Authors: Magdalena Dabkowska, Janine Wildschut and Aicha Chaghouani
In the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), as well as in some Central European countries such as Poland and Hungary, the space for civil society appears to be shrinking. This seems to be a global process, but the EECA region seems specifically affected with many countries following Russia’s example in restricting the legal environment for civil society organizations. Central Asia has one of the lowest rankings on civil and political freedoms of the world (just behind the Middle East and North Africa). The rankings in Eastern Europe are also declining. These developments stifle the involvement of civil society in the region, endangering the further development of civil society and the protection of human rights in many of these countries.
The shrinking of civil space has a wide range of consequences for different kinds of NGOs. When it comes to drug policy or HIV-focused organizations, however, its after-effects may be even more severe. In most places, fields such as HIV prevention or combating the stigmatization of drug use fall to civil society groups and organizations serving the needs of vulnerable communities and marginalized groups—not only people living with HIV or drug users, but also sex workers or members of the LGBTQ community. These groups already face an unfavorable situation, as they deal with difficult, unpopular issues, connected with stigma and lacking any kind of social prestige. This situation already requires extreme dedication on the part of those struggling to defend or empower vulnerable groups, so that any additional challenges or burdens for these NGOs may undermine—if not eradicate—the effects of entire fields, such as working with those infected with HIV. Even more disturbingly, the HIV epidemic continues to grow, as the region on the whole has failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal 6 on combating HIV.
In 2017 AFEW International, the Netherlands-based secretariat of AFEW, an EECA regional humanitarian network, conducted an assessment to examine the extent to which decreasing venues for civil society threaten the effectiveness of the response to HIV and related public health issues (i.e. what is the effect on harm reduction programs for people who use drugs).
The assessment focused on the consequences of the shrinking space for civil society in the EECA region for community networks of people who use drugs, as well as harm reduction and drug policy NGOs. The study also looked at the strategies civil society develops and chooses while its space for agency melts away. The coping strategies were gathered in three categories or types of reaction named in the title of the study’s outcome report. The report, just published in July 2018, is entitled “We Fight, We Hide or We Unite: Coping strategies amongst resilient harm reduction organizations and community networks in the context of shrinking space for civil society in Eastern Europe and Central Asia”.
For the purpose of the assessment, the shrinkage of civil society was defined as “a tendency of governments in the region to exercise more control over civil society”. Civil society was understood as “the entire range of organized groups or institutions that are independent from the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant.” These would include NGOs, independent media, think tanks, universities, social groups, and religious communities.
Methods chosen for the study included desk research covering international and regional studies and overviews, an online questionnaire taken from the “2016 state of civil society in Europe and Russia” study by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, 17 semi-structured expert interviews, and group discussions held after preliminary analyses of the findings had been performed. They were designed to interpret the assessment from different perspectives and to link the theoretical and factual information with its practical implementation.
At the initial stage of the assessment, nine countries were examined, out of which 6 were selected for further review. These included Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan, and—outside of the EECA — Poland. „Poland represents an exception. It was added because of the current dynamics vis-à-vis civil society,” states the assessment report.
Desk research (i.e. civicus.org, freedomhouse.org) showed that the region can be divided into three groups of countries, taking into account their political regimes and the state of civil society in them:
- countries with a very challenging environment for civil society;
- countries with a challenging, but stable situation;
- countries rapidly shifting from the comfort zone to a challenging environment.
In all of this, there is a dissonance between how external monitoring mechanisms define situations in these countries and how they rank civil rights and the positive freedoms citizens enjoy, and how HIV, harm reduction, drug policy experts and activists in these countries perceive their own situation.
On the one hand, the study concludes that the situation in the first group of countries can be summarized as very challenging due to limited political rights and civil liberties; oppressive policies that threaten the work and existence of civil society organizations, especially the ones opposing the authorities or dealing with unpopular topics; restrictive laws on foreign funding and international collaboration (i.e. Foreign Agents Law and Law on Undesirable Organizations in the Russian Federation or Law on Public Associations in Tajikistan) etc. Interestingly, on the other hand, only the representatives of civil society from the Russian Federation confirm they can clearly feel the environment as being hard and often dangerous not only for their work, but also for their personal safety. “No one is safe. I’m in the opposition. Maybe I’m paranoid, but they create such a situation that everyone must be scared,” an NGO member from Russia explained. A different image arises in interviews with activists and NGO workers from other countries classified by the monitoring tools as having harsh and very challenging policies. The NGO representatives from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tadzhikistan, and Uzbekistan do not feel the high level of anxiety one would expect under the consolidated authoritarian regimes in these countries. Similarly, in the countries where the situation can be seen as challenging, but stable, there is no noticeable expectation or worry among civil society of serious new threats emerging on the horizon.
The reverse situation can be observed in Poland. Although a democratic country and an EU member, it has recently experienced a dynamic decrease of freedoms and human rights and open society standards. Thus, Polish NGOs active in the field of drug policy, harm reduction, HIV/AIDS tend to see the state as less and less favorable or safe for non-governmental organizations. “Since the situation in new and changing rapidly, Polish respondents appeared more anxious than their colleagues from countries where conditions are much more difficult. Moreover, Polish NGOs face an increasing need to reshape their strategies and tailor their activities to this new, unpredictable reality,” we read in the report from the assessment.
We can conclude that the way NGOs and communities perceive their situation (as threatening or safely stable) does not depend exclusively on the strictness of national policies, laws and regulations. It is the combination of legal provisions and the overall political climate AND the dynamics of the changes (for good or for bad) observed at these two levels that influence how civil society defines their situation.
Three ways of coping with the situation
The assessment also examined how organizations dealt with the space for their activities melting away. Each of the numerous and diverse coping strategies identified can be seen as a part of one of the three broader attitudes: “Fight” (openly oppose authorities and the system), “Hide” (keep silent to prevent problems), and “Unite” (actively seek collaboration with the authorities).
The Fight category is defined by the study as containing “protest against general laws and policies, against punishing organizations and smear campaigns, whilst simultaneously standing up for the rights of individuals who use drugs”. “The FIGHT strategy is often found in countries where the situation suddenly and swiftly deteriorates and in countries where the civil society space remains quite limited and strictly controlled by authorities. In countries characterized by strict control, the majority of CSOs HIDE their opinions, although a small group of powerful activists and CSOs take huge risks whilst vocalizing strong positions and acting upon them.” Some of them conduct strategic litigation, including cases against the government (as in the Russian Federation, for example), others provide legal advice for community members free of charge, or share basic legal knowledge through peer-to-peer training. When it comes to controversial topics (and most issues related to drug use and HIV are perceived as controversial), it is easier and safer to express ideas, opinions and criticism through regional channels. Therefore, a decision to work regionally may be yet another example of the Fight strategy.
Of course, open opposition to the authorities can place NGOs at even greater risk as it often creates more oppression. This is why—as it has already been mentioned—the majority of organizations decide to hide, that is to operate silently and not to attract the attention of the authorities. This means either not mentioning or advocating openly for activities out of line with the ideas of the authorities or even ceasing with such activities entirely. In order to safeguard still-feasible projects, to protect and sustain organizations and its staff, and finally to be able to apply for state funding, NGOs often decide to reframe or rename the work they do (i.e. instead of mentioning their work addressed to the MSM—men who have sex with men—community, they refer to it as to men’s health activities; or they avoid a term “harm reduction” by calling the work they provide “preventing HIV”). Another example of the “hide” strategy is changing the formal structure of the organization (e.g. registering it as a commercial entity), so it becomes invisible for the regime’s radar (and in result it cannot be, e.g., listed as a foreign agent).
To save the work still permitted, some NGOs decide to “unite” with the authorities. They perceive such compromises as the only way to anyhow influence the direction taken in the country and they hope this strategy will secure them a future place in discussions no longer permissible at present. They do so, for example, by offering trainings on health and HIV for governmental people, by participating in roundtables and consultation processes open to civil society, by delivering health services to hard-to-reach communities, and so helping the authorities to reach their health targets. However, this guarantees neither the safety of the organization nor the favorable conditions for its work. During the assessment process a few stories were collected that warn against too much optimism in this regard. One of them was shared by the representative of a donor institution:
“There is one example of an organization. They positioned themselves as a partner to the government and I remember very clearly a moment of great optimism when the then Minister of Health of Russia addressed a regional HIV/AIDS conference in Moscow to say that the government would be adopting harm reduction programs. However, when the time came for the government to do that, the plan changed and the government announced that it would be promoting healthy lifestyles and not adopting NGO programming. So, generally speaking I have to say that those attempts by NGOs to calibrate the confrontation in my mind have not resulted in a greater commitment by or support from the government in the region. I think that’s an important lesson.”
The study shares coping strategies exemplary for each of the three groups listed, the necessary conditions for applying them, and finally—their advantages and disadvantages. This form of a review thus might prove useful not only in its own field but other related areas. It provides NGOs with the possibility for checking where actually they position themselves, to see the pros and cons of the position they take, as well as to evaluate the outcomes and consequences of that choice. As simple as it may sound, such an evaluation often proves difficult on a daily basis, but also could be extremely useful, since in most cases the coping technique chosen is not necessarily an outcome of a complex process of planning and strategizing. It usually is an ad hoc reaction to rapid and/or unexpected changes, opportunities or—on the contrary—attacks.
The outcomes of this study/assessment could also be informative for international donors. The shrinking space for civil society would not be that dangerous if not accompanied by a worrying trend of international funding institutions stepping back from the region. Their retreat (at least partial) from the EECA has been caused by a number of factors, including re-prioritizing and shifting their focus to world’s poorest regions; becoming ‘unwanted’ on the territory of the Russian Federation, for example, or being hit by regulations that aim to limit external funds in order to tighten control over civil society. Whatever reasons are behind the donors’ decision to limit funding in the region, the reality is they contribute to the worrisome situation of a reduction in HIV-related work provided by civil society. This is a field that governments are unwilling to support, be it for moral or for political reasons. Therefore, the lack of stable international funding independent from the authorities has a number of unintended, though severe consequences. The assessment included a few interviews with national and international funding institutions, which shed some light on their current positions and what donors envision for the future. It seems that not only NGOs, but donors also are now developing ways to cope with the shrinking space for civil society. “Some donors are more open and flexible, whilst others need to adapt both internally and externally to the political climate to enable funding for those civil society organizations that continue to operate.” Their efforts are a step in the right direction, but far more is needed if drug policy, harm reduction, and HIV/AIDS CSOs in the region are to survive.
On the basis of the findings of the study, a number of recommendations can be formulated, some addressed to donors directly, i.e. a call to re-strategize and develop ways to still “support CSOs in EECA through flexible conditions, by providing funding through other channels, by working less on the forefront as a donor to keep CSOs safe, and by understanding in which countries CSOs are attempting to survive and where sustainability cannot currently serve as a goal”. Donors should immediately provide emergency funding before the implementation of new strategies. They should also consider community involvement as equally important and support it in different ways. To raise donor awareness and to advocate for attention and financial support for civil society in the region, international solidarity is essential. This is why regional networks and the exchange of knowledge and ideas are necessary (not only among activists, but—equally important—among donors). In the end, it is they who make up the international community that is often in position to engage in the dialogue with the authorities from the EECA countries.
A number of recommendations can also be listed for CSOs and communities, based on what they shared in the process of the assessment. One of the conclusions from the analysis of the material gathered is that the legal framework for CSOs and the daily realities they inhabit may be very different and that “the sense of being involved or under threat are heavily influenced by the combination of strictness and change”. Understanding “the tension of this sensitive interaction may help CSOs react to changes and threats in a manner that is less ad hoc, allowing them to adopt strategies that are more cohesive and strategic.”
The importance of solidarity among CSOs needs to be stressed nowadays, when organizations often are forced to compete with one another for limited amounts of funding from a limited number of sources. Today, NGOs often also play against each other, often demonstrating little understanding for others, who choose coping strategies and approaches towards the authorities different from their own. Respect and cooperation are indispensable and irreplaceable if the whole movement in the region is to survive.
Last but not least, taking into account the current developments in Poland, Hungary, and a number of other Central European countries that are now—intentionally or not—following EECA regional trends, it is essential “to include these countries’ CSOs in discussions, dialogues and exchanges when we examine civil society’s coping strategies.”