Ten Years of Civil Society Development in Siberia 1992-2002: Lessons Learned by an American Activist

April 08, 2002 // 12:00am

"The leader for grassroots civil society development in Russia and the Soviet Union as a whole is Siberia," began Sarah Lindemann at a recent Kennan Institute meeting. Lindemann, an Open Society Fellow, provided an overview of the development of civil society in Siberia, and offered several reasons for the movement's success in creating constructive dialogue between local leaders and citizens. Lindemann attributed the stable, positive development of civil society in Siberia to the influx of U.S. government and private funding, and urged U.S. leaders to continue their support for various development programs throughout the region.

Lindemann explained that following the collapse of the Soviet regime, most Russians equated the idea of democracy with various new freedoms, but many failed to recognize that democracy was inherently linked to responsibility. She described how she and other leaders attempted to find mechanisms that would increase citizen participation in the development of a civil society, which led to the creation of the Siberian Civic Initiative Support Center in 1995. Leaders of the center established a network of offices that helped develop various non-government organizations (NGOs) throughout the region. Lindemann pointed out that because the network covered a territory larger than the United States, the center relied heavily upon an internet network to coordinate its activities. The center's rigorous monitoring of all participating NGOs successfully discouraged fraudulent organizations from applying for grants.

According to Lindemann, the general public's lack of knowledge about NGOs was another obstacle to the civic movement. While many Russians originally assumed that non-profit organizations were affiliated with various mafia activities, others failed to recognize the difference between a bad business venture and a non-profit organization. Lindemann noted that after several unsuccessful attempts to increase cooperation between similar groups, civic leaders attempted to create an NGO model that more closely fit the needs of Russian interest groups. She explained that Russian grassroots advocacy groups fail to fulfill the function of traditional service-provider, and therefore civic and government leaders crafted several strategies that would help various groups create inter-sectoral relationships. "NGO fairs," for example, have become widely recognized as an excellent opportunity for civic groups to interact with local government officials and other civic groups.

Lindemann concluded by describing a recent development project that used local schools to introduce civic involvement into the community. The model for the project was created around three main components; democratization of schools and classrooms, volunteerism, and creating mutually beneficial school partnerships with other schools, local government and businesses. Each of the components experienced rapid success and increased citizens' involvement in the community outside of the activities at the school. Lindemann pointed out that Russian political leaders have embraced a model of using non-profit organizations to help generate money for their respective schools. Local leaders are now using newly created "community foundations" that bring local business and government leaders together with parents and school administrators to address the financial needs of the local schools.

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