How democratic resilience can be strengthened in the Black Sea region
The countries bordering the Black Sea find themselves confronted with a multitude of dangers – from the obvious horrors of the war in Ukraine to the hybrid threats deployed by Russia across the entire region. This context poses a major challenge for the region’s civil society organisations.
Democratic resilience in Eastern Europe has long been reliant on the commitment and perseverance of civic actors to counter internal and external threats to democratic processes in their countries. The Black Sea region is no exception. The present landscape is marred by political instability, disinformation campaigns and the distressing trend of shrinking civic spaces, all of which contribute to an uncertain future for civil society. Four external factors stand out as being particularly important in this context: the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian disinformation, the war in Ukraine and the role of the EU.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the Black Sea region’s civil society actors, both in a positive and negative sense. On the negative side, civil society organisations have been forced to shift their attention toward addressing the crisis, resulting in gaps in the work of many organisations. Funding has also decreased significantly, while many public authorities used the pandemic as an excuse for centralisation and reduced transparency.
Yet the pandemic also saw civil society organisations in the region step up and provide a compensatory function to public services. Previous research has shown that stakeholder engagement is a key dimension of organisational resilience during a crisis, and those civil society organisations, businesses and public sector actors that reached out to each other were able to deliver a larger positive impact in their societies during the pandemic. Those relationships have continued to flourish and provide fertile ground for cross-national, muti-stakeholder cooperation in the context of the war in Ukraine.
Russian disinformation campaigns are a persistent and omnipresent challenge faced by civil society actors in the Black Sea region. These do not follow a single pattern or narrative. Instead, they have been adapted and tailored to the specific context of each targeted country.
In the case of Georgia, disinformation campaigns have sought to discredit civil society and independent media. They have also engaged in fearmongering by suggesting a war similar to the one in Ukraine could break out. The picture has been very different in Romania. The country’s historical background makes it difficult to advocate for a pro-Russian position. Efforts have instead focused on promoting an anti-Ukrainian stance, exploiting sensitive issues such as the rights of the Romanian minority in Ukraine to argue against allocating resources to the country. There have been calls for internal matters to be made more of a priority, including homelessness and a lack of infrastructure.
In Moldova, disinformation efforts are closely tied with the unrecognised breakaway region of Transnistria. These campaigns fuel concerns of being dragged into the war and propagate the idea that Moldova’s commitment to European integration will render the country a puppet of the West.
On the other hand, Ukraine is subject to a broader range of disinformation campaigns covering a variety of topics and themes. A commonly presented narrative asserts that Russia’s actions are solely aimed at safeguarding the rights of Russian-speaking individuals in Ukraine. This narrative suggests that Russian speakers have long faced Russophobia from the authorities in Kyiv.
These disinformation campaigns pose significant challenges to civil society organisations across the Black Sea region, necessitating strong countermeasures to protect the integrity of public discourse and strengthen democratic resilience in the face of coordinated efforts to manipulate information and divide communities.
The war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has not only disrupted Ukrainian civil society organisations but has also had an impact in neighbouring countries as well. In Ukraine, there is a significant lack of human resources as skilled professionals have left the country, with an estimated 6 million Ukrainians having fled since the start of the war. This scarcity poses difficulties for civil society and media organisations in finding qualified personnel, including journalists, reporters, communication coordinators, accountants and financial managers.
Additionally, personnel are dispersed across different regions and countries due to the war. This makes it difficult for organisations to coordinate and communicate effectively. The war has also had a negative impact on the psychological health civil society actors. The demanding nature of their jobs requires adequate psychological support to address burnout and exhaustion. In terms of funding, there is a need for long-term strategic interventions to address the country’s challenges, not just short-term emergency support or ad hoc funding to different civil society organisations.
The European Union
Finally, the European Union as both a regulatory state and a donor, has long made civil society actors natural allies in its efforts to promote reforms. This has been seen in the fast-tracked European integration negotiations with Ukraine. Many civil society organisations have been keen to be involved in a co-design process for Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction plans.
The relationship between the EU and domestic civil society actors is also an important lever for pushing forward with reforms in Moldova and Georgia. However, organisational capacity and policy expertise will have to be enhanced to push through the growing fog created by disinformation and popular disenchantment. Political parties in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have historically been plagued by clientelistic practices, so the many upcoming elections in the region will require strong oversight and citizen involvement to uphold democratic processes.
Struggles from within
Alongside these external factors, civil society actors in the Black Sea region also face internal challenges. These are visible in the findings from a recent study covering the experiences of civil society organisations in Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine one year after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Ukrainian civil society organisations stressed the need to confront hurdles such as staff shortages, lengthy coordination processes with donors and a lack of enhanced regional cooperation. Moldovan civil society organisations pointed to the need to counter disinformation campaigns and promote media literacy, underscoring the profound impact of disinformation on Moldova’s democratic processes and emphasising the importance of cooperation between civil society and media organisations.
Georgian civil society organisations emphasised the dangers posed by a hostile government and persistent disinformation campaigns. Romanian civil society actors pointed to the critical role of capacity-building and professional development within civil society organisations, as well as the importance of providing resources, tools and training programmes to boost fundraising efforts, project management effectiveness and stakeholder engagement.
Overall, civil society organisations in the region face significant capacity issues. There is often a lack of internal organisational procedures, with many organisations failing to see these as useful and viewing them merely as a requirement imposed by donors. This is important as civil society organisations with adequate internal procedures have proven to be more resilient and adaptable than those that lack them. Fundraising is another critical capacity issue faced by civil society organisations in the region. Many organisations continue to encounter difficulties in securing financial resources to support their projects.
Cooperation for democratic resilience
As events continue to unfold in the war in Ukraine, stabilising the broader Black Sea region should remain a priority for western allies. Still, the fight for democratic resilience is primarily being led domestically. As some civil society organisations are still recovering from previous crises, their immediate priority should be on fighting disinformation, investing in capacity-building and giving psychological support to their staff. Encouraging collaboration among civil society organisations from different nations is critical for the sharing of expertise.
The support of donors and the international community is also critical and should be informed by a coordinated and long-term strategic plan of action. These long-term commitments from the international community should reflect the interplay between security, economic and democratic guarantees present in strategies such as the United States’ proposed new Black Sea Strategy or the Eastern Partnership priorities of the European Union. Only such integrated interventions can ensure a comprehensive approach to promoting resilience and democratic values across the region.
This piece was originally published by EUROPP.