Is ‘civil society’ imperialistic? Putin says yes, and he’s not alone.
The word “imperialism” is still bandied about a good deal. Sometimes its meaning is traditional, as in the charge that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is seeking to reassemble some part of the Russian imperium. Sometimes the meaning is flakier, as in the claim of Scots nationalists that England is a neo-imperial state on the lookout for wars in which to flex its flabby military muscles.
There’s an entrant in the imperialism lexicon that has picked up a lot of resonance in the past decade and is even becoming a staple in foreign policy discussions. Call it “civil society imperialism.” And the idea behind the term’s rising popularity has spawned lots of big enemies.
Many of them are states you would expect to be skeptical of civil society – by which is usually meant a web of nongovernmental organizations that campaign, lobby and criticize; independent media that investigate and expose, and every kind of party, club, group, circle and association that often putter away harmlessly but sometimes get mad and hurl themselves against the government or a corporation. Russia is the main suspect state here. Its 2012 Foreign Agents Law forces all NGOs that are registered or receive money from abroad to register as a foreign agent, a designation that carries overtones of espionage and treachery.
In a speech to actual – domestic – agents of the Federal Security Service in February 2013, Putin said that “any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable.” The Russian president apparently believes that organizations that advocate for human and civil rights, campaign against ecological damage and support such causes as feminism and gay rights are foreign-funded attempts to weaken the Russian state.
China, whose leader Xi Jingping is said to be an admirer of Putin, is also bearing down hard on anything that smacks of civil society. Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that the climate for civil-society bodies in China has become much more wintry, quoting one unnamed manager in the office of an international NGO as saying that, “there has been an increase in the number of meetings, and an increase in the number of departments who want to speak to you. The questions have become more pointed. ‘So what are you really doing?’ That’s the question you get all the time.”
But it’s not just the usual state suspects questioning the value of a civil society. India, which rejoices in the name of the world’s largest democracy, is suspicious of it, too. Earlier this year, Narendra Modi, the country’s new prime minister, took delivery of a report by a domestic security service that contended foreign NGOs were fronts for foreign interests and were responsible for a loss of 2 percent to 3 percent of economic growth. Chief culprit — the United States — founded Greenpeace, the most militant organization campaigning against ecological damage.
Greenpeace India fears that Modi, whose devotion to human rights is much questioned in the country, will move against it. The organization is already being cut off from major funding sources and may have to close eventually because of financial strains. “The government is adopting scare tactics,” Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, told The Guardian. “It wants to ensure that nobody comes in the way of big projects.”
In a much-cited piece published in 1997, Indian-born Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host and a Washington Post columnist, wrote about the rise of “illiberal democracies,” in which elections are held and are fairly conducted – but the winners are anti-liberal, scornful of constitutionally imposed checks and balances and hostile to liberal practices. He went on to argue that some empires upheld and inculcated constitutional order in the colonies they undemocratically ruled – a legacy that lives on when the colonies became independent countries. He cited India as an example.
Zakaria fingered Hungary, once part of the Austro- Hungarian empire, as another example of an illiberal democracy. In July, its prime minister, Viktor Orban, twice elected by a huge majority in parliament, said in a speech that while Russia would remain a democracy, it would be one with a “different, special, national approach.” Last month, Hungary displayed its own “national” approach when police raided the Budapest office of Okotars, an NGO largely financed by Norway that promoted “environmental improvement.” The group was accused of financial mismanagement and its computers were seized.
Critics of the government in Hungary’s depleted liberal and leftist circles, now a shrinking minority, cite marginalization of opposition media, discrimination against the Roma minority and rising corruption as additional markers of the country’s growing illiberality.
The new head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, chose Orban’s former justice minister, Tibor Navracsisc, as his designated commissioner for education. In a somewhat surreal hearing on Wednesday before the European Parliament, which must confirm him, the man who was in charge of the laws and regulations of Orban’s illiberal democracy, blithely disowned anything but complete commitment to “core European values.” The parliamentarians apparently weren’t convinced and will hold another hearing on the nomination next week.
Civil society organizations can be big pains for the most open of governments: They can be unfair, shrill and mindlessly militant. But they are as fundamental to a real democracy as regular elections: to detach civility from elections is to court the loss of both.