Democracy promotion and civil society – impressions from field trips to Eastern Europe

A strong civil society is widely regarded as a “school of democracy“, a provider of social capital, and a protective counterpart to the power of the state. In post-communist Eastern Europe, however, civil society has often been described as weak – and as primarily based on private personal relations as a legacy of communism. External democracy promoters have thus made the development of civil society one of their primary goals in the region. What have they achieved?

In a series of field trips to some “late democratizers” of Eastern Europe organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and its regional offices, a group of PhD students and their supervisors from the Center of Comparative and International Studies and the Viadrina University (Frankfurt/Oder, Germany) visited Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine in 2009 and 2010. Here are some impressions and ideas resulting from our conversations with NGOs, donor organizations, political observers, and state officials.

In general, civil society organizations depend financially on support from Western donors. They cannot rely on a membership base or private domestic sponsors. Government funding is sometimes available but with political strings attached and the risk of turning NGOs into GONGOs (government-operated or at least government-oriented non-governmental organizations). In dealing with this situation, civil society appears to be divided into “old dissidents” and “young professionals”. We encountered a striking generational variation in habit. The “old dissidents” have had their formative period under communism and in the struggle for overcoming it. Typically, they are highly politicized and focus on fundamental issues of democracy and human rights. They are pessimistic about democratization in their countries and disappointed with project-based support by Western donors (which they find overly bureaucratic). By contrast, the “young professionals” have had their formative period in the post-communist era. They are well-educated, speak English fluently, and have developed high professional skills in attracting grants and project funding. They have a more pragmatic attitude, focus on low-politics-projects and community service, and see niches for small achievements in the current situation.

The young professionals are also open to “changing sides” and moving into government posts if opportunities present themselves. This has been the case most clearly after the “colored revolutions” in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia. In these countries, civil society organizations provided a training ground for regime change with the help of external donors. When political change occurred, many moved into the new government and bureaucracies. Georgia’s “rose revolution” in particular led to a thorough replacement of the old elites with young professionals educated and organized in and around the Soros-financed Liberty Institute. In addition, some important Western donors (such as USAID) drew the rash conclusion that under the new political circumstances support for civil society would be unnecessary and shifted their funding to budget support for the new government. The result was a double (personal and financial) depletion of civil society.

What has remained seems to be largely congruent with an externally supported NGO sector. External democracy promotion has indeed changed civil society but in a very peculiar way. Think of it as a market created by private and public international democracy promoters, which generate demand for civil society actors and provide the financial means to support them. They create employment opportunities for well-educated young elites who are clustered in the capitals and do not find attractive jobs in the weak private business sector or prepare for jobs in the government sector. Rather than schools for democracy, civil society oganizations are firms, and rather than fostering social capital, they develop and bind human capital through foreign non-for-profit investment.

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