Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement in Russia

A Gain for Democracy?

‘Sustainability’ is a word rarely understood correctly in Russia. Within the socio-economic paradigm of the 1990s and 2000s the adjective ‘sustainable’ was mainly applied to the idea of economic growth – meaning steady increase in GDP. This discourse of predominance of ‘pure’ economic success, not taking into consideration any externalities caused upon nature, population, communities, etc., is already showing its ‘dark’ side. If in absolute economic figures Russia was doing more or less okay over the last 10 to 15 years, when we think in terms of welfare, prosperity, social and natural capital deterioration and exhaustion the results might not be as lucrative as we hoped for.

Recent studies by groups of UNDP experts in Russia analyzing human development as part of the country’s economic growth clearly demonstrate that the value of extracted resources, including the degradation of eco-systems, should be withdrawn from GDP growth figures.  As a result, the UNDP claims that further development of extractive industries in Russia would bring along more troubles than favors in terms of real welfare for the country population.

So how come the largest country in the world pays so little attention to environmental issues? Is the Russian population even concerned about sustainability issues? Is Russia’s civil society doing anything about it?

All those questions are not easy to answer.

Firstly, there’s the ‘big country’ factor. Being the largest country in the world, Russia is very sparsely populated, with about two thirds of its 140 million inhabitants living in the European part of the country, while most of the oil, gas and water resources are to be found in Siberia. The availability of vast natural resources undermines environmental awareness in Russia, since the idea that resources (of land, water, forests, oil, gas, etc.) are unlimited is deeply rooted in public conscience. Interestingly, one finds such attitude in many vast and resource-rich countries of the world, like Brazil, Canada or the USA.  Furthermore, resources are an important economic factor, with the share of the oil and gas sector accounting for 50 to 60 per cent of the federal government budget revenue during the last few years. Another aspect of this issue is the visibility of environmental damage. Quite often, many environmental accidents happen unnoticed in the low-populated areas where most oil and natural gas fields are found, and unless organizations like Greenpeace send a helicopter to produce video footage of an oil leakage the chances of someone learning about it remain relatively low. Whether or not environmental problems received public attention and support has therefore been directly connected with their visibility, putting the focus on more attention-grabbing things like urban development, cutting down green areas in cities, construction of new roads, highways or other objects of infrastructure at the cost of nature parks, etc.

Secondly, there’s the Soviet heritage in the form of the conception of ‘conquering nature’ for the sake of the people. The idea of straightening rivers, changing landscapes or transforming eco-systems for the sake of large-scale industrial production was one of the drivers of the Soviet economy. In many respects, this attitude still persists. The new economic realities of the 1990s and early 2000s  when economic growth was considered to be a ‘sacred cow’ – with all possible externalities being neglected – brought along the idea of making quick profits at the cost of exhausting nature. As a consequence, in addition to environmental problems ‘inherited’ from USSR times (mainly connected with industrial pollution), new ones appeared: air pollution from cars (accounting now for 80 to 90 per cent of the overall air pollution in Russia’s largest cities), the waste problem (waste selection is still not in place and waste disposal areas are getting over-loaded due to growing consumption, while waste-burning is being opposed both by environmental groups and local communities), excessive consumption, etc.

This brings us to the role of civil society in promoting sustainability issues. However, in order to reflect profoundly on its role, one has to understand the state of civil society in Russia at the moment. While most NGOs –  among them many international ones or organizations set up with the help from international donors’ money –, appeared in the 1990s, right after the fall of the USSR, public support and knowledge about their work up until recently has been rather low. Only during the last three years numerous bottom-up initiatives started to appear, many of them short-living and never accomplishing to be registered officially as NGOs. The problems they were dealing with were mostly urban and environmental issues – for example, a protest group against the destruction of a park for the sake of a new shopping center/high-class residential building/new road, etc.; or a group against a new factory/production facility/nuclear facility being built; or, on the other hand, a group supporting and promoting cycling, conscious consumption, eco-food, etc.

Yet the development of civil society in Russia over the last years has been significantly hampered by the state reaction and attempt to over-regulate or even suppress its activities. The first wave of growing state control over the third sector came shortly after the so called ‘color revolutions’ in many CIS countries (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan), around the year 2006 when, according to Russian official position, opposition was in many ways acting through the NGO sector. The fear of losing political stability brought along fierce political repressions against NGOs, including police checks, legal cases against the organizations, fines, an over-complicating of reporting procedures, over-bureaucratization of every day operations, etc. At that time a renowned independent Russian daily newspaper, Vedomosti, even published an article claiming it was more difficult to set up and run an NGO in Russia than a commercial company. This first wave of repressions against NGOs receded after a year or so, and even the strict NGO legislation was slightly softened afterwards. Many political analysts connected this trend to the more liberal figure of Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president at that time. As a result, around 2010/2011 a new wave of NGOs and civil initiatives appeared – again, quite a lot of them with a clear environmental or sustainability focus.

The main reason for the popularity of this topic was the fact that environmental issues often concerned everyday worries and problems of ‘common people’, while more abstract campaigns like human rights campaigns, the promotion of democratic values or free media appeared rather distant and not having any direct impact on the lives of ‘ordinary’ citizens. It should also be noted that the major group joining these new civil society initiatives were either representatives of the appearing middle class or, quite often, students and young professionals, mid-level managers and even the so-called ‘creative class’, that is, representatives of creative industries such as design or media, including former intelligentsia which also became quite active during the winter/spring protests of 2011/2012. The two very specific features of these newly active social groups were, firstly, a significant amount of disposable time which they could easily invest into civic activities and, secondly, a certain level (or perceived level) of welfare which allowed these new social groups to get distracted from their daily needs and spend a certain amount not only of time and effort, but also of resources for a common goal (or a common good). But even though these groups were the main drivers behind the new civil society movement, they quite often managed to engage other groups of population which might also be having a certain resource of free time to invest into campaigning, like not-working pensioners or not-working mothers. Finally, the growing importance of sustainability issues worldwide has also played a major role in the developing of civil society initiatives lately. The increasing attention paid to these topics in political agendas, business and other everyday life practices of various groups of Russian society together with an increasing number of international travels and (Russian and international) media coverage on green economy and other sustainability issues, have strengthened NGOs and think-tanks working in the area both worldwide and in Russia.

The first flagship initiative of the kind was the so-called Khimki movement, set up in a small town next to Moscow’s international Sheremetyevo airport, where a small forest was to be demolished for the sake of construction of a new highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Construction plans had unraveled a Russia-wide campaign for the Khimki Forest protection, bringing thousands of protesters to the streets of Moscow and other cities of Russia, which in the summer of 2011 was still an unbelievably high turnout. In many cities the campaign for the Khimki forest was combined with the campaign to protect Lake Baikal (urging the closure of a pulp and paper plant on the lake’s coastal line) and some other local environmental issues. The Khimki forest campaign also became one of the first campaigns in Russia which attracted many renowned ‘speakers’, including a few famous rock-musicians, journalists, etc. In the end, the construction of the road was halted for a few months and then continued – but the region and local communities were able to enforce some offset measures, namely an obligation not to build any infrastructure along the highway in the Khimki part and to create new green zones around the city. Even though the Khimki movement could not fully reach its goals, it has achieved something maybe even more substantial – that is, a very practical case and widely-known example of a local community getting organized into a movement, working professionally with both Russian and international media, attracting celebrities for their campaign and thus making the issue known and achieving support for it all over Russia. In many ways, Russian environmental movements and activists have learned a lot from the Khimki movement tools and methods concerning tackling their local problems.

The example of the Khimki movement provoked a whole number of civil society groups to appear all over the country.  Overall, there was a noticeable growth of civil environmental groups in the following years. The major areas of interest for them were local environmental issues and problems connected with urban development and planning. In addition to protest groups formed around a specific problem, another type of civil society involvement appeared. This second type of public initiatives, most of which have not been and are still not officially registered, deals with a specific environmental problem on a ‘do-it-yourself’ basis. A good example here is the ‘’ movement (literally meaning ‘no more rubbish’), a civil society initiative created in St. Petersburg by a group of individuals worried about the waste problem in Russian cities and countryside. The initiative first started their activities with hundreds of volunteers going to lakeshores, parks and forests to gather waste and submit it for selection and (possible) recycling. Nowadays, the group has spread to many regions and cities of Russia and expanded its activities beyond rubbish gathering, including the creation of permanent points for rubbish selection where environmentally conscious citizens can bring their paper, glass and plastic; seminars and training on waste management for businesses, local communities and municipalities; and public awareness campaigns on sustainability issues.

Over the last few years many similar initiatives have appeared all over Russia, setting up independent rubbish selection points, organizing environmental awareness campaigns and public ‘green events’, promoting cycling, car-free lifestyles or urban gardening. In many cases, like in the case of rubbish selection, these groups are trying to replace non-existent state infrastructure with do-it-yourself practices and volunteer actions. Quite a lot of them also deal with the issues of urban planning, reconstructing of public spaces or creating a friendlier and greener atmosphere in cities.[1]

In addition, a number of NGOs, civil society groups and initiatives are also involved in environmental education, providing extra-curriculum classes on sustainable development for pupils and university students, trainings on sustainability for school teachers, municipalities, local communities, etc.  Yet another group of NGOs is more active in the anti-nuclear or low-carbon (climate) movements. A good example of a climate movement is a Russian initiative which brings together climate experts of a number of NGOs from all over Russia to observe the UN Climate negotiation process, publishing a daily bulletin of negotiations during the sessions in Russian and English, critically assessing official positions of Russia and other CIS countries and lobbying for low-carbon and anti-nuclear solutions.

Still, when we speak about lobbying on a high political level, the two major players are Greenpeace Russia and WWF Russia. Both engage a bunch of professional experts in various areas of environmental policy, green business, environmental legislation and sustainable development and are often called upon on the part of ministries, local governments, think-tanks and research centers to contribute their experience and expertise on various environmental issues, including law drafts. The third ‘big’ player in the lobbying/expert community is the ‘umbrella’ organization for many regional and local environmental NGOs and civic initiatives, the Russian Socio-Ecological Union. Its experts are also often consulted by governmental bodies when drafting new laws and regulations. This rather limited number of ‘powerful’ civil society players in the political field demonstrates the still weak and underdeveloped state of civil society in Russia at the moment. Even taking into consideration the growing number of civil society initiatives in Russia over the last few years, it has to be noted that only a few of them outlive their problem and reach a higher level of work such as political lobbying or become institutionalized.

On the other hand, the growing number of state consultations with NGOs alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the role of the civic sector is getting more important. Firstly, NGOs are quite often consulted only on a formal level, with no practical solutions or decisions resulting from it. Secondly, many NGO campaigns are also being ‘heard’ and ‘reacted to’ by the state officials – but once again, only in words. Two years ago WWF Russia has calculated that only 10 per cent of all ‘orders’, ‘requests’ and ‘recommendations’ from the president, prime minister and other high-ranking officials in Russia in the area of environmental policy have actually been implemented. This is an example of how not only environmental politics but Russian politics in general works (or rather not works) – with laws and regulations accepted but rarely fulfilled. This is also the case with environmental payment systems for industries, for example, where many companies prefer to pay a fine or to bribe officials over taking measures and introducing sustainable practices. This system is often criticized and is about to be changed as the environmental legislation reform is on its way, yet it might require quite a lot of time to change daily business and administrative practices. And even now, with the growing pressure for sustainability measures and policies both from within and from outside of Russia, many politicians prefer to get away with just promises, not taking them too seriously or following cases through till the end.

In addition to that, following last year’s mass protests against the falsification of parliamentary and presidential elections which brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Moscow and other big cities, the state has opened up a new wave of NGO repression measures a few months ago. Last summer the Russian state parliament has approved a new legislation, obliging all NGOs receiving foreign financing and being active in political actions (though the description of political is very vague in the law and can be easily misinterpreted) to be registered as ‘foreign agents’. Up until now no NGO has been registered as such, yet over the last few weeks offices of many NGOs all over Russia have been raided by the police, the prosecutor’s office, tax inspectors, fire inspectors etc., demanding very detailed reports on their activities – including all public events and publications – and imposing fines for not having an adequate fire-fighting system or a register book for vaccinations. These control checks do not necessarily target environmental NGOs, but they certainly  upset and destabilize everyday activities of NGOs and, in many cases, even threaten their existence – which once again keeps many newly appearing civil society initiatives from registering officially  and hampers the development of civil society as such.

Hence, one can obviously observe a growing role of civil society in promoting sustainability issues in Russia over the last few years – the continuous political pressure, lack of financing for NGO sector and many other everyday problems the sector might be facing notwithstanding. Their activities and campaigns, in line with many other political and economic processes (e.g. growing standards of life, an increasing number of international travels of ordinary citizens, growing importance of quality of life and healthy lifestyles, growing importance of sustainability issues worldwide etc.) do contribute a lot to the growing environmental awareness among population, but not necessarily contribute to democratization processes in terms of political process, election and party system, pluralism of various political opinions and positions, tolerance etc. However, civil society’s critical assessment and growing expertise bring in slow changes to environmental legislation modes, state policy in the area of sustainability and private business strategies concerning environmental and social responsibilities. All these processes do not happen as quickly as one could hope, and in many respects much slower than in other parts of the world - including the fellow BRICS partners -, yet the civil society initiatives in the area of sustainability are gaining momentum, even in spite of all challenges. One has to remain optimistic when dealing with such a hopeless matter, as Russian environmentalists claim.


[1] Many of these do-it-yourself groups are listed at, or to be found at an annual gathering ‘Delai Sam’ – ‘Do it yourself’, collecting all green and urban initiatives from all over Russia.


davydova_bild.jpgAngelina Davydova is head of the German-Russian Bureau of Environmental Information (RNEI) and senior lecturer for environmental and business journalism at St. Petersburg State University. At the same time she keeps working as a freelance environmental/climate journalist for a number of print and online Russian and German media and organizes environmental and climate projects within the German-Russian Exchange. Since 2008 she is an observer of the UN climate negotiation process (UNFCCC).


This article is part of the series Democracy & Sustainability, a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy. Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

In Part 2 of our series, Angelina Davydova and Jan Hofmeyr look at sustainability and civil society engagement in the BRICS countries: Is it a benefit for democracy?

Letting Citizens Take The Helm. Please find Jan Hofmeyr's article here.


Part 1 of our series: Is sustainability a question of regime type?
Part 3 of our series: Education at the Limits of Growth
Part 4 of our series: Climate Change and Energy in Vietnam
Part 5 of our series: The dispute surrounding social participation in the discussions on development in Peru