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.
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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.