On November 29, 2012, European Union representative Catherine Ashton discussed her recent trip to Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. "I raised the issue of judicial reform, and the increasingly important role that civil society needs to play," she said in a prepared statement. "I had a really good meeting with representatives of Uzbek civil society. Civil society -- including human rights defenders -- forms an important aspect in every reform process and they should be promoted."
When Ashton invokes Uzbekistan's "civil society," one cannot help but wonder to whom she refers. Uzbekistan's government bans any civic organization not under its official sanction, including religious groups, human rights associations, political parties, and independent activists and journalists. After 2005, when the government shot to death hundreds of people attending a protest over the imprisonment of local businessmen, the government expelled nearly all foreign organizations that fund community initiatives. The civil society section of Freedom House's annual Nations in Transit report on Uzbekistan is a round-up of all the people arrested for attempting to create civil society. Each year, more and more of them flee the country.
In Uzbekistan, "civil society" is a secret society, working underground and dodging state persecution, unable to achieve almost any of its aims. They are not a bridge between government and the people, as the definition of "civil society" traditionally implies, but a symbol of the implausibility of such a category in an authoritarian state.
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So why would Ashton use such a term? "Civil society" is a buzzword long favored by international organizations, who tend to define the term so broadly that it is nearly meaningless. The World Bank, for example, defines civil society as "the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations." The term "civil society" tends to appeal to Westerners because it is both libertarian, emphasizing a lack of government involvement, and communal, promoting civic duty and concern for one's fellow man. For democratic states, it is an ideal; for authoritarian states, an illusion.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a proliferation of groups seeking to "promote" or "strengthen" civil society in Central Asia. Twenty years later, nearly all these initiatives have failed. Central Asian governments view civil society programs as a threat to their autonomy, while Central Asian citizens tend to regard them with apathy or cynicism, having witnessed firsthand their ineffectiveness and vulnerability to political pressure. Attacks on civil society groups have increased over the past few years. Even Kyrgyzstan, whose abundance of foreign aid organizations lent it the nickname "NGO-stan", has been cracking down, most recently arresting a researcher for the International Crisis Group.
The observation that civil society initiatives have failed should not be interpreted as a criticism of the people working for the organizations in question. Most are sincerely attempting to improve living standards in Central Asia and many have played a vital role in documenting corruption and repression. The problem lies with the term "civil society" itself, and the misguided policy initiatives that have derived from using it as a category of analysis.