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Surviving in adverse environments: NGOs in the political system of contemporary Russia

In 2012, the Russian parliament issued the so-called foreign agents law. The law is directed towards Russian non-governmental organisations and forces them to register as foreign agents with the Ministry of Justice if they receive foreign funding and conduct political activities. The registration implies increased obligations of accountability and transparency towards the state, as well as tightened governmental control. Public institutions may refuse to cooperate with the respective NGOs, and the latter are obliged to declare as a foreign agent in all their public actions.

The foreign agents law may be conceptualised as the attempt of the state to monopolise political communication by radically restricting the chances of being included into civil society or, more precisely, into the periphery of the political system. Here, the state puts spheres of communication under pressure that are directed towards collectively binding decisions. It is in the political periphery where societal issues are articulated and different solutions are negotiated. NGOs, which may be conceptualised as organisations whose purpose is to cope with and propose solutions for societal problems and to transform societal structures in this respect, are severely hit by this law. Since the foreign agents law carries with it the generalized mistrust of the state towards any NGO advocating any form of societal change and the common good, it directly attacks the very core of their self-image and their societal legitimation and puts their political addressability at risk, which they inevitably need in order to pursue their goals.

Given this situation, however, the resilience of Russian NGOs is surprising: Most of them seem to successfully cope with the political restrictions; they manage to reproduce and pursue their goals in spite of the government-imposed delegitimisation. Thus, in order to understand the current dynamics of the Russian political system and the impact of the foreign agents law, we first need to study how the NGOs manage to survive under these increasingly adverse conditions. This is the starting point of the project: Taking an organisational sociology approach and using a notion of organisations that follows constructivism and systems theory, the project studies the adaptation strategies of Russian NGOs in the wake of the foreign agents law, it investigates the emerging forms of interaction between NGOs and formal politics, and it examines the implications for the structures of the political periphery in Russia.

Empirically, the project is based on qualitative case studies of selected NGOs in several fields of activity and additional qualitative data. It reconstructs how the organisations refer to the law in their constructions of the environment, it explores the structural effects of these constructions, and it identifies the organisational features that are pivotal for the organisations’ capacity to survive and to ensure their political addressability.

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