The Changing Landscape of Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership

October 12, 2020
Rosa Balfour
Laura Gelhaus
Marta Matrakova
3 min read
There is a gap in how civil society is conceptualized and understood by international donors and how the civic landscape has evolved in recent years in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.

There is a gap in how civil society is conceptualized and understood by international donors and how the civic landscape has evolved in recent years in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. Conventional Western-centered understandings of civil society are increasingly questioned in the face of the emergence of new civic dynamics in the region and globally. CSOs are criticized as professionalized elite organizations that became detached from broader society, while new civic actors and processes have emerged in the six countries of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), reflecting a broader global trend. In order to address this weakness, the net for understanding and engaging with civil society needs to be cast much wider to include, among others, protest movements, illiberal actors, and organizations that act as proxies for political parties.

A variety of new civic actors are emerging alongside still vibrant older organizations. They are more closely tied to local issues, better connected to communities outside large cities, and frequently focus less on “political” issues such as human rights and democracy, thus expanding the range of topics in which civil society engages. These new actors tend to be less institutionalized than the CSOs that have grown since the 1990s and they work in a more fluid fashion.

In this fluid context, some gaps have also become visible. One feature that is seen throughout the EaP countries is a perceived gap between professionalized CSOs and grassroots civic activism, which can somewhat fragment the impact of civil society. Another feature is that civic space in the EaP counties has become more competitive due to the presence of illiberal, nationalist, or far-right actors. These also often promote a misogynist, xenophobic and, anti-LGBTIQ rights agenda, and their activities have made political and online violence against other civic actors a more salient issue.

The emergence of new issues, or a renewed focus on older ones—from the environment to social justice, from domestic violence to disability rights—is enabled by new methods for mobilization derived from new technologies. For example, crowdfunding is increasingly used to keep civic actors sustainable and autonomous, while new communications tools have made social protest more common.

Initiatives such as the EaP acknowledge the need for civil society involvement in their activities and in implementing policies. In light of this evolving civic landscape, donors need to widen their view on what civil society “is” in order to improve their engagement. Not only will this help them to understand local contexts better and improve evidence-based decisionmaking, it will also enhance the flexibility needed to address the ever-changing civic space.

Donors need to improve their presence and connectedness with civil society in the field to be able to engage with how civic actors adapt to changing circumstances. At the same time, the work carried out by professionalized CSOs along the more traditional lines of human rights and democracy promotion remains vital in all of the EaP countries. New and old civic actors alike are at risk of repression and/or political violence because of insufficiently consolidated democratic institutions and practices. Furthermore, some instances of societal mobilization around less overtly political themes can turn into large-scale political protests with deep transformative potential, such as Armenia.

Photo Credit: Yanosh Nemesh / Shutterstock