G8 Summit: A Civil Society-Driven Agenda -- Russia Please Take Note

G8 Summit: A Civil Society-Driven Agenda -- Russia Please Take Note
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MOSCOW, RUSSIA -- Last week in preparation for the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited a group of civil society organizations to Berlin to brief her on their concerns, signalling how important our views are in shaping the world leaders' agenda. In fact, the top-line items on the G8 agenda are those that have been promoted by civil society for years: transparency in the global financial system and how to achieve sustainable growth.

I represented Transparency International Russia in the meeting with Mrs. Merkel. Among other issues, we talked about how Germany and Russia might find a common platform around the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which promotes transparency in the exploitation of natural resources. It is something my organization actively promotes and which neither Russia nor Germany has joined. Mrs. Merkel may well consider discussing this with President Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.

Given the difficult situation in Russia with civil society, where since last summer there has been a government crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it is not surprising that I did not received a similar invitation from President Putin. That is too bad because there is much to discuss.

Civil society in Russia is currently facing a very real dilemma that could threaten its future existence, something that could also impact the G8 agenda, given that Russia takes over the presidency next year. It will be hypocritical for Russia, for example, to take forward the transparency in policy and practice agenda that the United Kingdom has promoted, without a strong civil society to hold the government to account.

The irony is that Russia is currently trying to set itself up as a global civil society champion. On June 13-14, Russian and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are meeting at a civil society summit to discuss issues in parallel with this year's Group of 20 meetings. The even greater irony is that some of the organizations invited to participate, including Transparency International, are currently under threat from controversial legislation designed to close down civil society space.

How are we supposed to interpret this Gogolesque scenario? On the international stage, the government is endorsing our contributions stating: "Civil society ... significantly contributes to transparency, review and evaluation processes as well as to monitoring the outcomes and commitments" of the world's leading economies. But in practice it is suing us for tens of thousands of dollars for doing this job.

The new laws say that any organization that receives funding from outside Russia is supposed to register as a 'foreign agent.' In Russian this translates as spy. Few organizations are prepared to do this because they do not consider what they do spying. Golos Association, an independent polling organization, has already been fined $10,000 in two separate courts for failing to register as a foreign agent.

I shall be in court soon to defend Transparency International Russia after receiving a warning letter from the Moscow City Prosecutors Office.

Why would a government that showcases civil society on the world stage persecute it at home? Was it an oversight by the government that it invited organizations it suspects are "spies" to be part of the civil society summit or simply a daring move to deflect criticism during an international event where global media are present?

What we have tried to argue is the positive impact that civil society has on both international and national issues. The G8 agenda is testament to this.

In Russia, it is not just the groups that work on hunger and health that benefit citizens. Groups like ours that demand greater transparency and integrity in public life and an end to corruption, human rights groups that monitor police activities, think tanks that study the rule of law and promote access to information: we all contribute to helping citizens live lives free from oppression, protected by fair institutions that respect individual rights.

The fear in Russia is that when the international spotlight is no longer on us, the government will turn away from civil society altogether. It will define it narrowly in terms of aid to the hungry and sick, and deny its role in providing an avenue to citizens to hold their government to account.

This would be a dark day for Russians and an absurd outcome for a government that has publicly stated that it "values the role of civil society in the processes of transparency, analysis and evaluation of public policy."

We hope leaders at the G8 will remind Mr. Putin of these words.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the G8 summit being held in Northern Ireland, June 17-18. For the next eight days, we will be featuring one post from an NGO based in each of the G8 countries -- this piece is from Russia -- and then one blog from the vantage point of the developing world. To see all the posts in the series, click here. For more information on InterAction, click here. And follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #DearG8.

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