Notes on the State of Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe

Author: Darina Malova

Darina Malova lists some inherent problems of the Civil Society today - generational, geographic and cultural gaps that are crucial to discuss further in order to revitalize an existing gloomy outlook on civic engagement in the CEE region.


The post-communist discourse in the CEE region has been dominated by the concept of ‘civil society’. On the one hand, the mass anti-communist mobilization and revolutions of 1989 are perceived as the victory of ‘true’ and vibrant civil society, and on the other hand, a thesis on weak civil society in CEE has gradually became central to the discussion on the post-communist development. While the former opinions exaggerate the strength of civil society in the late communism, the latter ones usually fail to prove relevant empirical evidence because they compare all empirical indicators to the Western European countries or to the US, or they compare the state of civil society in CEE to the ‘high’ normative ideal. These two opposite extreme points have been framing most of considerations on the state and future of civil society and have increased a number of relativist evaluations leading to endless debates on definitions and measurement of civil society.

Given the cacophony of voices I feel encourage to present my highly subjective opinions based on my previous research, academic knowledge and personal observation on the state of civil society in the region referring mostly to non-governmental organizations, which applied for support to CEE Trust. I look at a gloomy picture of civil society in CEE to uncover its strengths and weaknesses that usually cause conflicting evaluations and may shape the sustainability of civil society in the region.
  1. The extraordinary and impressive number of registered NGOs in CEE does not indicate the real state of civil society. A majority of these organizations function as a ‘sleeping beauty’ because they are formal or they do not have strong contacts with the broader population and often are missing grass-roots activists.
  1. Mass participation in any kind of associations, not only NGOs is very low. The degree of activity and membership of civil society organizations is minimal and mainly this leads to the image of ‘weak’ civil society.
  1. The structure of civil society is unbalanced, there are different organizational sectors that are isolated and do not cooperate. (a) Organizations that have successfully transformed after the collapse of the communism but they are still dependent on the state/governments. (b) Charitable and recreational organizations without public missions. (c) NGOs and think-tanks that emerged thanks to the generous support of the US donors have become increasingly professional and often are viewed by the public as foreign imposed and privileged, therefore citizens do not tend to support them and participate in. Frequently, one can hear or read about ‘ngo-ism’ as a new ideology in the region.
  1. There is a regional disparity especially related to NGOs and think-tanks that are located in capitals and missing in other regions. The only exceptions are environmental movements and their organizations remained among the most numerous, active and visible also on the regional and local level. The promotion of national and international networks among NGOs is also very important.
  1. There is a generational gap in the composition of civil society; many successful NGOs and think-tanks have not prepared the second generation of activists. Moreover, youth organizations are missing from the public debates in the region. Either they are organizationally financially dependent on the state and/or individual institutional framework, such as Council of Youth in Slovakia, or this segment of society has even more passive and submissive attitudes than the older generation.
  1. The institutional framework for truly independent civil society and particularly NGOs is favorable. It relates to legal environment, organizational capacity, financial viability and infrastructure. In several countries there are no institutional and financial barriers for freedom of associations, laws on the tax assignment that enable citizens and companies to support organizations directly, and there are many legal channels for participation in decision-making, including acts on free access to information, the right to participate in legislation-making process by submitting ‘a collective proposal’ to legislative drafts published on the Internet and the right to petition parliaments or local authorities. However there are two limits for effective use of such channels. First, it is on the supply side, as citizens do no tend to participate and apathy is increasing. Think-tanks and NGOs tried to mobilize the public in case of serious issues; however, effects of this mobilization differ. Second, on the demand side ‘political will’ is missing, as politicians tend to ignore public proposal and public deliberation has not yet became a norm.
  1. Professional, business and employers' organizations and trade unions are better organized and their capacity to participate in decision-making is higher due to special institutional framework according to which drafts of legislation have to be submitted to selected groups defined by specific, laws. Despite this privileged position the recent research indicates that these organizations, especially trade unions, do have less influence on policy making than in the developed democracies.    
  1. Cultural foundations for an emergence of a vibrant civil society sharing liberal democratic values are weak. (a) The communist legacy has been constantly shaping patterns of behavior and therefore the most common orientation is not to take part - as well as assuming risk - by participating in public affairs. Public participation is still perceived as a risky enterprise. People tend to participate in organizations which are often financially dependent on the state – youth organizations, churches, labor unions. (b) Education is important; compare to the Western Europe or the USA educational level is relatively low in CEE and thus participation is also low. There are signs that especially younger generations are increasingly involved in ‘uncivil’ organizations, i.e. which do not share liberal democratic values, such as skinheads and rowdies. (c)  A gap between the political elite and grass-roots has been deepening.  Politicians once elected do not accept if media, NGOs and citizens try to make them accountable and this in turn increases political apathy.
  1. Reorientation of NGOs and think-tanks to the domestic donors (big international companies) and European Union’s funding schemes will require a lot of additional fund-raising skills and effective lobbing. Big businesses in CEE tend to establish their own foundations and assign their tax share exclusively to this foundation and also ‘encourage’ own employees to donor their tax assignment to these foundations. EU funding has own, very particular priorities and it is not likely that such activities as human right advocacy or watch-dog activities will be able to raise funding from these resources.

Darina Malová is Professor of Political Science at Komenského University, Bratislava. She has a Ph.D. from the Academy of Social Science in Moscow. Ms Malova has published many articles and contributed to several books, mostly on post-accession Slovakia, Institution building in Central and Eastern Europe and EU enlargement. Her recent publications include Governing New Democracies (with Jean Blondel and Ferdinand Mueller-Rommel, Palgrave 2007).



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