Summary of a meeting with Aleksandr Nikitin, Director, Coalition for the Environment and Human Rights, St. Petersburg, and Galina Starovoitova Fellow for Human Rights and Conflict Prevention, Kennan Institute

Despite a recent Kremlin-sponsored "Civic Forum" involving prominent government and civic leaders, many questions concerning the development of civil society in Russia remain unanswered. According to Mr. Aleksandr Nikitin, the recent forum, held in Moscow, was a momentous event because it was the first time that a Russian president has been willing to meet with the various leaders of non-governmental organizations. However, the optimism of the civic leaders soon dimmed as it became apparent that the forum was only an attempt to improve President Vladimir Putin's image at home and abroad.

Mr. Nikitin began his presentation by explaining the background behind the conference. Originally scripted as an opportunity to demonstrate the support for the government by civil society, high-ranking Russian officials initially invited only those civic leaders who were loyal to President Putin. When leaders of various human rights and environmental interest groups learned of the government's intentions they immediately threatened to boycott the forum. In order to curb the political fallout, Russian officials grudgingly accepted many of the activists' central demands, most importantly the reformation of the organizing committee to consist of officials from the original organizing committee, prominent human rights and environmental leaders, and direct representatives of the President's staff.

Mr. Nikitin noted that President Putin spoke glowingly of the importance of a strong civil society and the government's role in promoting a favorable climate for its development. Yet, Mr. Nikitin argued, the actions of his government, both at the conference and in general, contradict Putin's positive words. At the forum, President Putin and other government officials addressed the audience and promised an increased dialogue between government and civic leaders. However, following their remarks, Putin and his colleagues quickly exited, leaving the civic leaders to essentially listen to themselves. Civic leaders, with their inability to link central themes between the various discussions combined with a lack of preparation, also contributed to the failure of the forum.

Mr. Nikitin concluded by saying that although civic leaders face many challenges, they are continuing their efforts to develop an effective and stable civil society in Russia. Leaders plan to continue to build upon the lessons learned from the latest forum, and have increased their lobbying efforts for increased cooperation and recognition. Other groups are focusing on informing the West about the government's human and civil rights' violations in an attempt to place more international pressure on Russia's leadership to increase dialogue with non-governmental organizations.