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Conclusions and recommendations

Article by Adam Hug

July 18, 2018

Conclusions and recommendations

The contributions to this collection make a number of important observations about the social and political landscape in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan. With the partial exception of Ukraine, illiberal social attitudes remain stubbornly high and entrenched across the societies of the region, particularly in relation to LGBTI rights. This is despite some attempts to introduce important legislation to improve women’s and LGBTI rights, which, while necessary, have provided a focal point for mobilisation in support of less tolerant views by socially conservative forces. This includes in particular both politicians and religious institutions, with the support of conservative or pro-Russian media outlets.[1] While the attractiveness of such ideologies may be boosted by wider global trends, particularly within the post-Soviet space, they are often playing to longstanding national sentiments, which make them attractive for those looking to promote themselves within the local power politics of these countries.

What the findings of this collection suggest is that political and social forces challenging liberal ideas have been emboldened in these five countries, they still predominately utilise traditional mechanisms of institutional power (such as the church or mosque or existing political elites) rather than fully mimicking the form and function of liberal civil society. At this stage many of the attempts to create illiberal NGOs or think tanks remain comparatively marginal in the political debates on socially conservative causes, or act as window dressing for politicians and priests rather than being the driving force of campaigns.

That campaign groups or think tanks have a strong relationship with individual political figures or major donors is common practice across the world. The somewhat dependent nature of these organisations in the five countries highlights their institutional fragility and that the politicians, priests and oligarchs involved are the driving forces for the promotion of illiberal values. Other groups are very much ‘one-man bands’ (it still usually is men) providing a platform for a particularly vocal academic or activist to gain media attention, often lacking even a basic web presence or formal registration, and prone to dissolving and reforming. A number of the same faces appear again and again in different groups. While it can be tempting to dismiss some of the more garish and vocal illiberal activists as marginal figures, they are acting to promote messages that unfortunately have a wider resonance, and around the world we live in times where the fringe positions can quite quickly become mainstream.

What this publication shows that the illiberal energy is on the street rather than in the conference hall. This is an ‘uncivil rights movement’ of overlapping far-right, radical nationalist and anti-LGBTI groups, rather than a simple cut and paste from the technocratic liberal NGO playbook. That the rise of the far and radical right has been most noticeable in the countries that have moved closest to the West – Ukraine and Georgia – is of relevance not only as a reaction to liberalising efforts in those societies but because these are countries with deeply strained relations with Russia. Indeed the active conflict with Russia has been one of the main drivers of far-right support in Ukraine.

The Russian dimension in this debate can sometimes be amplified to unhelpful levels. The overall findings of this publication make the case that Russian influence is absolutely real, particularly indirectly in terms of ‘norm diffusion’ (promoting and spreading illiberal ideas) and in certain cases media penetration. Moscow does directly support some groups on the ground, with varying degrees of intensity and success (as of course their Western opponents do); however their engagement, both real and perceived, can often be seen to undermine local conservative causes, particularly in the conflict contexts of Georgia and Ukraine. It also leaves these groups open to the same accusation nationalists and others level at Western-backed liberal groups that they are being controlled by outside forces. Overall Russia may help set the tone of debate, but it is not the puppet master of all that Western liberals and their local allies might decry in the region.

Expecting harmonious collaboration and dialogue between liberal and illiberal civil society in these countries is in many cases unrealistic given the levels of political polarisation, where neither side believes anything could be gained from such dialogue. In truth, liberal and conservative or left and right leaning NGOs, academics and activists in more established democracies often (and increasingly) remain in their own silos, talking to their own audiences for much of the time. However the spaces for interaction are perhaps even more limited in these post-Soviet societies. Changing this will require long-term engagement, identifying well-structured opportunities either through international institutions or respected academic institutions, to bring more emollient liberal and conservative groups together on less controversial topics to attempt to find areas of common ground. As part of this the EU and other international actors should continue to increase their direct engagement with the Orthodox Church and other institutions to reduce the opportunity for accidental misunderstanding of their intentions, while accepting a probably permanent divergence of priorities in relation to social policy and human rights. [2]

As this publication shows, many governments have been unwilling or slow in reacting to the challenges posed by illiberal street and extremist movements. For example, when faced with pressure from religious or far-right counter-protestors, the Moldovan and Georgian governments have chosen to remove the liberal protestors on the grounds of protecting their safety rather than ensuring their right to free speech by adequate policing of the nationalist counter-demonstrators. It is vitally important to end the culture of impunity where attacks by radical groups are not effectively investigated or prosecuted, due to either nationalist patrons in government or incompetence and lack of interest by the police.[3]These governments must protect liberal civil society campaign groups from the increasing intimidation and in some cases attacks they face from these far-right groups. Furthermore the international community must insist as a condition of continued support that the governments of the region prohibit the state funding of or collaboration with extremist groups, such as the relationships of the Ukrainian state with Azov and C14. More robust measures to tackle corruption must be undertaken to avoid growing cynicism in society, particular in relation to corruption by governments and politicians who claim to be liberal and pro-European.

We know that evidence-based rebuttals and myth-busting only go so far, and there is a clear need to build a case for equal rights that wins hearts as well as minds. While illiberal social attitudes are widespread within these societies, there remains a clear need to identify how best to build arguments in favour of LGBTI and women’s rights and liberal values of equality that resonate outside elite circles. There is scope for further data-driven research to identify the sections of society who may be described as ‘the moveable middle’;[4] those who may well hold conservative social views but who do not prioritise them or who may be open to changing their opinions over time with the right message and evidence. There is clearly further scope for comparative work on the situation in Eastern Europe,[5] notably in Poland and Hungary, where the slide towards illiberalism has been dramatic.

The findings of this project make clear that illiberalism is on the rise as a political and social force in these five post-Soviet countries, and that this situation is influenced by the wider trends across the region and the world, but is rooted in the local environments of each country. It identifies that there is a rise of illiberal civil society, but while there has been some growth in illiberal NGOs and think-tanks they have yet to mirror their liberal counterparts. Where there has been a significant growth has been in nationalist, far-right and anti-gay street movements ,whose growing size and self confidence in their agenda has a significant knock-on effect across society. Russian influence on the development of illiberal civil society in the region is an important factor but a far from all-encompassing one, while US evangelicals continue to expand their influence. The research is clear that by far the most influential organisations in the respective societies in relation to the rise of illiberalism are religious institutions – the Orthodox Church and major Islamic bodies – which can collaborate with illiberal or opportunist politicians to pose a major threat to equality and human rights in the region.

While individual authors make recommendations relevant to each country, the publication makes a series of recommendations for action:

The Governments of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan should:

  • Take urgent measures to tackle corruption and improve transparency ;
  • Ensure that attacks on minorities are properly investigated and scrap any formal or informal partnership with nationalist groups that have conducted them;
  • Protect the ability of liberal civil society groups to operate freely without intimidation;
  • Disband any armed militias affiliated to political parties or extremist groups.

The international community should:

  • Increase political pressure and be willing to sanction the activities of ostensibly ‘pro-European’ or ‘liberal’ allies when their corruption or malpractice brings such principles into disrepute;
  • Insist on action to tackle hate crimes and offer greater support and resources to do so if political willingness to act can be ensured;
  • Look for opportunities for diplomatic dialogue with the dominant religious institutions to reduce the opportunity for unnecessary misunderstanding about respective priorities;
  • Continue to refine and improve ‘myth-busting’ and anti-propaganda responses, while recognising the limits to such an approach;
  • Support efforts to improve survey and research data about illiberal civil society attitudes;
  • Work with liberal-minded NGOs to find new ways to engage the ‘movable middle’ sections of public opinion.

 [1] For the most part discussion of local and regional media influences is not the focus of this publication. For a more detailed analysis please see the contributions to: Adam Hug (ed.), The information battle: How governments in the former Soviet Union promote their agendas & attack their opponents abroad, March 2017, https://fpc.org.uk/publications/infobattle/

[2] Adam Hug (ed.) Traditional religion and political power: Examining the role of the church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova, October 2015, https://fpc.org.uk/publications/orthodox/

[3] https://eurasianet.org/s/georgian-fascists-step-into-the-spotlight

[4] A concept used by a number of experts at a private roundtable that the editor coordinated.

[5] See Human Rights House, Resisting Ill Democracies in Europe, December 2017, https://humanrightshouse.org/articles/launch-resisting-ill-democracies-in-europe/

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