Russia’s Complex Civil Society: Exploring Its Role in Political Transformation and Governance in Tatarstan
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Following the economic and political liberalization of the 1990s, Russian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) experienced a backlash from the new political Russian regime limiting their potential in political transformation and governance. CSOs in Russian regions have had various degrees of success in connecting with the population and channelling the grassroots knowledge to the governance level. Although impacted by these federal political trends, Tatarstan’s civil society has developed its own unique features. This qualitative study is based on a grounded theory methodology that joins a conversation about regional civil societies in Russia. Drawing on 35 semi-structured interviews with civil society activists, this research project explored the role of Tatarstan’s civil society in locally based political transformation and governance. The study revealed several key obstacles to advancing civil society’s potential as an advocate for the needs of local people. First, Tatarstan’s civil society was divided into three main sub-groups: service providers (the so-called socially oriented CSOs), CSOs with a political agenda and informal independent groups, all of which performed important roles yet had minimum cooperation across the sector. Second, government control over CSOs suppressed civic activism beyond the rigidly defined state priorities. Authorities were cautious, however, to enforce punitive measures against the civic initiatives supported by local people. Third, in addition to activists feeling disempowered by the repressive state, the grassroots population expressed little interest in civil society participation. The latter also illustrated that Tatarstan’s residents felt no ownership over designing and implementing civil society projects. The study proposes that CSOs across all sub-sectors develop a collaboration framework and joint strategy based on the knowledge they receive from local people by engaging with them on a meaningful level. The increased popular support could empower CSOs to resist the state’s pressure and enhance their role in political transformation and governance.