Is ‘civil society’ imperialistic? Putin says yes, and he’s not alone.

October 4, 2014


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.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

When will Putin come out?

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

As long as some small percentage of “Civil Society” organizations continue to operate as veiled fronts for governments and multinational corporations, leaders like Putin and Modi will succeed in characterizing them as foreign “agents” by painting all civil society organizations with the broad brush of imperialism.

Posted by hjs521 | Report as abusive

Jesus, there are no independent media or NCO’s… They are dependent on whoever funds them. If a media is a public company, they are dependent on the opinion of the large shareholders. And the NCO’s are by and large a vehicle for tax avoidance and policy making by those who are behind them. This is not to say that independent media and organizations are a bad thing, not at all. But how independent are they? Mostly, they are tied to some interests and that is not the way they are meant to function today. So, the point is that “an ideal civil society” would have really independent media, NCO’s etc., but the reality is much different. So different, that Putin’s words start to acquire some real sense.

Posted by Leo7777 | Report as abusive

Dear Friend of Truth Mr. Putin:

Happy Birthday!

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

If nations were interested in Saving Life Eternal then there would be no need for organizations to defend the integrity of our Earth for perpetual generations.

The opinion expressed do not include the Five Eye Governments who systematically suppress scientific evidence and oppress any attempt by scientists, individuals or organizations who do not subscribe to their self serving corporate agenda under the guise of “national interest”.
“They can be unfair, shrill and mindlessly militant.”

Can unfair, shrill, self serving mindless militant nation governments working for big corporations under the guise of ‘national interest” and who continue to war and rape the Earth to death unabated provide a civil society for perpetual generations?


God Bless Russia

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

The rhetoric is astounding! So much for “new speak” being able to communicate anything intelligible!

Czar Putin is no saint, and constantly slides poor old Russia back further and further into the Communist Dictator KGB mentality. But wait, there is always the Pol Pot model as seen on TV with the piles of skulls of people he killed to keep his dream alive.

Posted by Art16 | Report as abusive

The big worry of outside lobbing is trade and immigration not civil rights in most democratic nations. Since politicians need money to get elected, nations like the USA are vulnerable on trade policies (where the money is).

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive


Truth be known.

Russia formally ended the Tsardom in 1721.

Mr. Putin is the President elect of Russia. It is 2014.

If you want piles of Skull and Bones look to the Tomb at Yale University USA.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

In soviet Russia – tyranny is being free.

Posted by Overcast451 | Report as abusive

This year is worst for Putin. Bad luck for Putin- Bandit !

Posted by Rongvangpoland | Report as abusive

Countries wanting to infiltrate and destabilise weaker nations, like say Ukraine, might choose to infect them with NGO’s whose training and purpose is to connect with, finance and support rebellious anti state groups.

Fortunately very few governments stoop so low as to actually act out this despicable practice and that is why Ukraine is a haven of warm international fraternity.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive


Truth be known.

On December 8 1991 “The leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine signed the Belavezha Accords, dissolving the Soviet Union.”
“Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian SFSR reconstituted itself as the Russian Federation”.

Some nations are able to evolve with Time.

Hopefully the American people can one day freely study world history, evolving to meet the challenges of our Time (2014) to Save Life Eternal.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

The New Haven international fraternity of Skull and Bones. pE

Wake up America!

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive


You have to realize that the USSR lost the cold war and also lost her system – Communism. It was so bad that you chose the so called enemies system – Democracy.

Welcome back from the ice cold years of Totalitarianism and a murderous Soviet system that killed millions.

Russia is a child, an infant of Democracy and the reflex of a child nation that was a failed Communist State is to kick back and suppress the rule of law (or change it to benefit the politician in charge). It is all part of growing up.

When you say Putin was democratically elected, you are using our language, our System of government. So having moved from your failed system and embraced ours, should you not listen when we say Putin and his democracy is not acting democratically?

Posted by Mandingo | Report as abusive

Right we are totally unable to scope with the global warming!How would it be possible getting from Putin, Xijiping,Fareed Zakaria and Orban gathered in the same meeting the first penny for a climate action?

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

Putin is an overt megalomaniac who wants to rebuild Russian dominance. Stalin invaded states to its West who got rid of one group of megalomaniacs to only get another. Russia has no moral or ethical right to dictate to its former soviet puppets who found freedom from Soviet tyranny in 1991…

Posted by EUROPHILE | Report as abusive

When Russia outed the CIA station chief in Moscow there must have been some impetus. I don’t believe they would have done this capriciously.

The NGO argument is interesting when I think back on the #occupy movement and the amount of support it received from these NGOs, and any subsequent congressional funding.

Didn’t Jamie Dimon make a $5 million dollar contribution to the NYPD at about that time ?

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

[…] Source: Reuters […]

Posted by Is ‘Civil Society’ Imperialistic? Putin says Yes, and He’s not Alone | Citizen Daily | Report as abusive