Sunday, May 11, 2008

Window on Eurasia: How to Be a Civic Activist in Russia – Without Getting It in the Head

Paul Goble

Ankara, May 12 – A Russian blogger has offered six detailed rules for those who wish “to engage in civic activism” in that country without risking being “beaten in the head,” a guide that highlights both what cautious Russians can do to advance their interests at little risk to themselves -- and what they must at all costs avoid.
At the end of last week, the Siberian portal reproduced a guide to civic activism for the timid written by a blogger with the screen name “Noblesse Oblige” that had appeared a few weeks ago on Russia’s Live Journal, as Russians refer to the blogosphere in their country (
The first rule, Noblesse Oblige says, is to make sure that you understand the rules of the game and 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,” the blogger says.
Don’t focus on elections, he continues. 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.
One “good” place to complain are the permanent representations that former President Putin created. Most people assume that these officials spend their days worrying about cadres questions, but in fact they have “a permanent need to find something to do.” If you can help them, they will help you. The Social Chamber might be similarly underemployed and thus helpful.
The second rule is “be a nuisance.” Significantly, the blogger expresses this idea in English. 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.
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, the blogger continues, 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.
The third rule, the blogger continues, is to “write letters,” not to get 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,” and always, always carefully address them to a particular individual.
But most important, 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. Moreover, 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.” And 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.
The fourth rule is use the media but 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.
The fifth rule is “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.
And finally, there is a sixth rule: Always seek to set one government agency against another, Noblesse Oblige continues, and 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 o fall your problems.”
To do so, he concludes, is immoral, and like all immoral actions, counterproductive.”

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