"Never waste a good crisis": The 2008 economic downturn and post-communist civil society
2009 was to be one of celebrations for civil society in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Twenty years had passed since civic action played a critical role in toppling communism and setting the region on the path toward democratic reform, economic and social change, and European integration. In the two decades since 1989, civic initiatives, nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and the actions of individual citizens had left an impressive mark on the fundamental, rapid, and often painful changes that had taken place in the region.
This was certainly most obvious in Central Europe, where 10 post-communist countries had joined the European Union in recent years. In the Western Balkans, civil society was central to the emergence of the countries of the former Yugoslavia from the wars of the 1990s, gradually moving the region closer to Europe. Even in the former Soviet Union, where conditions have often been difficult and hostile, numerous civic groups and organizations have continued to remind political elites and ordinary citizens of the importance of human rights, democracy, citizen participation, and social justice.
Consequently, numerous events, commemorations, and conferences took place throughout 2009, reflecting on the achievements of civil society and the many challenges remaining before it across the region. Unfortunately, these celebrations came to be overshadowed by the unfolding economic crisis. Pride in past successes has given way, in many cases, to anxiety over what the future will hold for civil society and the region. How strongly would this economic downturn—the worst since the early 1990s for many countries—affect the region? How would citizens respond, and would there be significant political fallout? Would democratic institutions, still comparably new in most countries, weather the storm, or falter under the onslaught of the economic crisis? And would civil society find the responses, ideas, and resources needed to help political systems and societies beleaguered by the global meltdown?
As some of the dust stirred up by the economic recession finally begins to settle across Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, it is becoming clear that the region, and its civil societies, have come to an important impasse. Although previously present, several long-term trends and challenges for civil society were accelerated and reinforced by the crisis. And new and pressing issues resulting from the economic downturn have also been added to the agendas of NGOs and other civic actors in post-communist Europe and Eurasia. Some of the problems experienced present themselves differently in Central Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union, and even within each of these subregions. Others, in turn, span the entire region. Nonetheless, there is a sense that the current situation might also be an opportunity to positively shape civil society in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia for many years to come. It is this sense, shared by many in the region, that one should “never waste a good crisis” that this essay hopes to convey and consider in more detail.
The full text is attached. This essay was published as part of the 2009 NGO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Prepared by the United States Agency for International Development, the Index is its premier instrument for gauging the strength and continued viability of the region's civil societies. To access the complete 2009 edition, click here.