U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Bolshoy Devyatinskiy Pereulok 8, Moscow 121099, Russian Federation

The Role of Civil Society in a Democracy

Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Russia

Humanities University (Moscow), February 26, 2004

Good afternoon, and thank you for the warm welcome to your university. Allow me to thank the Acting Rector of the university, Irina Karapetyants, for arranging this event and for being such a great friend of the United States. Just a few weeks ago, RGGU launched its new Russian-American Educational and Research Center, which represents a bold new partnership with several U.S. universities. I understand that Dr. Karapetyants played an instrumental role in this initiative, which promises to deepen mutual understanding between students in the United States and here at RGGU. Of course, leadership and innovation in education is not new to your university. RGGU was the first academic institution in post-Soviet Russia to introduce certain subjects in the humanities, and your university continues to lead the way in areas such as information technology with your state-of-the-art digital video conference facilities. Such leadership has helped solidify RGGU's place as a vital institution in Russian civil society.

In fact, I'm here today to speak on civil society and its role in democratic societies, particularly the United States. Some of you may have been expecting a speech on U.S.-Russian relations, but as I will explain later, I believe that a close relationship between American and Russian civil societies is vital to the health of our overall relationship. Nevertheless, if you want to ask me about Iraq, North Korea or Georgia -- or about missile defense or energy investments -- during our question and answer period, I'm ready to take your questions on those issues too.

I was reminded as I walked through your lovely collection of ancient Greek art that the term "democracy" originally comes from the Greek word "demos" which means "the people" or "narod," and describes a form of government in which the people rule. In the ancient Greek city-states, citizens did not delegate critical decisions to elected representatives. In their small, homogenous societies, all free men would gather and decide how the city would be governed.

Unlike ancient Greece, virtually all modern democracies are representative democracies: people elect representatives to make and execute laws, appoint judges and conduct other governmental functions. Nonetheless, Americans still believe that a democracy is, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people..." The government can only exercise those powers expressly delegated to it by the people and, as the U.S. Constitution makes clear, all powers not expressly delegated to the government reside in the people. When citizens exercise these remaining powers, whether alone or in association with others, to participate in the life of their community or country, they are participating in its civil society.

Although democracy comes in various forms, genuine democracy depends not only on form, but also on substance. It is not enough that elections are held and that a government consist of separate executive, legislative and judicial branches; in a genuine democracy, these institutions and processes must truly reflect democratic values. Voters need to be able to choose between candidates representing differing points of view, who have equal access to the media. The three branches of power must be genuinely independent, restraining and holding accountable the other branches through a system of checks and balances. And citizens must be free to express their views, organize, assemble, and even protest, so they too can work on public problems, influence policy, and hold government accountable.

Americans' views of democracy and civil society are very closely tied to their view of the world and their role in that world. Americans believe very strongly that individuals can change society through their own efforts. And they understand that individuals working together to further a common goal can make even bigger changes than by working alone. These beliefs, born perhaps of our unique historical experiences, are not of recent advent. The nineteenth century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited and reported on American society, wrote "Americans of all ages, all stations of life and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others." Perhaps because of Americans' predisposition to work with their fellow citizens, civil society in the United States is particularly strong and deeply rooted.

For purposes of today's discussion, I will limit my discussion to the role of four categories of civil society organizations, service-based groups, charitable or philanthropic groups, advocacy groups, and the media, in democratic societies. There is some overlap between these categories and civil society includes many other kinds of organizations, including educational institutions such as RGGU, but as our time is limited, I will limit the scope of my remarks.

Service-based groups reflect the belief that individuals working together can help solve societal problems. Not surprisingly, people find that uniting with others enables them to address societal problems of a broader scope than they could address working alone. Every day, across the United States, countless numbers of people from all walks of life -- as individuals and in groups -- spend hours in service to others. By some estimates, fifty percent of all Americans over age 13 are now active volunteers, devoting an average of four hours a week to the causes of their choice, including helping the elderly, feeding the homeless, teaching English to immigrants, or cleaning up litter in parks. That's a staggering number, encompassing well over one hundred million people. Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Merle Curti says: "Emphasis on voluntary initiative has helped give America her national character." Voluntary initiative enables citizens to address problems that government, for whatever reason, is not adequately addressing.

In the United States, another pillar of civil society is charity and philanthropy. Nearly three-quarters of American households -- including many people who themselves are struggling to get by -- donate money to charity, supporting everything from their local church, synagogue or mosque to efforts to eliminate hunger, homelessness and domestic violence, to research into cures for cancer and HIV/AIDS. Total charitable giving in the United States exceeds $200 billion a year. The U.S. Government encourages this by providing tax incentives for charitable donations. Like community service, philanthropy fulfills needs that government is not always able to meet fully, such as providing scholarships for needy students, building museums or financing medical research.

While some problems can be resolved by volunteerism or charitable giving, others require a more systematic approach - a policy-level solution. People form advocacy or political action groups to convince decision-makers to pass the laws, make the decisions or take the actions that they believe will solve public problems. Advocacy groups put a lot of effort into educational campaigns, to try to convince public officials of their point of view. But failing that, education campaigns have another purpose: to convince other voters. As greater numbers of voters agree on a particular position, pressure increases on public officials to support that position. American voters expect their representatives to reflect their views and work to address their concerns. Any officeholder who consistently fails to do so will find him or herself unemployed after the next election.

Many groups exist exclusively to support candidates who agree with very specific policies promoted by that group. One of the most famous, the National Rifle Association, mobilizes its members in support of candidates who oppose gun control, who believe that the American constitution affords citizens the unrestricted right to own guns. On the other hand, Handgun Control Inc. mobilizes its members in support of candidates who support gun control. Both are advocacy organizations, supporting positions on opposite sides of the same issue, and working to help elect political candidates who support their views.

Political parties represent yet another form of advocacy organization, as they offer yet another outlet through which people can organize themselves to influence public policy. Although two major parties dominate the American political system, there are in fact many smaller parties, ranging from the pro-environmental Green Party to the Libertarians to various small leftwing parties. Each of these parties, both big and small, have identifiable philosophies of government and policy platforms that they hope will appeal to voters. Parties are the vehicles that people use to support policies and candidates they believe in with money, volunteer labor and, most importantly, votes.

Yet another form of advocacy is to use one's economic or purchasing power in support of a particular viewpoint. Americans who dislike the policies of particular companies occasionally join with like-minded fellow citizens to boycott a company and purchase the products of its competitors, or move their investment money elsewhere. For example, in the 1980s, many American individuals and institutions refused to purchase goods from or invest money in companies that did business in apartheid-era South Africa. As a result of this economic pressure, such companies found doing business in South Africa unprofitable, and ceased doing so. Americans sometimes euphemistically call this voting with their wallets or pocketbooks. It is also common for Americans to contribute to the campaigns of political causes and candidates who represent their views. If you follow news from the United States this year, you will hear a lot about contributions to election campaigns, as our political campaigns depend on private contributions to buy advertising and make their positions known.

Service-oriented groups, philanthropic organizations, and advocacy groups cannot function properly without free access to reliable information. For this reason, a free and independent press represents the very backbone of civil society. We all understand that it is difficult for media that are answerable to political or business interests to report honestly on the actions of their sponsors. As the Russian proverb observes: "Chey khleb yesh', togo i pesenku poesh" ("He who pays the piper, calls the tune"). To retain their credibility, media must be independent from political influence and maintain standards of editorial independence and balance. Only in this way can they help to hold powerful forces in society -- including politicians, business interests and others -- accountable for their actions.

Recent American history provides a good example of how journalists can help to hold powerful figures accountable. In 1974, a once popular President, Richard Nixon, resigned from the Presidency as the result of an independent media investigation that exposed serious misconduct in his administration. This misconduct might have gone undiscovered -- and abuses of authority gone unchecked -- if not for the persistence of two young journalists. And the work of these journalists would never have come to light if they did not work for a newspaper independent of government influence.

Democracy itself depends upon a free and independent press. Citizens cannot exercise their right to vote in a meaningful manner if they lack objective information about candidates' positions on the issues and their records. And service groups, charitable groups and advocacy groups cannot function when they lack information about current issues and societal needs.

Civil society plays a crucial role in countries that have only recently made the transition to democracy. Civil society groups can lend credibility to political processes -- for example, by monitoring elections -- until governmental institutions have a track record in this area. Civil society empowers people at all levels of society to contribute to the rebuilding of their society, spreading the roots of democracy broadly and deeply, and giving all citizens a stake in their democratic experiment. And civil society organizations such as the mass media help hold government institutions in check, preventing them from exceeding their legitimate authority, and contributing to the development of a democratic political culture.

As you can see, civil society reinforces and safeguards democracy. For this reason, we believe that in order for Russia to realize its full potential -- and therefore for our bilateral relationship to realize its full potential -- both the government and the people of this great country must support the continued growth and strengthening of civil society, democracy and a private economy as indispensable components of Russia's national power. As the Russian people form the institutions and coalitions they need to address their own concerns, we hope that they will maintain contacts with institutions and groups in the United States that share those concerns.

In fact, contacts between civil society institutions in different countries play a vital role in the broader relationship between those countries because such contacts insulate the overall relationship from political shocks. During the Cold War, virtually all contacts between the United States and the Soviet Union were at the governmental level. Contacts between individuals or civil society organizations were extremely restricted and as a result, our overall relationship suffered from every political shock. On the other hand, where there are strong non-governmental relationships between countries, the overall relationship is far less susceptible to setbacks. For example, although relationships between the leaders of the United States, Germany and France were temporarily strained over the question of Iraq, our broader relationships were hardly affected, because they were anchored by strong relationships between our universities, religious groups, businesses, cultural organizations, and individuals. We had too much invested in good overall relations to allow a political disagreement to derail the broader relationship.

This is why I believe so strongly that we must cultivate more non-governmental ties between the United States and the Russian Federation. It is through contacts at all levels of civil society, between Russian and American individuals and groups with common interests, that we will transform our relationship from one dominated by political questions -- and primarily managed by governments -- into the kind of relationship that we enjoy with our historic allies.

In the long run, I am optimistic about the future of Russian democracy. While serving here, I have met too many ordinary Russians in every sphere -- journalists, scholars, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, politicians, human rights defenders, civic activists -- who understand that the long-term well-being of this country depends upon freedom and prosperity at home, and closer partnership with the world's democracies. Every day I meet with Russians who are trying to be part of the solution to the challenges they and their communities face. I hope that you will also look for ways to be part of the solution to the challenges that you see around you. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of the functions performed by private citizens."

On that note, I think I have spoken long enough, and I am eager to respond to your questions. As free expression is as vital on university campuses as it is in society at large, please feel free to ask me about any issue that interests you.

Thank you for your attention.