Finding new civic space in Central Asia

Partnerships with NGOs offer the state and private sector with expertise and opportunities for innovation that can open up new civic space throughout Central Asia. Español

Philipp Reichmuth
11 December 2017

President Nazarbayev in Almaty during the celebration of Kazakhstan People's Unity Day, 2012. (c) Vladimir Tretyakov / Demotix.

When Central Asia makes international news for restrictions on civic freedoms, the headlines are usually terrible. We read that countries attempt to introduce “foreign agents” laws, send trade union leaders to jail and activists to psychiatric wards, that opposition parties are labeled terrorist organizations and so on. The message is clear: civic space is shrinking, and the only way to deal with this seems to be to counteract and combat it.

The headlines indeed look awful, as do human rights records all over Central Asia. But the headlines also focus on the negative. Globally, organizations try to defend civic space by documenting how states restrict the freedoms of association, expression and assembly, and by organizing domestic and international counter-pressure. But is a confrontational approach like this really all we can do in a fragile context like Central Asia? I suggest that we also need to act constructively and focus on opening new spaces. In Central Asia, we are witnessing a growing trend of NGOs working to open new civic spaces, including working together with governments.

Arguably, the kind of civic space that is closing all over the world had never really emerged in Central Asia to begin with.

Arguably, the kind of civic space that is closing all over the world had never really emerged in Central Asia to begin with. During the first independence years after 1991, donors invested heavily into capacity development of NGOs and experts. Many of these are still around, in the form of prominent organizations such as Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights or Kyrgyzstan’s Bir Düinö. However, the 1990s should not be idealized into a time when freedom of association laws were liberal and NGOs and donor organizations could operate freely. Already back then, governments all over Central Asia began tightening the screws, and that decade was a period of chaos, emerging corruption and organized crime for which Central Asians have no warm memories.

Civil society is more than just NGOs. Central Asia shows that, like democracy, it is a complex package across all of society, and not something that can establish itself within just a few years. Even in Kyrgyzstan, often labeled Central Asia’s “island of democracy”, the fledgling civil society alone was too weak to counteract successive slides into authoritarianism during and after the revolutions of 2005 and 2010. Today, Central Asian societies are increasingly conservative, and the public image of NGOs is worsening – a result of media portrayals in Russian and local state media, but also of the failure of many NGOs to communicate their successes to society at large.

This is not to say that no civic space is being lost. On the contrary, it is ever more painful for Central Asian NGOs because there was so little to begin with. But there exists a demand for many of their contributions, even within the state. This is already leading to fruitful exchanges, such as when the state and the private sector make use of NGO’s technical expertise.

For example, environmental laws across the region mandate that opening a new industrial site requires environmental appraisals. Today, companies, including state companies, naturally commission these appraisals through NGOs such as Kazakhstan’s Ecomuseum Karaganda and their network or Turkmenistan’s Nature Protection Society, relying on the quality of the analyses that the experts working in these NGOs are producing.

Demand mechanisms play out everywhere where state actors have objectives to meet and realize that civil society actors may actually be better at achieving them than they themselves are. States can then gradually change from a confrontational to a cooperative approach, allowing NGOs to turn into partners. In Kyrgyzstan, the best experts on pasture management or municipal administration work in NGOs, such as CAMP Alatoo and Development Policy Institute, respectively. State institutions regularly work with them. Community engagement is the field of NGOs such as Fidokor in Tajikistan’s Khatlon province, working closely with the provincial administrations. Independent monitoring and evaluation experts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan work with state bodies regularly, self-organized into national professional networks and cooperate with colleagues in Ukraine, Russia and Armenia under regional alliances.

Innovation is another area where there is a strong demand. The state and private sector are interested in innovation everywhere, and civil society has the potential to become a supplier. Crowdfunding approaches emerge in several Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has its own platform. Environmental experts find new fields of action as countries begin to embrace green economy principles, as in the case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and open government approaches eg. Kyrgyzstan’s Taza Koom initiative. Civil society initiatives, such as the emerging Central Asian Innovation for Change Hub, or the recent Perezagruzka (Restart!) conference in Bishkek show that there is potential. The next step would be to bring these together into a common Central Asian innovation initiative, driven not by donors, but by civil society organizations themselves, in order to avoid the fragmentation and sense of competition that has often hampered such NGO efforts in the past.

Central Asian NGOs should focus on building partnership relationships with those in the state with whom they share common goals, on their expert potential, and on becoming carriers of innovative practices that are of interest for all. 

These interactions between civil society and the state are usually highly technical. When professional demand/supply relationships are involved, they may look “civil” more as in “civil engineering” than in “civil society”. Consequently, traditional NGOs often frown upon them, because working with the state is seen as selling out. However, they also hold significant advantages: they are uncontroversial, so that NGOs’ activities are not immediately under threat, and they provide sustainability through a basic income stream.

It may be possible for Central Asian NGOs to slow the closing of civic space somewhat, by building international pressure, retreating into safe spaces, or leapfrogging the state technologically. Such efforts, however, have their limitations.

As states like Turkey move in the direction of Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, Central Asia shows the world what a future with closed civic spaces could look like. Ultimately, the state will always be able to enter a war of attritions against NGOs, a battle that the latter simply cannot win. And if the state wants to enter a space in society it is impossible to keep it out.

Instead, Central Asian NGOs should focus on building partnership relationships with those in the state with whom they share common goals, on their expert potential, and on becoming carriers of innovative practices that are of interest for all. In this way, civil society can find space, albeit limited, where the state accepts the role of NGOs in society. Instead of confronting the state with its failures, advocacy needs to seek out those counterparts in the state that have similar problems to solve, use innovation as a tool to build trust, and work with them as partners towards common goals. The key success factors are a constructive approach and a willingness to learn, by all involved parties. 

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