite Russian laws, but never mention international conventions of treaties. That only infuriates officials.
  • Remember that the goal of your correspondence is not to get the official to act or even respond but rather to set up a meeting. Remember, Soviet mechanisms work.
  • When you are invited, don’t go alone. Always take a large delegation. The only exception to that rule is if you live in the North Caucasus. In that event, it is better not to take children and crying women along. Their presence will not work in your favor given the Russian officials in that region.

I was always surprised at Azeris' and Ukrainians' impulse to write letters or petitions. I used to get them all the time (and promptly tossed them). Now, I understand that's a time-honored Soviet (and Turkic/Ottoman) technique for getting official attention. It's hard for westerners to understand how this approach can be effective, and I suspect it usually isn't, unless all the protocols are followed. NO's suggestions are insightful. I would add perhaps to make sure your letter or petition is directed to the right person. Why waste your time appealing, for example, to the head of an NGO for help resolving a labor dispute with your employer?

 Be a nuisance. Russian officials get their jobs precisely because they are incompetent and at risk of denunciation as the result of compromising information. The first makes the official “eternally grateful;” the second, makes him eternally under the control of those who appointed him. To elaborate

  • Don’t obsess with organizing public demonstrations. They may work sometimes but often they create problems especially under current legal practice. The exception, of course, Noblesse Oblige continues is “if you live in Ingushetia and have 150 relatives who aren’t afraid of the police.”
  • If you are going to organize a demonstration, learn the laws and don’t count on the media to be present. Instead, make sure that the opponents of the official you are complaining about know about the meeting. For their own reasons, they will exaggerate the number of participants by five and that will help you.
  • Under the law, you can always organize an individual picket. But be careful: most people view individual pickets as madmen. Don’t station yourself outside the door of the institution where your target works: you could be arrested. Instead, make sure you stand on his path between that door and where his car is parked.
  • Moreover, learn how to write slogans. Don’t put “long texts” on your poster, but make sure your target’s name is there instead and “in large numbers. Be specific: Don’t say “down with corrupt people.” Say, instead, “Where did Petrov get the money to build his second dacha?” And avoid slogans that could get you charged with slander.

Oh, how I love these. I especially like "don't obsess over public demonstrations." I think they're a waste of time 95% of the time. I also like "don't put long texts in your posters" and "be specific," two of the simplest rules of basic public communications and two that are most frequently violated in political and civic campaigns in the FSU.

Always seek to set one government agency against another.  Never work to set a government agency against an individual, even if it seems to you this or that private person is at the head of an ethnic mafia or is a cursed oligarch who is the source of all your problems.  To do so is immoral, and like all immoral actions, counterproductive.

It's nice to imagine that somewhere moral considerations might play a role but I wouldn't take this one off the table too early!

Ruling regimes in the FSU have gotten much savvier and are much better at co-opting the language and symbols of the west. It's easy to forget that many of these guys came of political age in the Soviet system and are still apparatchiks at heart. Smart activists will figure out ways to embrace modern communications techniques while still thinking like apparatchiks and using their weaknesses against them.

Good luck Noblesse Oblige!