In Defense of Civil Society

Civil society does exist in authoritarian countries.

Photo by JILDIZ BEKBAEVA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JILDIZ BEKBAEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Sarah Kendzior’s article recently published in Foreign Policy, "Stop Talking about Civil Society," is correct in calling on the international community to focus attention on the abuses of authoritarian governments. Yet Kendzior’s piece falls short when it recommends discarding the concept of "civil society" as applied to these states. She makes the same mistake as USAID, the United Nations, and the OSCE when they changed their focus from "civil society" to "community," dismissing the concept of "civil society" as foreign and ill-fitted to the countries in question.

In attempting to define the "authenticity of civil society" and its "fit to the local environment," it is important to remember that external concepts such as "civil society" are not simply imposed by the international community or imported wholesale by West-leaning activists. They seep into society through cosmopolitan academics and activists, who bring a version of the concept into the public sphere, where it is not replicated just as it was received; rather, local actors alter it through interpretations or purposeful misinterpretations.

The term "civil society" has entered into the discourse of authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Russia — as a term with its own histories, connected to, but also separated from, those of Western Europe and the United States. In these countries, examining civil society through the interplay between the concepts of the international development community and the authoritarian societies of Central Asia would serve us better than stating outright that the "Western" concept has no place. In fact, the concept does have a place, and ceases to be "Western" the moment it is uttered by local actors.

The renaissance of the term "civil society" in the 1990s itself was greatly influenced by the nationalist movements in the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Republics during the late 80s and 90s. Western scholars and development professionals saw this uniting of individuals under nationalist banners as an organic manifestation of "civil society" in a totalitarian state. The backgrounds of those protesting in the Soviet Union suggests that they tended to come from the intelligentsia — making it noteworthy when a worker, Neimat Panakhov, became a leading figure in the Azeri nationalist movement during the 1990 protest over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, both Soviet and post-Soviet newspapers and literature described the leadership of the intelligentsia as continuing the social role of enlightener, leader, and source of social consciousness — a role prescribed to them even prior to the founding of the Soviet Union.

So when we imagine the professional class (in this case, the intelligentsia) as using "civil society" — whether via independent NGOs or so-called GONGOs ("government-organized non-governmental organizations) — in truth the intelligentsia is continuing the role it played in the national movements, a fact that is clearly visible in NGO mission statements and grant and program applications in Eurasian countries. Thus, Kendzior’s statement that "the term ‘civil society’ forces citizens to pick a side –‘the government’ or ‘the people’ — in a system where to choose sides is personally harmful, difficult to practice, and tricky to conceptualize" neglects the descriptions the NGOs have for themselves. For the post-Soviet intelligentsia, "civil society" is not a choice between the government and the people, but rather a choice between government and opposition and for the protection of "the people" (an ill-defined group outside of which the members of the intelligentsia routinely locate themselves).

The intelligentsia and the nonprofit sector have had varied and complex relations with local governments in post-Soviet history, rather than the purely negative view Kendzior describes. During the 1990s and 2000s in many of the Central Asian countries, the repression of the nonprofit sector fluctuated and differed depending on the type of NGO (thus human rights and education NGOs, for example, received different treatment). The level of repression was influenced by a need for external aid in some cases, and a lack of power consolidation in others. Kygryzstan’s authoritarian tendencies did not occur until the late 90s, once Askar Akayev had secured power.

Regarding Azerbaijan, in 2002 the United States lifted aid restrictions that were put in place through the 907 Amendment to the Freedom Support Act, thus slightly opening opportunities for civil society to flourish. But as oil money began pouring into Azerbaijan in the mid-2000s, and following the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan — which the Azerbaijani government associated with international foundations and nonprofit organizations — the openings for civil society began to close.

After the USAID Civil Society Assessment in Azerbaijan in 2005, which expanded the definition of civil society to include citizen activism (particularly "mobilized communities"), development agencies began creating programs for community-based organizations, such as USAID’s Community Development Activity in Azerbaijan, which ran from September 2005 to May 2009. International NGOs and agencies often viewed nationally-based NGOs as lacking connection to the communities they intended to work for, and as being run by a professional class rather than interested local actors. The agencies imagined that the national NGO professionals were using the international funding to expand further financial opportunities, rather than participating in an authentic civil society.

By 2007, the Azerbaijani government committed to funding their own NGOs, either through the NGO Support Council, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and grants from Ministries, but many of the NGOs funded were a step removed from the government, some independent or government leaning — and rarely, if ever, oppositionist — but they were not the GONGOs like in today’s Uzbekistan.

In Uzbekistan, according to some observers, the government itself initiated its own NGOs with the purpose of pushing out independent civil society organizations. Over the past few years, following the closing of most independent NGOs, those organizations continuing to work in the country were forced to join the National Association of Nongovernmental Noncommercial Organizations, which has the effect of controlling their activities.

Understanding the varied experiences in authoritarian countries through time and across borders provides a clearer view of how to support democracy development initiatives. If, instead, we ignore the "foreign" or "Western" concepts, and — as Kendzior suggests in her article — challenge authoritarian states, "literally and figuratively, on their own terms," we are implying that authoritarian governments are wholly outside international processes, accepting the rhetoric of authoritarian governments, and missing the fact that the cultural hegemony of Western Europe and the United States does have an influence, for better or worse. If there were no effect on these countries, publications like the Uzbek From a Strong State to Strong Civil Society, or On the Path to Civil Society, by the head of Azerbaijan’s Presidential Cabinet, Ramiz Mehdiyev, would never have been written.

Both books respond to international dialogue and argue in defense of heavy-handed rule. While the authors do recognize the need to move toward democracy and civil society, they reject the concept as poorly suited to the present situation. Despite these illiberal stances, the authors are still forced to couch their arguments within the discourse of democracy and civil society, which suggests that the concept of "civil society" has played some role in authoritarian states. And as such, good governance and democracy development programs are not doomed by foreign terms like "civil society" — but rather by the lack of consideration for the authoritarian country’s own history, and cultural and contextual filters. Simply throwing out the concept solves nothing. To take Kendzior’s argument a little further, wouldn’t we also need to throw out the concept of "human rights" since it, too, is foreign, and seems to have no bearing on the authoritarian context?

Instead of going down this road, terms like "civil society," "leadership," "community," and "democracy" should be viewed through their changes in meaning between the development agencies and the local actors — and these should inform our attempts to support democracy development. 

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