Can Civil Society Finish Democratic Revolution: Creative State Building

by Sergiy Gerasymchuk

Recently Orysia Lutsevych presented her research conducted under the auspices of Chattham House (United Kingdom) within Robert Bosch Fellowship. The paper and the op-ed “Can civil society finish democratic revolution?” in KyivPost which is grounded on the Paper touch upon a number of sensitive issues of civil society development in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Ms. Lutsevych did a great job by studying the secondary data and interviewing key stake-holders in the region and promoting the research findings. The outcomes of her study are thinking-provocative and therefore one of the goals of the study is already reached.Since I also spent some time on studying the key trends in the development of civil society in Ukraine and Moldova during my research fellowships at Uppsala University (Sweden) and Marie Curie-Sklodowska University (Poland) I take the courage to comment on the findings of my colleague briefly.

First, Ms. Lutsevych highlights the phenomena of NGO-cracy in “post revolutionary region” and emphasizes that civil society in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is represented by few NGOs who own the know-how of communicating donors and embassies and are experienced in preparing project reports. At the same time she argues that the mentioned organizations do not gather any significant number of people under their umbrella. However, it is necessary to clarify that in most of the countries with well-established tradition of civil society activities there is a difference between the NGOs and think tanks. While on the one hand indeed lots of CSO do not represent the majority of the population in our region and that’s a problem for the post-Communist world, on the other hand think tanks are not supposed to unite hundreds of people. The average number of think tank’s personnel in the EU does not exceed ten persons. Besides, they have completely special function both in developed and developing democracies. In our joint with the Johan Skytte Professor in Political Science and Eloquence Dr. Li Bennick Bjorkman study (presented at Association for the Study of Nationalities Convention in 2010 in New York City) we call this function – creative state building. Providing the decision-makers and public with the alternative scenarios, promoting public good by means of elaboration of the Action Plans and innovative strategies, lobbying reflection of public good in state’s policies and monitoring of relevance of state policies are the key functions of think tanks in post-Communist world. Civil society actors – NGOs and grass-root movements are supposed to voice their vision of public good whereas think tanks which also belong to civil society have to translate it into the language understandable for the policy makers and to clarify if state policies correspond with the public good. Obviously the ability to carry these functions does not depend on the quantity of think-tank members but rather on the quality of their research and indirectly on their ability to communicate with the policy-makers, donors, embassies and international organizations. And despite some criticism think-tanks mentioned by Ms. Lutsevych in her paper (e.g. APE and IPP in Moldova or Razumkov Center in Ukraine) perform these functions quite good.

Second, Ms. Lutsevych also argues that NGOs including think tanks face low level of trust from the government. Indeed, that’s the case for many NGOs and think tanks in Ukraine and Moldova. However this shortcoming is caused by the very nature of think tanks in our part of the world. Most of think tanks and analytical centers were established to assist the governments on the democratization path. However, Eastern European states are newly emerged democracies or sometimes are the countries at the very beginning of the democratization path. Moreover, in some cases there is a visible democracy’s reverse; the political elites do not necessarily share the perception of public good with the majority of the population. It’s obvious that under such circumstances they are not willing to be guided by the proposals of think tanks who being the part of civil society represent public needs that may contradict their own interests and needs. In such case lack of trust from the government is rather positive indicator which marks NGOs’ or think tanks’ activities as democratic and pro-European. On the contrary, trust from the government and state subsidies quite often compromise civil society actors since can be perceived as the reward for conformism.

Of course indirectly the described situation leads to marginalization of think tanks impact on state policies, but the reason is the position of the government and not the lack of a constituency and connections with citizens.

Summarizing, I would truly agree with Ms. Lutsevych that “Western donors should spend their money more wisely. They should embrace the idea that active and empowered citizens, not the expertise of a few NGOs, are the indicator of civil society’s strength”. But with the important amendment – Western donors should spend money not ONLY on supporting think tanks which are the places for creative state building but ALSO on NGOs which assemble many active people. Moreover, Western donors should keep in mind the differences between ‘elitist’ in terms of Ms. Lutsevych think tanks and ‘average’ NGOs and consider the special functions carried by these interconnected and extremely important parts of civil society. Neither exclusively think tanks without the support of developed civil society sector can success in democratic revolutions, nor can NGOs left alone without any expertise and support provided by think tanks will reach any decent results in gaining this goal.

Finally, while Ms. Lutsevych finished her op-ed with the words of Karl Popper who pointed out: ‘Democracy may help to preserve freedom but it can never create it if the individual citizen does not care for it’ I would also refer to Madeleine K. Albright, John Podesta, Vin Weber and Daniel F. Runde words: “Certainly, the work of promoting democracy and accountable governance is often long, difficult and more prosaic than the stirring media images of protestors taking to the streets might suggest. But efforts to improve the oversight capacity of parliaments, encourage greater budget transparency, help political parties and civil society groups organize, and promote vibrant and open media are among the things our investments in democracy support”.

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