Local Protests Spawn Civil Initiative Groups
Published: June 13, 2012 (Issue # 1712)
The St. Petersburg Observers take part in a clean-up of Yuzhno-Primorsky park.
While Moscow streets and squares during the past six months have become centers of civil protest under the guidance of opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and Boris Nemtsov, analysts believe that the low level of such activity in St. Petersburg may be due to the absence of leaders in the city.
The lack of such figures has, however, had an interesting effect: Civil initiatives have gained support from below, often among people who have no previous involvement in political or social activities. The chaotic gatherings of people provoked by the violations that took place during the State Duma elections in December last year are now transforming into organized communities of people in which social and cultural issues are just as important as political ones.
St. Petersburg Observers, a group which grew out of another group called St. Petersburg for Fair Elections on the social network Vkontakte, adopted a charter last Saturday, June 9, becoming an official non-profit civil organization.
“I usually say that we [the organization] formed as a result of the December protests,” said Alexandra Krylenkova, head of the council of St. Petersburg Observers.
“It was a time when lots of people went to observe the Duma elections for themselves. When they saw what they were like, they realized that they needed to do something to change them. When you see it with your own eyes, you can’t live with it in the same way you did before,” she said.
For almost 20 years, Krylenkova, who works in career guidance, volunteered at Memorial, a non-profit research and information center that works in human rights and helps political detainees. At one point the well-to-do, married businesswoman attended a rally and was detained herself, along with many others, and spent a night and day at a police station.
“I was impressed by the people I saw then,” she said. “They were completely different from the ones I had seen at marches and protests that took place before. What I really liked about them was that they understood that they needed to try and do something, and that participating in rallies is not enough,” she said.
The idea of the organization originated then and there.
According to Krylenkova, the group was never planned to be political.
“We are above the political fight; this means that we don’t care what party or candidate is in power — each of us as an individual does care, but as an organization, we don’t,” she said.
“We’re interested in state mechanisms that should be working, but for one reason or another aren’t. Our goal is to get them going. This is why we observed the elections. But in order to make [the mechanisms] work, it’s not enough to confine our activity solely to elections, we need to penetrate all spheres and get involved in all types of activities — from environmental protection to holding exhibitions.”
At the end of December, 18 more groups were organized on Vkontakte, one for each of the city’s districts. Yekaterina Ryzhkova, who worked at the call center of the NGO League of Female Voters during the Duma elections and is now a coordinator of the Krasnoselsky district branch and a member of the council of St. Petersburg Observers, said that after the elections, she realized that it would be more effective to organize observers for the next elections on a district level.
“I just called people in the group to meet; there were around 12 people at the first meeting. It was completely self-organized,” she said. “A little bit later I heard about such activity in other districts. People from these districts got together and decided to help districts that weren’t involved join us.”
During the presidential elections, the St. Petersburg Observers brought together some 3,500 volunteer observers, lawyers and journalists.
“Even though we had set various goals, we then had neither the time nor strength to prepare for the elections,” said Krylenkova. “When the elections were over, we had time to remember our original goals. Of course, after the elections people’s social campaigning decreased, but now people have had a chance to rest, and with this new energy I think we will be able to [accomplish our original goals].”
“We all had our own lives: One person was going to do an internship, another was invited to live in America for a while and someone else was planning on completing their degree. Suddenly, for at least a few months, life changed 100 percent,” said Krylenkova.
The first goal of the movement is to monitor local and municipal authorities, starting with the monitoring of all types of elections.
The group emerged last December.
“When we organize a park clean-up, in addition to cleaning up the area, we are also trying to provide an example of what the local authorities and park management should be doing, because the responsibility of cleaning the territory belongs to them,” Ryzhkova said.
Group activities include forming housing associations, protecting green areas, improving district infrastructure and preparing observers for the next elections. The location and specific factors such as the population of a district influence the group’s main objectives and how the branch develops.
“We try to develop a civil structure in the district, a civil society; we help create parental committees and councils for people who live in the same building, because they are the basis of self-organization,” said Ryzhkova.
“The most important thing is to help people understand that community action yields a result and to encourage them to come together and push local authorities and state activity in the right direction for society,” she added.
The idea is to incorporate civil activity into different spheres of daily life and to make it the norm.
“Some of our volunteers take photos of different types of problems they see in the city. Then they write letters of complaint to public prosecutors or the authorities in charge of housing and utilities — to everyone it may involve really,” Krylenkova said. “If that doesn’t work, they collect signatures or organize mini-rallies.”
“We want to enter to the research sphere as well start analyzing sociological and statistical data,” she continued. “We also plan to put together a photo exhibition in which different spheres of social life and the city will be shown, including the recent rallies on St. Isaac’s Square.”
The St. Petersburg Observers approves of local protest rallies, but does not take part in their organization.
“Maybe we will organize them in the future, but for now there is too much politics involved,” Krylenkova said.
“We always say we are beyond politics, and if you look at our activity, it’s true, but the authorities don’t see it that way,” she said.
Another example of a recently formed civil group, albeit one with a strong political inclination, is the Civil Relay Race, an organization that transformed from being a group of volunteers who supported Mikhail Prokhorov during the March presidential elections into a social organization on May 26. The group now has branches in 12 regions of Russia. Formed in November 2011, volunteers were engaged in regular activities associated with presidential campaigns such as distributing handouts and holding meetings to promote their candidate.
Now the organization has an official structure, and its activity has been broadening significantly.
“We didn’t decide to make people active, they became active themselves; they had a desire to act,” said Mikhail Tokarev, a former businessmen and general director of a consulting group who is currently head of Civil Relay Race.
“People who supported then-presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov were among them: 600,000 of them registered their support for him on his website, and tens of thousands of others did so on various social networks. It was a demand from an active part of society. For every demand there is a supply — in the form of organizations such as ours.”
More than twenty projects organized by Civil Relay Race are currently underway, including anti-drug campaigns, monitoring the authorities in charge of housing and utilities and organizing outdoor clean-ups.
“I started analyzing the situation on how to attract people to our side in order to encourage them to vote for our candidate in the next elections,” said Tokarev. “It was then that I realized that all political parties are involved in such social and cultural activities in order to draw people over to their political views. So we began to choose projects we could organize and help others accomplish. That way they would see that we can do it and afterwards they would begin to do the same thing themselves, not for us or for Prokhorov, but for themselves. They would understand, however, that our political views were what led us to take action.”
Both Krylenko and Tokarev believe that the local authorities are not accustomed to people telling them that something is wrong and should be fixed. This, they say, explains why some concessions have already been made in response to citizens’ complaints. In this sense, civil society can be seen as “social glue,” as Krylenkova calls it, which not only brings people together, but serves as a link between citizens, the authorities and the media.
“I think we’ve already changed society’s attitude toward social activism,” said Krylenkova. “If we think about the state of society a year ago, it was completely different.”