31.01.23 Review

Civil Society: one in five rubles allocated by presidential grants is spent on pro-war projects, while socially oriented NGOs face financial hardship

A large number of independent NGOs are on the verge of collapse as a result of a drop in private donations caused by the war. Simultaneously, patriotic and military GONGOs — ‘government-organised non-governmental organisations’ — have begun to receive unprecedented sums from the state budget for war-related projects. Control over the ‘third sector’ has been a strategic goal of the Russian government since the 2000s; in the 2010s, the Kremlin began to actively oppose Western funding for NGOs in order to make them reliant on the state for funding. As it stands, human rights activity in Russia has all but been pushed out of the legal framework. Socially oriented projects must choose between demonstrating loyalty to the war and receiving public funds, or ceasing operations altogether as a result of increased pressure and a sharp drop in revenue from private donors.

According to the results of the first presidential grant competition held in 2023, more than 700 million rubles of the 4.3 billion rubles allocated were used to finance projects related to the war in Ukraine, aimed at supporting the families of servicemen and youth military-patriotic education. The Ivanovo Oblast Paratroopers Union received 1.3 million roubles to provide ‘social services’ to soldiers' and those returning from combat. Samara's Combat Brotherhood received 3.6 million rubles for a similar project. The Belgorod region’s historical research club Patriot was allocated 491 thousand roubles for its project ‘The Time of New Heroes’ which includes plans for the creation of a memorial garden to honour ‘heroes of the Soviet Union’. Bryansk's Atlant sports and health club received a grant of 996,000 roubles for the project ‘Donbas in the Heart of the Vityaz’: as a result, pre-conscription age Bryansk teenagers will now regularly write letters to Russian fighters in Ukraine. Guards of the Borders, a Sverdlovsk Region organisation, will hold the Vostok-Zapad Sports and Tactical Games for boys in school years 7 through to 11 in exchange for a 1.3 million ruble grant. 

According to the Bumaga newspaper, between March and December last year, the St. Petersburg Presidential Grants Foundation has allocated nearly 52 million rubles — one-fifth of all Presidential grants awarded to St. Petersburg NGOs — for war-related projects. The funds were used projects as wide ranging as to assist refugees from occupied territories, gymnastics coaches from the so-called DNR, to combat the stress of the international community's ‘genocide’ against Russia, to open an entrepreneurship school for women in Donbas, and other similar projects. Some of the non-profit organisations that have received presidential grants had previously been deemed unprofitable or had no income. However, the Foundation also supports worthwhile projects that assist people with disabilities and families with multiple children, establish resource centres, and broaden the competencies of palliative care specialists. Of course, there are no human rights organisations or organisations that are not loyal to the Kremlin included on the list. 

Since the early 2000s, the Kremlin has fought for control of civic organisations. In 2001, the Kremlin Palace hosted the Civil Forum for civic organisations, which was opened by a speech by then-new President Vladimir Putin. In the early 2000s, Vladislav Surkov, then Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, began establishing a front for pro-Kremlin NGOs and became concerned about controlling Russian business financing of the third sector. However, the real pressure on independent civil and human rights organisations began after Putin's return to the presidency and against the backdrop of the 2011-2012 mass protests. The Kremlin has consistently cut off sources of foreign funding for NGOs through ‘foreign agents’ legislation. The parallel development of the presidential grants system for civic organisations (the first grants were distributed in 2006) was intended to replace foreign money and ensure reliable control over the third sector, i.e. to create a GONGO system — ‘government-organised non-governmental organisation’ system. 

However, after Sergei Kiriyenko took over as the first Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration in 2017, a number of independent NGOs with 'foreign agent' status received unexpected support: the Levada Center, the Samara Gubernia Charitable Foundation, and the St. Petersburg Centre for the Support of Public Initiatives. However, by 2018, the ideological trajectory of grant distribution began to follow a much more predictable course: organisations affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church and claiming patriotic education as their mission began to receive funding. Experts warned at the time that by depriving NGOs of foreign funding, the state was increasingly ‘forcing’ them to accept domestic funding, destroying the independence of civil society. Presidential grants were a powerful instrument of coercion over civil society at the time. Experts began to label such support as toxic, and some human rights organisations, such as the prisoner relief organisation Russia Behind Bars, began to withdraw from grants they had already received. In the third sector, a debate erupted over whether organisations should be receiving state funding at all.

The human rights sector of civil society had been virtually destroyed by the time Russia invaded Ukraine. Memorial, one of Russia's largest and most respected human rights organisations, was forcibly closed down in December 2021, just before the invasion. Later, after the start of the war, the Moscow Helsinki Group was disbanded, and the government commenced its attack on the Sakharov Centre. 470 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) signed an anti-war letter shortly after the invasion of Ukraine began. As a result, they began to be denied access to presidential grants and other forms of state assistance. The depoliticised section of civil society associated with cultural and social initiatives has been confronted with the moral dilemma over whether it is appropriate to receive state support in exchange for wartime loyalty. 

The situation appears to be particularly dire because private and corporate donations to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which had significantly increased over the course of the 2010s, have dropped precipitously since the outbreak of the war. The director of the Need for Help foundation told Meduza in late 2022 that by March 2022 the introduction of sanctions had already resulted in a significant drop in the number of recurring donors for NGOs. When the Visa and Mastercard payment systems were shut down in Russia, most recurring donations from individuals also vanished. As the summer approached, there were issues with business donations. As a result of all of this, Need for Help received record-low donations in the third quarter of 2022, both from entities and individuals. Because of the risk of working with ‘foreign agents,’ some businesses began to refuse to work with NGOs. Despite this, the situation somewhat evened out in the year’s fourth quarter. NGOs began to see a renewed increase in donations from both individuals and legal entities. According to Grigory Sverdlin, former director of Nochlezhka (Night Shelter), which assists homeless people, donations by legal entities contribute approximately 20% of the organisation’s budget. In an interview with Meduza in the spring, he predicted that a best case scenario would see donations from legal entities drop by half, and donations from individuals drop by about a third by the end of 2022. Miloserdiye (Mercy), a charity website, published an article on the strategies Russian NGOs have been using to survive the past year. Some began to seek new partners, primarily Chinese firms. Others had been successful in mobilising a large number of Russian regional companies. Several organisations were able to devise methods for obtaining donations from abroad. Some projects have revised their funding sources, developed new ways of communicating with donors, and have concentrated all of their efforts on developing micro fundraising initiatives. Of course, some businesses have also stopped hiring and are cutting costs wherever they can. Some have had to reduce administrative costs as much as possible in order to keep their programmes running. In any case, obtaining public funds remains an existential issue for NGOs that continue to operate inside Russia.