09/09/2013 03:01 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Sending a Positive Message on Civil Society to Russia at G20 Summit

This week President Obama will take the time to meet representatives of Russian civil society organizations during his visit to St. Petersburg for the G20 Summit. At a time when war and weapons dominate the headlines, this show of support for organizations that work in Russia on issues such as human rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-corruption and democratic freedoms is much appreciated. It's a pity that the Russian authorities and President Putin are likely to see this agenda item as provocation, rather than affirmation of the important role civil society plays in a vibrant democracy.

This should not be the case, particularly given that one of the themes of this G20 summit is "growth through trust and transparency" and that in June Russia inaugurated the first Civil Society 20 meeting of representatives of citizen's organisations in Moscow. At the time the government said it "values the role of civil society in the processes of transparency, analysis and evaluation of public policy."

But slogans are easier to coin than to live by, as is clear by the actions taken against transparency and the current crackdown on civil society activities here. In the past year thousands of organizations that work on such issues as human rights, freedom of speech and corruption have been raided and prosecuted under a new anti-NGO law. Their crime: engaging in political activity.

As of July last year any civil society organizations that receives funding from outside of Russia have to register as a 'foreign agent,' a term that means spy in Russian, if they engage in political activity or face prosecution. We refuse to do this.

Political activity is so loosely defined in the legislation that when I went to a Moscow court two weeks ago to defend Transparency International Russia's work fighting corruption, I was told by the judge that just talking about corruption was considered political. We are appealing her ruling.

If the government was serious about valuing the input of civil society -- and it should be -- it would amend the anti-NGO law and create a safe space for civic organizations to do what they do best: support people in their quest for better lives, accountable government and, in our case, an end to corruption.

What I continually try to argue both inside and outside court is the positive effect of civil society. To me it is self-evident: when power is concentrated in the hands of the very few and dissent is discouraged, the scope for malfeasance is great. A vibrant, independent civil society will hold governments and their institutions to account if they start to abuse the rights of their citizens.

We have ample proof of this in our work against corruption in Russia and sometimes the powers that be agree. We fought hard to make it mandatory for police officers to where identity tags so that citizens could complain if they were asked for a bribe. That time the authorities saw the point, so I have not given up entirely in the hope that they will reconsider the anti-NGO law.

But last year when Russia was given a score of 28 out of 100 on the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, indicating a serious problem with corruption in society, the government suggested that it would produce its own index because it didn't trust ours.

Clearly the government has a lot to learn about trust and transparency; civil society is here to help as long as we aren't forever being side-tracked by spurious legal challenges that take us away from our real jobs, sticking up for ordinary people.