Democracy Lab

In Defense of Civil Society

Civil society does exist in authoritarian countries.

Sarah Kendzior's article recently published in Foreign Policy, "Stop Talking about Civil Society," is correct in calling on the international community to focus attention on the abuses of authoritarian governments. Yet Kendzior's piece falls short when it recommends discarding the concept of "civil society" as applied to these states. She makes the same mistake as USAID, the United Nations, and the OSCE when they changed their focus from "civil society" to "community," dismissing the concept of "civil society" as foreign and ill-fitted to the countries in question.

In attempting to define the "authenticity of civil society" and its "fit to the local environment," it is important to remember that external concepts such as "civil society" are not simply imposed by the international community or imported wholesale by West-leaning activists. They seep into society through cosmopolitan academics and activists, who bring a version of the concept into the public sphere, where it is not replicated just as it was received; rather, local actors alter it through interpretations or purposeful misinterpretations.

The term "civil society" has entered into the discourse of authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Russia -- as a term with its own histories, connected to, but also separated from, those of Western Europe and the United States. In these countries, examining civil society through the interplay between the concepts of the international development community and the authoritarian societies of Central Asia would serve us better than stating outright that the "Western" concept has no place. In fact, the concept does have a place, and ceases to be "Western" the moment it is uttered by local actors.

The renaissance of the term "civil society" in the 1990s itself was greatly influenced by the nationalist movements in the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Republics during the late 80s and 90s. Western scholars and development professionals saw this uniting of individuals under nationalist banners as an organic manifestation of "civil society" in a totalitarian state. The backgrounds of those protesting in the Soviet Union suggests that they tended to come from the intelligentsia -- making it noteworthy when a worker, Neimat Panakhov, became a leading figure in the Azeri nationalist movement during the 1990 protest over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, both Soviet and post-Soviet newspapers and literature described the leadership of the intelligentsia as continuing the social role of enlightener, leader, and source of social consciousness -- a role prescribed to them even prior to the founding of the Soviet Union.

So when we imagine the professional class (in this case, the intelligentsia) as using "civil society" -- whether via independent NGOs or so-called GONGOs ("government-organized non-governmental organizations) -- in truth the intelligentsia is continuing the role it played in the national movements, a fact that is clearly visible in NGO mission statements and grant and program applications in Eurasian countries. Thus, Kendzior's statement that "the term 'civil society' forces citizens to pick a side --'the government' or 'the people' -- in a system where to choose sides is personally harmful, difficult to practice, and tricky to conceptualize" neglects the descriptions the NGOs have for themselves. For the post-Soviet intelligentsia, "civil society" is not a choice between the government and the people, but rather a choice between government and opposition and for the protection of "the people" (an ill-defined group outside of which the members of the intelligentsia routinely locate themselves).

The intelligentsia and the nonprofit sector have had varied and complex relations with local governments in post-Soviet history, rather than the purely negative view Kendzior describes. During the 1990s and 2000s in many of the Central Asian countries, the repression of the nonprofit sector fluctuated and differed depending on the type of NGO (thus human rights and education NGOs, for example, received different treatment). The level of repression was influenced by a need for external aid in some cases, and a lack of power consolidation in others. Kygryzstan's authoritarian tendencies did not occur until the late 90s, once Askar Akayev had secured power.

Regarding Azerbaijan, in 2002 the United States lifted aid restrictions that were put in place through the 907 Amendment to the Freedom Support Act, thus slightly opening opportunities for civil society to flourish. But as oil money began pouring into Azerbaijan in the mid-2000s, and following the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- which the Azerbaijani government associated with international foundations and nonprofit organizations -- the openings for civil society began to close.

After the USAID Civil Society Assessment in Azerbaijan in 2005, which expanded the definition of civil society to include citizen activism (particularly "mobilized communities"), development agencies began creating programs for community-based organizations, such as USAID's Community Development Activity in Azerbaijan, which ran from September 2005 to May 2009. International NGOs and agencies often viewed nationally-based NGOs as lacking connection to the communities they intended to work for, and as being run by a professional class rather than interested local actors. The agencies imagined that the national NGO professionals were using the international funding to expand further financial opportunities, rather than participating in an authentic civil society.

By 2007, the Azerbaijani government committed to funding their own NGOs, either through the NGO Support Council, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and grants from Ministries, but many of the NGOs funded were a step removed from the government, some independent or government leaning -- and rarely, if ever, oppositionist -- but they were not the GONGOs like in today's Uzbekistan.

In Uzbekistan, according to some observers, the government itself initiated its own NGOs with the purpose of pushing out independent civil society organizations. Over the past few years, following the closing of most independent NGOs, those organizations continuing to work in the country were forced to join the National Association of Nongovernmental Noncommercial Organizations, which has the effect of controlling their activities.

Understanding the varied experiences in authoritarian countries through time and across borders provides a clearer view of how to support democracy development initiatives. If, instead, we ignore the "foreign" or "Western" concepts, and -- as Kendzior suggests in her article -- challenge authoritarian states, "literally and figuratively, on their own terms," we are implying that authoritarian governments are wholly outside international processes, accepting the rhetoric of authoritarian governments, and missing the fact that the cultural hegemony of Western Europe and the United States does have an influence, for better or worse. If there were no effect on these countries, publications like the Uzbek From a Strong State to Strong Civil Society, or On the Path to Civil Society, by the head of Azerbaijan's Presidential Cabinet, Ramiz Mehdiyev, would never have been written.

Both books respond to international dialogue and argue in defense of heavy-handed rule. While the authors do recognize the need to move toward democracy and civil society, they reject the concept as poorly suited to the present situation. Despite these illiberal stances, the authors are still forced to couch their arguments within the discourse of democracy and civil society, which suggests that the concept of "civil society" has played some role in authoritarian states. And as such, good governance and democracy development programs are not doomed by foreign terms like "civil society" -- but rather by the lack of consideration for the authoritarian country's own history, and cultural and contextual filters. Simply throwing out the concept solves nothing. To take Kendzior's argument a little further, wouldn't we also need to throw out the concept of "human rights" since it, too, is foreign, and seems to have no bearing on the authoritarian context?

Instead of going down this road, terms like "civil society," "leadership," "community," and "democracy" should be viewed through their changes in meaning between the development agencies and the local actors -- and these should inform our attempts to support democracy development. 

Photo by JILDIZ BEKBAEVA/AFP/Getty Images


All (Syrian) Politics Is Local

How jihadists are winning hearts and minds in Syria.

The noose is tightening around Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- and he's beginning to realize it. After a week that saw the opposition's National Coalition win widespread international recognition and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sign orders to dispatch Patriot missiles to the Turkey-Syria border, the regime in Damascus gave the first sign that it was looking for a way out.

On Dec. 17, the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar published an interview with Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, where he said that neither the regime nor the rebels could win militarily and called for a "historic settlement" between the warring parties. Iran, Assad's staunchest ally, also released a six-point plan that it said would promote national reconciliation.

There is reason to believe that the United States would look sympathetically on a negotiated transition. Washington faces a problem: It is looking to prevent extremists from filling the power vacuum in Syria -- it designated the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization last week -- and a political settlement could be a step in that direction. But a deal cut in Damascus is no cure-all for Syria's ills: Even if an agreement is reached, most rebels groups are not about to let the Syrian army roll back into their towns.

The sprawling eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a larger rural region bordering Iraq, provides a case study in how armed groups -- even extremist ones -- work to establish a foothold in an area. In the case of jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra, it also provides some hints for how they could be forced out. Jabhat al-Nusra's cadres currently coexist with local tribal leaders, who have taken up responsibility for maintaining law and order in the absence of the state. In the long run, however, there is no guarantee that these groups share the same ideology or long-term interests.

Even as fighting rages elsewhere in Syria, the war against Assad has already been won in much of Deir Ezzor, where I grew up. On Nov. 17, the regime's forces were squeezed out of the district of Abu Kamal, near the Iraqi border, after the rebels successfully attacked Hamdan Air Base, the last bastion of the regime there. Rebels from various villages and towns then joined forces and overran an army base in the city of al-Mayadeen, seizing stockpiles of artillery. People are now going about the hard work of laying the groundwork for future governance.

Jabhat al-Nusra currently controls most of the vital sectors in Deir Ezzor, including oil, gas, sugar, and flour. Its source of funding is unclear, although I was told by residents that Gulf nationals with tribal links to the region support most of the fighting groups in the province. According to residents, the group's local emirs are typically foreigners, while the majority of the rank-and-file are Syrians from the region. Many people are drawn to the group by virtue of its effectiveness in fighting the regime and delivering public services.

Deir Ezzor is mostly an agricultural area, with few urban centers, and the regime's forces are mostly based inside the cities. Because of this, rebels in the province tend to fight the regime through hit-and-run operations rather than full-blown battles: Fighters from the villages join forces, attack the regime, and then retreat to their homes. Thus a small group of committed fighters can have an outsized influence, earning widespread prestige.

Jabhat al-Nusra is also cultivating links with local communities. It maintains a relief program that works to win hearts and minds among the population, in tandem with its military operations. Its fighters also have a reputation for professionalism: While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) tends to accept volunteers regardless of their personal merits, Jabhat al-Nusra's cadres are perceived to be more disciplined and concerned with local communities' needs.

One resident I spoke with compared the behavior of the two groups through two recent developments: In July, FSA fighters took over feedlots and organic fertilizers in the city of Abu Kamal. The fighters' commander sold the livestock fodder and fertilizers for a low price and distributed the money among his group. In Nov. 22, when rebels in Deir Ezzor took over the army base in al-Mayadeen, Jabhat al-Nusra guarded stores in the vicinity to prevent looting and later distributed the spoils equally to the public.

Jabhat al-Nusra recently took charge of a gas pipeline near the village of Khosham whose output is enough to fill around 3,500 gas cylinders daily. Until recently, a resident in Deir Ezzor had to pay around 4,000 Syrian pounds (around $56) and wait up to a month to fill a gas cylinder. Under Jabhat al-Nusra's watch, the price has been brought down to less than 400 Syrian pounds, and a gas cylinder can be filled within a few days. The efficient distribution of gas cylinders to residents has been a huge PR win for the group.

The key to containing Jabhat al-Nusra is to reverse this dynamic, and working with local leaders who have leverage over their communities is essential. Syria generally has strong local communities -- based on tribal, religious, ethnic, or business ties -- that can help the country survive times of crisis. In eastern Syria, which makes up over 40 percent of the country, the population is largely tribal, with a minority Kurdish population.

In Deir Ezzor, tribal leaders are traditionally the ones who punish those who break the peace. One influential tribal figure told me that, while Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have so far conducted themselves well, abuses and disorder will be met firmly by the tribes. Residents of Deir Ezzor remember well the behavior of jihadists in Iraq, and fear that radicals in their own country could move from fighting Assad to forcing their ideology on the region. If there are abuses, the tribal leader said, "We will chase them out even if we have to arm the women."

Residents of Deir Ezzor appear to be largely unaware of the grand aim of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and judge them based on their services and conduct. They generally take issue with how Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups run the fledgling sharia-based court system, where fighters with religious background often take over the role of judges.

Reintegrating military defectors into the army will also help reduce the power of extremists. Defectors are generally more moderate than civilians who joined the insurgency -- and also have experience fighting alongside extremist militias, which has given them a familiarity with their tactics and goals. One military defector with whom I spoke said they coordinate with Jabhat al-Nusra "from afar" and appreciate its effectiveness, yet describe its rule as "brute justice."

Finally, it should be local governing councils that provide services to local residents -- not Jabhat al-Nusra. These councils have been set up based on societal consensus, made possible by coordinating with local leaders. In Abu Kamal, for example, local councils provide medicine and school needs for students, even selling oil to pay salaries for teachers -- as a result, many schools reopened in villages and towns this month. They also make sure scarce resources are used efficiently, bringing down the prices of foodstuff and fuel. Rebels working with the councils are getting better at responding to complaints and holding their members accountable for abuses: "We are not the state, we are just trying to help people in terms of organization and services," one FSA commander told me.

As the Assad regime crumbles, all Syrian politics is now local. If the world wants to ensure that the country is not a breeding ground for extremists or another dictatorship, it should reach out to local leaders determining events on the ground. Victory in Syria does not only mean winning the battle in Damascus, it means establishing good governance in hundreds of cities and towns, like those dotted across Deir Ezzor.