How to Negotiate with Russians: A Success Story

1995 Siberian Center Russian staff with the President of the Novosibirsk Leningrad Blockade NGO (3rd from left)

There is a lot of advice flying around about how the US and its Western allies should conduct their negotiations with Russia. Much of it sounds like more of the same, threats of sanctions and Russia paying for the “it” of the week. This is not a winning strategy and has brought us to this miserable, dangerous pit of total misunderstanding. To bring some light into the darkness, the following is an example of a success story negotiating with Siberian government officials. It took place in Novosibirsk, the “Red Belt” of Russia in 1996.


In 1995, US AID awarded $1.7 million to expand my small information center in Novosibirsk into the Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center Foundation and Siberian Network of 11 resource centers covering a territory larger than the United States. The appearance of the Siberian Center was, to say the least, exotic in a country that was reeling from the onslaught of capitalist democracy. First, there was the fact that almost nobody knew what an NGO was. If they did, it was often scandal related such as when a bomb went off in a graveyard killing two people during a battle over government perks of customs free cigarettes and alcohol to veterans groups.

What people knew about the Siberian Center was we had money to distribute in an environment where teachers were not paid for months and physicists were compensated with plots of land to plant potatoes. A few people came in looking for support because they assumed a non-profit organization was a business not turning a profit. One of them returned to pitch a possible project to build a fleet of dirigibles to transport people fleeing war torn areas.

1996 Novosibirsk Mayor (and future Governor) opening the first NGO Fair

The plan was to leverage our $600,000 earmarked for a grant competition to promote transparency and accountability and to introduce government to supporting NGOs through open competitions. Prior to this, zero government money (local regional or national) went to grassroots organizations, which existed mostly without offices or salaries. The limited money available was awarded in a closed process to government affiliated groups with offices and sometimes chauffeur driven Volgas.

The Negotiation

The foundation for an effective partnership began by inviting government officials to every event and organizing regular meetings. Key to our ability to promote the development of NGOs was a former Soviet Army man Joseph Grigorich (JG), the Head of the Novosibirsk Department for NGOs. Polar opposites, over time we started to get to know and enjoy each other, he was passionate about his cat. It would be over stating it to say we trusted each other, but there was respect and every time we met, I broke the ice asking for a cat update.

1995 first Siberian NGO/Government Conference that inspired Omsk and Tyumen cities to conduct the first government budget NGO grant competitions

We invited JG to observe our first grant committee meeting. Everything went smoothly until it was time to discuss two projects providing consultations to draftees. JG leapt out of his seat and pounded the table, “You have no right to support these projects. They are going to be coaching the boys how to get a white ticket (medical deferment)”. Our ability to judge the applications fairly and, perhaps, to operate at all, depended on how we responded. We relied on our community development skills and listened as he raged on.

When the pounding and yelling stopped, it was clear there was common ground. He listened, as we explained we could not support illegal activities, a compromise was possible. Together we developed a plan to award two-month seed grants to the organizations, monitor their activities, and if they were giving “white tickets”, the funding would stop. One of the NGOs turned down the grant because they were going to use it to coach draft dodging. The other took the money and provided advice to draftees and others for years.

Daniel Mamaev, one of the Siberian Centers first grantees. Initial funding to support creating a national park in the Altai Republic and later funding to provide training in land privatization to the Altai people.

The subsequent viability of this partnership was proven several weeks later when JG called for advice. “In a country where there is freedom of religion, how do you deal with cults?” Parents were complaining that their children were disappearing into cults that registered as NGOs. One example was the world wedding ceremony record holder (6,000 couples at once) Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church that registered a women’s group and a youth group to lure people. JG’s Department and the Siberian Center organized and co-hosted a round table on the issue.

Siberian Center grantee in Irkutsk to support the conversion of an old army post to the first independent living center for mentally challenged adults.

The next grant committee we gave Novosibirsk officials voting rights and a year later, we invited them to match our $100 and we conducted the first consolidated budget competition. This information was disseminated through the Siberian Network and the first government organs in Russia to use government funding for an NGO grant competition were two cities, Omsk and Tyumen. Things picked up steam after that and we learned the only thing government fears more than being first, is being last. Novosibirsk Oblast did become the first in Russia to pass a five year civil society development plan that included legislation mandating funding for grant competitions and requiring non-governmental representatives on the judging committee.

Long Term Impact

1995 Novosibirsk NGO to support “national traditions in modern conditions”

Today, providing government support to NGOs and civic initiatives through competitions is common on the national, regional, and local level. Some processes are better than others but that, along with other resource center programs to promote fee for services, corporate and individual giving, private foundations and endowments have dramatically changed the situation for NGOs. In December, the Moscow Blagosphere hosted a panel, “Which NGOs Live Well”. Irina Mersianova, Director of the Center for Studying Civil Society and the Nonprofit Sector at the Higher School of Economics, presented the latest statistics. 69% of NGOs have salaried workers. The average salary for NGO personnel is 22,700 rubles, up from 15,000r in 2015 and 9,000r in 2010.

Natalia Kaminarsky (Blagosphere), Irina Mersianova (HSE), and Elina Cuesta (iReccomendWork) Photo by Anna Ermyagina ASI

Elina Cuesta, founder and CEO of iRecommendWork, described another important development, “People of all ages continue to leave government and commercial structures for NGOs to have meaningful work regardless of lower salaries. There is a much greater response to vacancies in the non-profit sector and vacancies are closed in a matter of days.”

Diverse sources of income is the most important factor to insure NGO independence and sustainability. 40% reported budgets that included income from their products or services. Ten years ago half as many organizations generated income this way. Only 18% have one source of income, the majority have 2–3 sources and 36% have four or more sources of funding (grants, endowments or other investments, founders, fundraising etc.).

There is still a long road ahead for civil society and NGOs in Russia. The headwinds are strong and a number of these resource centers throughout Russia were labeled Foreign Agents. Some refused foreign funding and were removed, others continue to receive foreign funding, follow all the requirements, and protest the label. It has never been easy and yet the work continues.


1997 Official ceremony when I hand over the Siberian Center Presidency to a Russian, Anatoly Zabolotny.

Successful negotiations with Russia focus on developing trust through partnership, respect, listening, and a search for common ground. It requires recognizing that we bring a wholly different history, set of assumptions, fears, and hopes to the table. Amidst the storm clouds of the current US/Russia relationship, it is good to remember what we were able to accomplish together and how we did it. And that when it comes to government funding to grassroots NGOs, it all began in 1996 because Joseph Grigorich was a reasonable man who loved to talk about his cat.



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Sarah Lindemann-Komarova

Has lived in Siberia since 1992. Was a community development activist for 20 years. Currently, focuses on research and writing.