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Are some NGOs really "foreign agents"? Here's what people in Georgia and Ukraine say

We asked the citizens of Georgia and Ukraine what they think about civil society.

Gerard Toal John O’Loughlin Kristin M. Bakke
16 April 2020
CC BY 2.0 Janels Katlaps. Some rights reserved

The former Soviet countries that find themselves part of both Russia’s “near abroad” and the EU’s Eastern partnership face seemingly different messages about civil society and democracy.

To the Russian government, civil society is largely a domain to be controlled and directed. To the EU, civil society is the foundation of free democratic societies. Civil society, of course, may not necessarily be liberal. But if it is, then it is a potential “foreign agent” threat, according to Russia. Not so, says the EU. Navigating mixed messages, what do ordinary people think? We asked the citizens of Georgia and Ukraine, two “frontline” countries in this respect, whose governments aspire closer bonds with the EU and NATO.

Central to the EU’s efforts to deepen engagement with the Eastern Partnership countries on Russia’s borders - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine - is the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil society. Recently renewed beyond its initial ten years, the European Partnership framework highlights that “the EU remains committed to promote and defend human rights in the region, including through its support to civil society and media.”

In contrast, the Russian government, which seeks to exert its own influence in the “near abroad” through both hard and soft power, has long seen non-governmental organisations as a source of problems. This is most controversially reflected in the 2012 “foreign agents” law, recently amended to restrict the press as well. The law (modelled on the 1938 US Foreign Agents Registration Act) requires non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding and are engaged in “political activities” (as defined by the state) to register as foreign agents. The designation evokes Soviet-era connotations and comes with burdensome financial reporting and audit requirements, intended to limit the funding opportunities for civil society - and effectively make them cease their activities.

While international organisations and human rights activists are increasingly concerned about the shrinking civic space in the former Soviet space and beyond - and OpenDemocracy has long highlighted this trend - we know little about whether ordinary people share these concerns or, alternatively, are suspicious of civil society.

Our research from Georgia and Ukraine finds that attitudes are mixed. People are concerned about the freedom of civil society, but ‘foreign agents’ suspicions resonate with many too. Quite a few do not know what to think. These attitudes reflect mixed messages about civil society domestically but also the competing geopolitical setting in which these states find themselves.

Shrinking civic space

Since Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, civil society activists have urged - in the words of Oleksandra Matviychuk, a Ukrainian civil society leader and recipient of the OSCE Democracy Defender Award - Ukrainians to “take full advantage of the new possibilities brought about by the Revolution of Dignity” and the “powerful volunteer movement” that brought it about. In 2017-2018, human rights and pro-democracy activists - supported by international NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch - criticised President Poroshenko’s proposed legal reforms that would require NGOs to submit detailed financial reports or risk losing their non-profit status, arguing that the bill would put an onerous burden on NGOs and have a chilling effect on civil society.

Worries about civil society restrictions have not gone away under President Zelensky. In March 2020, activists expressed fears of a backsliding on democratic reforms, citing the appointment of the country’s new general prosecutor, Iryna Venedyktova. A few weeks earlier, Venedyktova sued both the non-governmental organisation Anti-Corruption Action Center for publishing an article alleging her husband was unduly influencing personnel policy at the State Bureau of Investigations, which she currently heads, and the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda for republishing the article.

PA-51253744.max-760x504.jpg
Volodymyr Zelensky | (c) Pustovit Serhii/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

Recent developments in Georgia also reveal concerns about restrictions on civil society. In December 2019, the chair of Transparency International warned that “attempts to discredit civil society, and other critical voices, undermine the foundations of a healthy democracy.” Central to the question of civil society in Georgia have been attacks on LGBT rights activists by religious and far-right groups, citing their visibility as evidence of the negative influence of “western values.” LGBT activists, on their end, blame Russian influence via the Orthodox Church for fostering conservative values.

Prior to Georgia’s first LGBT Pride this past summer, the Church distanced itself from violent attacks on LGBT activists but expressed disapproval of the “the lifestyle of LGBT people”, describing it as a “sin”, and advised foreign embassies and international organizations not to encourage LGBT rights activities. The event was postponed from its original date due to security concerns. It went ahead on 8 July, but was a short-lived event and had only a two dozen attendees as there were reports that extremists groups were on their way to disrupt it.

Ukrainian and Georgian civil society actors are not alone in raising the alarm about crackdowns on liberal civil society. Across the world, both in authoritarian and democratic states, civil society organisations bringing attention to corruption, human rights abuses, and natural resource exploitation face government restrictions aimed at silencing their voices. Ranging from outright bans and laws limiting funding to more subtle obstacles to registering and setting up offices, intimidation, and smear campaigns, restrictions limit liberal civil society’s ability to serve as a check on governments’ (mis)behaviour. Reflecting this concern, the EU has established a separate human rights defender mechanism for rapid response to help human rights activists at risk.

What do ordinary people think?

But what do the citizens think? Do they echo Russia’s concern that civil society organisations may be “foreign agents” or are their views more in line with the concerns raised in Europe, that civil society is facing restrictions?

In December 2019, we asked those questions in large scientific public opinion surveys conducted in Georgia and Ukraine, as part of an ongoing research project on geopolitical orientations in Russia’s ‘near abroad’. The surveys were conducted face-to-face on people’s doorsteps, drawing on nationally representative samples (2,212 respondents in Ukraine and 1,579 respondents in Georgia). They were conducted for us by two experienced survey firms, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in Ukraine and the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) in Georgia.

We show the results in the figures below. Reflecting the growing concern about shrinking civic space among international organisations and activists, we asked whether “restrictions on the freedom of non-governmental organizations (such as environmental and human rights groups)” are a big problem.

The figure below shows that in both countries a large share of respondents express concern, either “very much” or “quite a lot” (60 percent in Georgia and 47 percent in Ukraine). A substantial share also see restrictions as “somewhat of a problem” (14 percent in Georgia and 19 percent in Ukraine), whereas very few consider restrictions “not a problem” (around eight percent). Many respondents also express that they “don’t know” (17 percent in Georgia and more than a quarter of the respondents in Ukraine).

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Echoing the language of the “foreign agents” law in Russia, we also asked whether people agreed with the statement, “some non-governmental organizations in our country are foreign agents.” The figure below shows the responses.

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In both Georgia and Ukraine, a large share of respondents agree with the statement (45 and 39 percent, respectively) and only about 11 percent disagree. However, a substantial share of respondents “neither disagree or agree” (15-16 percent) and about a third “don’t know” (27 percent in Georgia and 34 percent in Ukraine). The large share of respondents in the “don’t know” category suggest either uncertainty or lack of knowledge about the “NGOs as foreign agents” sentiment. Indeed, complicating the matter is that not only has the “foreign agents” label been used by Russia to try to limit western influence, but governments in both Ukraine and Georgia have adopted Russia’s “foreign agents” language directed against possible Russian influence on civil society.

Our surveys included questions that allowed us to check if people’s views of civil society map on to their geopolitical orientation towards Russia or the west. Expectation of a divide between pro-western versus pro-Russian orientations on “foreign agent” concerns was not borne out. Both reveal relatively similarly high levels of suspicion of NGOs as “foreign agents”. As evident in the debate about LGBT rights in Georgia, citizens of both western and Russian orientation are concerned about foreign influence under the cover of civil society organisations.

Citizens in Georgia and Ukraine face competing narratives about civil society, from their own governments, from activists, and from competing geopolitical powers. While government and activists positions are known, we know less about what ordinary people think. What the data presented here suggest is that while more people are concerned about restrictions on the freedom of civil society organisations than are suspicious that they are “foreign agents”, they harbour both views, while many are uncertain.

With the “foreign agents” label used to call attention to both Russian and western influence, it is perhaps not surprising that both uncertainty and suspicion of NGOs as “foreign agents” run high.

The research in this article is funded by the National Science Foundation (US) and the Economic and Social Research Council (UK). The surveys are based on nationally representative samples. Thanks to KIIS and CRRC for fielding the surveys and Kit Rickard for help with figures and data analysis.

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