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The rise of illiberal civil society: Executive summary

Article by Adam Hug

July 18, 2018

The rise of illiberal civil society: Executive summary

This publication examines the growing influence of illiberal, anti-Western and socially conservative civil society groups, popular movements and political forces in five post-Soviet states: Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. It finds that illiberal social attitudes remain prevalent across the region, particularly in relation to LGBTI rights, and that they are increasingly being used as opportunities for political mobilisation within these societies. While there have been attempts to create illiberal civil society groups that mirror pro-Western/liberal NGOs or think-tanks, they remain significantly less influential than the institutions and groups linked to the dominant religious organisations in these countries such as the Orthodox Church, or political factions with influence over state resources.

What is clear, however, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia, is that there has been a significant rise in far-right and nationalist street movements, alongside smaller but active homophobic gangs. These ‘uncivil rights movements’ still lack broad public support but their political energy and rate of growth is influencing the wider politics of the region. It is clear that illiberal civil society is on the rise in these five countries but it is growing in its own way rather than simply aping its liberal counterparts.

Russia has an important role in the rise of illiberal civil society across the region, in particular, the way it has disseminated and promoted the concept of ‘traditional values’; however it is important to recognise that while some groups have direct or indirect contact with Russia, many do not and that the primary drivers of such activity are to be found in the local societies of the countries at hand. The Russians are being increasingly joined by US evangelical groups who see opportunities to promote a shared traditionalist agenda in the region. Attempts by the EU and other international actors to encourage or require countries to implement measures on anti-discrimination or tackling domestic violence have been used effectively by illiberal civil society groups, religious institutions and political factions as a rallying point for illiberal opposition.

The publication argues that there is a need to more robustly tackle corruption and malpractice by politicians who may be notionally liberal or pro-European but who are bringing these concepts into disrepute. Civil society should work to identify the ‘moveable middle’ groups in society who are currently skeptical about liberal social values but are not passionate in their opposition to them and who might be open to engagement and persuasion.

The publication makes a number of recommendations:

The Governments of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan should:
• Take urgent measures to tackle corruption and improve transparency;
• Investigate attacks on minorities and scrap any partnerships with nationalist groups involved;
• Protect the ability of liberal civil society groups to operate freely without intimidation;
• Disband any armed militias affiliated with political parties or extremist groups.

The international community should:
• Increase political pressure and sanctions on the activities of ostensible ‘pro-European’ or ‘liberal’ allies whose 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;
• Continue to refine and improve ‘myth-busting’ and anti-propaganda responses;
• 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’.

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