From Apathy to Action: Attitudes to Civic Engagement in the Eastern Partnership

October 12, 2020
Nicolas Bouchet
Kateryna Pishchikova
3 min read
In the first years of transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil society in the six EaP countries developed similarly.

In the first years of transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil society in the six EaP countries developed similarly. From the second half of the 1990s, they experienced different political trajectories, and so did their respective civil societies in ways strongly influenced by the nature of each political regime.

Georgia and Ukraine developed hybrid regimes with a relatively pluralistic and competitive political environment, in a process punctuated by instances of mass mobilization against autocratizing tendencies. In Armenia, political power was centralized in the hands of a ruling elite that was never fully authoritarian but maintained control over key political and economic resources until 2018. Moldova has maintained a relatively pluralistic political system with free and fair elections and quite free media. However, it has also all the worst features of the post-communist model, including corruption, absence of rule of law, oligarchic clans, poverty, high unemployment and huge emigration. Azerbaijan remains a rich authoritarian state, ruled by the Aliyev dynasty. Belarus has had since 1994 a highly personalistic authoritarian regime that has pursued policies quite different from those in other post-Soviet states.

The number of CSOs has grown considerably in all the EaP countries over the last decade. However, civil society remains weak if measured by the level of membership in these. The EaP countries continue to be affected by considerable civic apathy and disengagement, despite recurrent protests and moments of mass mobilization, especially around elections. Between such moments, though, civic apathy remains prevalent because most citizens do not believe that their engagement in civil society is likely to change anything. Across the EaP countries, there is a mixed picture when it comes to citizens’ opinion of and trust in civil society. Recent polls show that, to varying degrees, they hold more positive views of CSOs than some narratives suggest. At the same time, trust in CSOs appears to be lower—sometimes significantly so. 

The disconnect between CSOs and societies is greatest when it comes to people’s passive, if not outright negative, attitudes toward political activism and issues. The civic apathy and distrust in institutions in the EaP countries increases citizens’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories and vulnerability to propaganda and disinformation.

“Post-Sovietness” is often invoked to explain the state of civil society in the EaP countries, but the latter is more the product of their trajectories over the past thirty years. Three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the generational change in which many observers of Eastern European civil society placed their hopes has mostly taken place.

There are key trends in the development of civil society that the EaP countries share despite the differences in their political and economic evolution over the past thirty years. Perhaps the most fundamental problem for the development of a more vibrant civil society—and for the efforts of donors such as the EU and the United States that try to encourage this—is an enduring societal vicious circle. Low sense of agency and low interest in, and dislike of, politics on the part of citizens combine to breed civic apathy. This in turn entrenches low levels of civic engagement.

The underlying dynamics affecting attitudes to civil society and the way they manifest themselves pose tremendous challenges not only to domestic civic actors in their operations and in their attempts to change people’s behavior but even more so to donors that support them. Bearing this in mind, there are nonetheless measures that can help societal attitudes change toward active citizenship and thus a healthier civil society. This paper concludes therefore with three sets of recommendations through with donors can help make civic engagement more attractive, reduce mistrust of CSOs, and reducing civic actors’ vulnerabilities.

Photo Credit: Artem Avetisyan / Shutterstock