Repressive legislation, negative media coverage, lack of recognition and imposition of service functions—having to deal with issues that are normally the responsibility of the state such as welfare and healthcare—are among the challenges that lie ahead of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Bulgaria, Italy, Lithuania and Russia. This was one of the overarching conclusions of the 2017 Report on the State of Civil Society in the EU and Russia. The report was issued by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, which unites over 150 CSOs across national borders. The latest edition of the report was launched in Sofia on 17 May, 2018 during the Forum’s 8th General Assembly.
Double standards in Russia
The civil society sector in Russia is unbalanced and divided, said Yulia Skokova of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Skokova authored the assessment for Russia and argued that the main problem for Russian CSOs is restrictive legislation. The existing four NGO registries divide them into two types. There are the ones seen by the state institutions as “good”. These are mostly charitable and social service-oriented NGOs and have the privilege of state funding and support.
On the other hand, Skokova explained, there are the “bad” organisations that operate in fields such as human rights and environmental protection. These CSOs are regularly repressed by the government and have very few opportunities to obtain state funding. They are also targeted by the so called “Foreign Agent” law which makes it difficult for them to get foreign funding as well. For those CSOs that get listed as undesirable it is even prohibited to operate in Russia. “You can be fined or even prosecuted just for cooperating with such organisations or sharing their materials”, Skokova explained.
Negative media coverage in Bulgaria
One of the main problems of civil society in Bulgaria is the absolutely negative media coverage, stressed BlueLink Stories’ editor Pavel Antonov. “People from civil society are blamed by mainstream media for being mafia”, he said. Antonov, together with Ksenia Valkhrusheva, co-authored the chapter on the state of civil society in Bulgaria.
Decreasing financial resources, political uncertainty and decreasing public trust are the main challenges.
On 16 May, EU-Russia Civil Society Forum members from ten European countries signed a declaration in support of Bulgarian civil society organisations that are “engaged in the struggle for rule of law and defending the environmental, democratic, social justice and human rights norms of the European Union”. “The hostile response unleashed against critical civil society voices and the orchestrated media pressure against them by mass media and political communicators with apparent connections to consolidating business and political interests is a source of grave concern”, was pointed out in the document. The declaration also stressed that this happens in conditions of “undermined freedom of speech and independent journalism”, which has been demonstrated by Bulgaria’s unprecedented drop to 111th place in the yearly ranking of Reporters without Borders.
Lithuanian CSOs – a terra incognita
Civil society organisations in Lithuania are still seen as terra incognita by the government and the public, said Ieva Petronytė-Urbonavičienė of the Lithuanian Civil Society Institute, who authored the chapter on Lithuania. She noted that according to various researches, 40% of the people didn’t know anything about CSOs and therefore didn’t know whether to trust them. And yet the organisations in the civil sector operate freely, the social and political support is growing, “but the support is actually on the surface”, the expert warned.
In certain municipalities there are some old-fashioned views that CSOs are outside the decision-making process. The organisations of the sector are not recognised as an equal partner, but as a “little brother” of the public sector.
Italy – supportive
Italy has recognised the importance of the civil sector and tried to help its development by making regulations that help the CSOs find financial resources and receive public money, explained Simone Poledrini from the University of Perugia. Among the issues NGOs in the country face, the expert listed a high amount of bureaucracy as well as a high level of corruption.
Decreasing financial resources, political uncertainty and decreasing public trust are the main challenges of the sector in every country, all experts agreed. The CSOs try to overcome them by developing a civil network, practising strategic use of information and communication technologies and implementing a better managerial approach.
The difficulties are not unique to the studied countries. If you compare The Netherlands to other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, it would seem that the situation is very favourable for CSOs, but they still face difficulties, said Pamala Wiepking of the Rotterdam School of Management who participated in the launching event. Wiepking notes that even in The Netherlands there is a differentiation between local and foreign organisations by the government.
The government doesn’t always understand what those organisations do and often sees them as service providers. The general public approves that the government provides goods and services because it is supposed to provide equal access to them. But some people get scared if services such as health care and education are provided by the CSOs because they feel not everyone will have the same equal access. There has been a trend state institutions imposing service functions normally administered by them onto civil society. This clearly shows the present deficits of governments and their inability to deal with issues such as charity and the needs of sick children, said Pavel Antonov.
Antonov suggested that many of the problems of civil society, including bad media coverage, come with the fact that there is no definition or clear concept of what is meant by “civil society”. “When we say ‘civil society’, we constantly have these people who say they are also a part of it, and they are happy with the media coverage.” According to Antonov, the legal framework that talks about “non-governmental” is not enough. “We have a trend in Bulgaria that businesses register counter NGOs that serve the purposes of these businesses.”
“As civil society we have constantly been exposed to the debate that we should be neutral and stay away from politics. But we are actually political. This is the true meaning of politics—when society wants to change issues by democratic means”, Antonov concluded.
More BlueLink stories about civil organisations and activists under pressure
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This journalistic article was published as a part of the project “Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again”, implemented by the BlueLink Foundation with co-funding from the EU’s Europe for Citizens Programme. No responsibility for the content of this articice could in any way be attributed to the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency and the European Commission. All responsibility for the content lies with the BlueLink Foundation.