Europe and Eurasia Civil Society

CSO Sector Development In 2017

The 2017 CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia reports on CSO sectors with vastly different capacities that are moving along very different trajectories. When this publication was first produced twenty-one years ago, the hope, if not the assumption, was that CSO sustainability would improve across all countries and regions, and that those with lower levels of sustainability would eventually catch up with those with higher levels of sustainability (which were largely found in the Northern Tier), eventually all converging in or near the Sustainability Enhanced category. Instead, we now face a situation in which the CSO sectors in countries like Hungary and Poland, which have historically had some of the highest levels of sustainability as measured by the Index, are now grappling with serious threats to their sustainability, while several countries in Eurasia—including Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine—have been on an upward trajectory for several years. Thus, while scores are converging, this is happening towards the middle of the CSO Sustainability Index’s scale, rather than at the highest levels of sustainability.

The CSO sectors in the twenty-four countries covered in this edition of the CSO Sustainability Index continue to span the full spectrum of sustainability. Estonia continues to have the highest level of sectoral sustainability, not only in the CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, but in any edition of the CSO Sustainability Index worldwide. CSOs in Estonia, as well as most other Baltic and Visegrad countries, operate within a supportive legal environment, have strong organizational capacities, and are strong advocates and service providers. While financial viability continues to be one of the weakest dimensions of sustainability, CSOs in these countries have access to more diverse sources of funding, including government grants and contracts and individual and corporate philanthropy.

On the other end of the spectrum are Belarus and Azerbaijan, where CSOs continue to operate in highly restrictive legal environments that limit access to funding—particularly foreign funding—with virtually no space for independent advocacy. CSOs in these countries have weak organizational capacities, and little public support. The situation faced by CSOs in Russia is not much better than that in Belarus and Azerbaijan.

The magnitude of the sectors in the twenty-four countries covered in this Index also varies as much as the sectors’ sustainability and the size of the countries themselves. While there are 221,000 formally registered non-commercial organizations in Russia, the country with the largest population covered by this edition of the Index, there are fewer than 5,000 registered organizations in Montenegro, the country with the smallest population. However, it is important to note that the official number of registered organizations does not always provide an accurate picture of the true size of the sector. Many groups may operate without formal registration, and therefore are not captured in these official statistics. At the same time, in many countries, a significant number of organizations that are no longer active remain on the register.

CSOs continue to be affected by the political and economic contexts in which they operate. During 2017, CSOs in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia were impacted by and responded to the following developments:

  • ANTI-DEMOCRATIC BACKLASH – Governments that express hostility to established democratic norms, practices, and institutions are increasingly common in the countries covered by the CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. While this has long been the case in Eurasia, anti-democratic governments are now an increasingly common feature of the political landscape in the heart of Europe as well. According to Freedom House’s 2018 Nations in Transit, “In 2017, illiberalism established itself as the new normal in the region that stretches from Central Europe through Eurasia.

    In Central Europe, governments that disdain independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state are no longer exceptional.” Hungary and Poland are notable examples of this movement. Both countries have taken concerted efforts to curb media freedom and weaken the judiciary. Macedonia was ruled for over a decade by a party that wielded almost complete power and did not tolerate dissent. Nations in Transit notes that Presidents Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Milo Đukanović in Montenegro have “captured their respective states, turning them into mechanisms for distributing patronage that in turn strengthen their parties’ grip on power.”

    In this context, CSOs struggle to make their voices heard, and CSOs expressing criticism of such governments are often the subject of smear campaigns, as described in greater detail below.

    A rise in nationalism and xenophobia have come hand in hand with the rise of illiberalism. In Poland, for example, public opinion polls confirm that there is less sympathy to members of other nations, and there has been a growing number of physical and verbal attacks on foreigners. In Romania, a new government was elected on a platform that included rhetoric about protecting the national identity. The government in Hungary launched a “national consultation” in 2017, sending questionnaires to all citizens of voting age that asked their opinions on immigration. The wording on the questionnaire, however, was strongly distorted to support the government’s anti-immigration stance.

  • ELECTIONS – Elections have the ability to dramatically change the environment in which CSOs operate, as illustrated by the situation in Macedonia in 2017. Elections held in Macedonia in December 2016 led to a prolonged political stalemate. Finally, in May, a new government was formed by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), marking the end of the eleven-year rule of VMRO-DPMNE, which had dramatically closed civic space and clamped down on dissent during its tenure. The formation of the new government created many opportunities for CSOs to participate in policy making and cooperate with both national and local governments in the second half of the year. The reverse situation played out in Romania, where parliamentary elections were also held in December 2016. In this case, the new government assumed a hostile stance to CSOs, portraying them as foreign agents working against national interests and leading to deterioration in nearly all dimensions of CSO sustainability as measured by the CSO Sustainability Index. Of course, elections do not always lead to such dramatic changes. During 2017, regular parliamentary elections were held in a number of countries, including Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Kosovo. Incumbents kept hold of power in Albania, Armenia, and Bulgaria, while in Kosovo early elections led to a coalition government that included several new parties. CSOs played a variety of roles in these elections, including voter education, get-out-the-vote efforts, candidate monitoring, and election monitoring.
  • CORRUPTION – Corruption—an issue that CSOs have long addressed—continued to plague many countries covered this edition of the CSO Sustainability Index. In Latvia, public attention was focused during the year on the so-called “conversations of oligarchs,” leaked recordings of conversations in which several current and former politicians and influential businessmen discussed how to organize political and other processes for their private benefit. The Latvian public was incensed and demanded justice for and explanations from those involved. While a commission was created to investigate the leaked information, and a report was issued with general recommendations about improving investigative institutions, no concrete steps were taken.

    In Romania, the new government passed an emergency ordinance in late January that decriminalized some corruption-related crimes. This provoked the largest protests in Romania’s recent history, with up to 600,000 people marching in cities around the country; as a result, the contested ordinance was repealed less than a month later. In Slovakia, much attention was focused on overpriced public procurements by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs during the Slovak presidency of the Council of the European Union.

    In Russia, where there is limited public discussion about corruption, anti-corruption demonstrations were organized in dozens of cities. However, in some cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, demonstrations were not sanctioned by authorities and resulted in thousands of people, mostly young people, being detained.

    Corruption continued to be an issue in countries striving to join the EU. For example, the fight against corruption has long been identified as an area in which both Albania and Montenegro must make additional reforms in order to pursue EU accession. The Kosovo report notes that not a single high-level political corruption case has been successfully prosecuted in the country to date.

    Illustrating this problem is the fact that members of parliament (MPs) who have been indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering are still allowed to participate in parliamentary proceedings, even though under house arrest.
    Nevertheless, several countries made efforts to address corruption during the year. Armenia, Macedonia, and Ukraine all introduced reform plans or legislative measures aimed at reducing corruption.

  • INTERNATIONAL BODIES AND MECHANISMS – International and regional bodies—most notably
    the EU—continue to wield significant influence over countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. EU membership continues to be a significant draw for the countries covered by the Index. Eleven countries covered by this edition of the Index are already EU members1. Another four—Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia—are candidate countries, while Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are potential candidates. Candidate and potential candidate countries continued to pursue EU accession during the year. In Bosnia, for example, authorities worked on the country’s EU questionnaire, a landmark step in any country’s path to EU membership, finally submitting it in early 2018. Civil society contributed to the process by preparing answers to more than 700 of the 3,200 questions in the questionnaire. CSOs also worked together to prepare the alternative responses to the questionnaire. In accordance with Serbia’s Action Plan for Chapters 23 and 24 of the EU accession process, the Serbian Government announced a constitutional amendment process focused on judicial reform during the year. The new government in Macedonia promised to reinvigorate that country’s EU and NATO accession processes.

    Countries in Eurasia also continued to seek closer ties with the EU. Armenia signed the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in November to strengthen cooperation on security matters, improve the investment climate, and contribute to community and business development. In March 2017, the EU granted citizens of Georgia visa-free travel, enabling biometric passport holders to enter the Schengen area visa-free for ninety days within any 180-day period for a holiday, business, or any other purpose besides work. The country continued to be highly polarized, however, in its attitude towards the EU. While overall support for accession to the EU remains high, widespread disinformation has contributed to the major decline in public trust in Georgia towards the EU as an institution. According to the Caucasus Barometer, an annual survey conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), trust in the EU has dropped from 42 percent to 33 percent over the last five years.

While the CSO Sustainability Index covers a highly diverse set of countries and CSO sectors, several trends were noted among this year’s country reports as discussed in the following sections.

Last updated: April 12, 2019

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