Vienna, February 24 – “Like mushrooms after a shower,” ever more non-governmental organizations are appearing in Russia, but an increasing number of them are “pseudo-NGOs,” set up by the government as a means of undercutting genuine activist organizations or of funneling money to individuals and groups favored by the government, a Moscow paper says.
GONGOs – “government organized non-governmental organizations” – probably exist in most countries, but in the Russian Federation, there are so many of them and they have so much money that they threaten to overwhelm genuine human rights and community organizations there, “Novyye izvestiya” says today (www.newizv.ru/news/2010-02-24/122247/).
According to Russia’s Social Chamber, “the total number of non-governmental organizations in Russia on January 1, 2009, reached 669,900,” the Moscow paper says, but using UN standards, only 360,000 or slightly more than half are “truly non-governmental and independent.”
Many genuine and long-standing NGOs find that they cannot get grants to do their work, even while those entities set up by the government as simulacra of the NGOs take in enormous sums, spend little on the purposes they were nominally created for, and pocket the difference. Sometimes the only help they give is to provide telephone numbers of the real NGOs.
Veronika Marchenko, the president of the “Mothers’ Rights” NGO which operates on a shoestring budget, provided an example: “Bureaucrats actively initiate the creation of their own pseudo-NGOs which formally defend someone’s rights. In practice, however, people do not receive any help from them at all.”
“During the last year,” she told the paper, “the number of unions and committees for the struggle with corruption increased significantly. [But] according to data of the Duma, no fewer than 70 percent of these structures were set up in order to raise money or for public relations purposes by the bureaucrat involved.”
Another longtime civil society activist, Svetlana Gannushkina, said that she could “sense the lie which originates from [such] servile organizations. We give one assessment of what is taking place in Chechnya and then appear Chechen organizations which travel to the West and say that in Chechnya everything is wonderful” and so on.
Not surprisingly, the government is very much involved with and supportive of those groups which push its line but does not give the independent ones who don’t a penny, she continued. And also not surprisingly, some officials, like Duma deputy Sergey Markov, say that such complaints are misplaced and reflect “the ‘politicized’ nature” of the independent groups.
But it is not just on sensitive issues like Chechnya that the government makes a distinction between independent NGOs and those it creates and controls, activists say. Marina Ozhegova, who heads a group promoting large families, says she cannot get grants because the government agencies involved have created their own GONGOs to do the same thing.
Yury Dzhibladze, director of the Moscow Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, tells the paper that “the creation of GONGOs is a growing phenomenon, one involving hundreds of organizations” and that “the lion’s share of state financing” is going to them rather than to independent groups.
What makes this especially unfortunate, “Novyye izvestiya” continues, is that “the majority of government grants are given to organizations which then make grants of their own” – what in the West are known as “pass through” organizations. But the GONGOs keep a sizeable share of the money and so the purposes for which they receive it get less and less.
According to Marchenko again, “what is taking place between government organizations and real NGOs is not competition but raiding. GONGOs try to acquire the image of real NGOs thanks to their greater financing,” something that does not help the latter or Russian society as a whole.
Indeed, she said, it is possible that the GONGOs will be able to force out of existence the real NGOs. But if that happens, the government won’t benefit either. GONGOs, Marchenko continued “are ineffective regardless of how much money they get” because in fact “they are parasites on the state itself.”