President Vladimir Putin says that by adopting the law labeling foreign-funded nonprofits involved in politics ‘foreign agents’, Russia, just like the US, wants to protect itself from external influence.
The Russian leader sees nothing wrong in requiring organizations that get funding from other countries to be registered as foreign agents.
“If foreigners pay for political activity, apparently they are expecting to get some result from that,” he noted speaking at an annual pro-Kremlin youth forum, Seliger.
Full article: http://rt.com/politics/putin-seliger-forum-power-496/
I think it's important to put the Russian position into context, and I think this warrants something I wrote a few months ago, to do with the role NGO’s and social movements play on the geopolitical stage. There are a few key areas we must define and take into consideration, to make sense of the direction the Putin clique has taken, without it devolving into an overly simplistic 'he hates us for our freedoms' diatribe, an argument the western media in particular loves to spin into a frenzy.
What role do NGO’s and social movements play in the international system?
The existence of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the context of political theory is an important factor to weigh against the idea of the social movement which is to be found as part of civil society and which helps influence the character of sovereign states and in turn the international system which these states comprise on the geopolitical stage.
To properly answer the question we must define what the aforementioned focal concepts are (NGOs, Social movements), and clarify in what forms they act and interact on the social playground of international politics. We must do this while taking into account some real world examples, and of course the importance of sovereignty and civil society in this context.
A comprehensive viewpoint which sheds light on the typical NGO is outlined in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. According to the authors (Werker & Ahmed, 3) NGOs are “private organizations... comprised of one or more individuals who are active in the efforts of international development and increasing the welfare of poor people in developing countries.”
This development assistance may consist of environmental, social and even political goals. This assistance can influence social movements within a society.
What are Social movements? This is a difficult concept to define in a few short words. According to Christiansen (2009, 7); social movements can
‘be thought of as organized yet informal social entities that are engaged in extra-institutional conflict that is oriented towards a goal.’
In other words, special interest groups focused on social concerns and collective action to achieve goals based on those concerns.
To reconcile NGOs and social movements, and better explain both, we will now consider the way in which they interact.
NGOs are seen as instrumental in changing the attitudes and mindsets of social entities within civil society. (Keck and Sikkink, 1998) and therefore influencing the direction of social movements. These NGOs and social movements in tandem are thus said to
‘...constitute a kind of international civil society which has an important role in the sphere of global governance’. (Garner et al. 2009, 449)
It is now that we must consider the concept of sovereignty, which forms the basic building block in the ‘sphere of global governance’ and the international system, within which the NGO and social movement driven international civil society as defined above operates.
Sovereignty is one of the most complex concepts in political science. As a result we will have to limit ourselves to the public state definition, in order to stay brief but most of all relevant to the question at hand. According to Benoist, (1999, 100),
‘On the international level, sovereignty means independence, i.e., non-interference by external powers in the internal affairs of another state.’
Taking the idea further, for our purposes, we should also consider the aspects of positive and negative sovereignty;
‘The concept of a quasi-state...some third world societies depends so much on the international community for their continuing existence that their sovereignty is essentially negative’. (Garner et al. 2009, 342)
This can imply that those states with positive sovereignty exert undue influence upon those in the negative spectrum of the international system of sovereign states.
As previously demonstrated (Keck and Sikkink, 1998), (Garner et al. 2009, 449), NGOs and social movements make up civil society which has a role to play in global governance, and if we throw the ideas of positive and negative sovereignty into the mix, we arrive at an interesting position; the interrelationship between government influence on developing and other societies through non-governmental organizations and social movements.
World Bank data implies (a public government organisation), that in 2006, over 70 percent of funded projects involved the civil society sector (in this context encompassing NGOs and social movements within developing countries; A sharp increase from only 6% in 1964. (World Bank, 1995, 2006a, 2006b).
This implies dramatic expansion of donor country involvement in the civil societies of other states, giving a clear role to NGOs and social movements; that of impinging upon the sovereignty of select states, on behalf of more dominant sovereign players on the international stage.
A recent example of this may be evidenced in the so called orange revolution in the 2004 Ukrainian election, where American funded NGOs applied direct support to pro-western democracy groups in the country in order to influence the election towards an anti-Russian candidate;
‘several commentators, both in Russia and the west, claimed to detect a hand –not particularly well hidden-at work. Pro-democracy NGOs...had imported various techniques that allegedly swung the election’ (Wilson, 2006, 1).
However, it is important to state at this point that the vast majority of NGO funding focus is still in the realm of basic economic relief and development programs, with environmental and political NGO groups taking a far lesser comparative role.
‘Feed the Children’, ‘Catholic Relief Services’, ‘World Vision’ and ‘Food for the Poor’ each had greater than $500 million expenditures in 2004 (USAID, 2006) with the ‘Red Cross’ spending $600 million in the same year (ICRC, 2005).
Compared to these economic and welfare development groups the ‘World Wildlife Fund’ made do with just $94 million. ‘Human Rights Watch’ with just $23 million and ‘Amnesty International’ sat on a $39 million expenditure bill by the end of 2004. (Werker & Ahmed, 5).
Having demonstrated in brief the broad definitions of NGOs, Social Movements, Civil Society, the dual-sided Sovereignty concept, and the structure of the international system all these elements influence and form a part of, we can thus conclude our quest to answer the question, ‘what role do NGOs and social movements play in the international system’ with the following words;
Nongovernmental organizations comprise three broad and connected areas of interest: social, economic and environmental.
In the social sphere, NGOs act as vehicles for influencing political movements and thus driving civil society towards a particular set of goals that may in fact originate across national borders. Pro-democracy movements, media freedom and the upholding and furthering of human rights (e.g. Women’s rights), are particular examples.
Economically, NGOs form the basis of welfare relief and food aid in many needy regions. Those regions afflicted by drought, natural disasters, disease and poor economic indicators qualify. This is by far the biggest segment of NGO resourcing on the international stage.
On the environmental front, NGOs serve to maintain and repair environmental damage or reduce the environmental footprint of industrial development. Greenpeace is one prominent example, and groups such as this serve to protect endangered species or sensitive habitats from human exploitation. Conservation is a key strategy here.
Finally, Social Movements are closely intertwined with NGOs and serve as the conduit through which various interest group roles are carried out, in all three aforementioned areas, on the arena that is the international system.
Benoist, A. 1999. ‘What is Sovereignty’. Éléments, No. 96. (24-35).
Christiansen, J. 2009. Essay: ‘Four Stages of Social Movements’. EBSCO Research Starters. (1-7)
Garner, R. Ferdinand, P. & Lawson, S. 2009. Introduction to Politics. Oxford University Press.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 2005. ICRC Annual Report. 2004. Geneva.
Keck, M. and Sikkink, K. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press.
United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 1961-2006. “Report of Voluntary Agencies.” Washington, D.C.: Voluntary Foreign Aid Service, Office of Material Resources.
Wilson, A. 2006. ‘Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, NGOs and the Role of the West’. Cambridge Review of international Affairs. Vol 19. 1.
Werker, E. and Ahmed, F. 2007. ‘What Do Non-Governmental Organizations Do?’. Forthcoming: Journal of Economic Perspectives. (1-38).
World Bank. 1995. “Working with NGOs: A Practical Guide to Operational Collaboration between the World Bank and Non-Governmental Organizations.” Operations Policy Department, Washington, D.C.
World Bank. 2006a. “World Bank-Civil Society Engagement: Review of Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006.” Civil Society Team, Washington, D.C.
World Bank. 2006b. World Development Indicators, April 2006.
So are Putin's motivations sinister, or genuine with this NGO law? I think it's a combination of wanting more control over his own regime, the country it controls as well as maintaining and perhaps expanding Russian sovereignty-expanding it by nudging Russia closer to the positive sovereignty model so that it may once again begin forming an empire. The neighbours are fragile and there for the taking. 'Protects' may be a strong term, but this law certainly benefits Russian sovereignty.