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).
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.
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.