The post-Soviet region has a long tradition of active civil society, but most of the focus in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union was on social issues, such as health, education, and poverty alleviation. Political issues such as human rights, good governance, anti-corruption, and the rule of law were much more sensitive, and civil society organizations (CSOs) that focused on these topics were subject to restrictive laws intended to keep them small and silent. In the aftermath of the color revolutions, however, political CSOs took the spotlight, since many of the issues driving those revolutions were ones that had been at the center of their advocacy for years. These included corruption, transparency and accountability, equal economic opportunities, and equal treatment under the law.
Civil society plays two critical roles: it bridges the gap between the government and the public, and it conveys the needs of citizens and communities to the government. In the post-Soviet region, these two roles have often intersected during times of political upheaval, when civil society helped to mobilize large-scale public movements calling for regime change or reform. In the aftermath of these popular revolutions, CSOs once again assume roles as watchdogs, advocates, and agitators to ensure that the reforms are truly implemented. Civil society also finds itself negotiating new roles, as former activists join the government and organizations seek ways to influence policy without returning to their prior identities as the de facto opposition.
Although CSOs in the region have made significant advances, both in their freedom to operate and in promoting the rule of law more broadly, significant challenges remain. Collaboration between the government and CSOs on policy-making remains ad hoc and topic specific – a culture of collaboration has not yet been institutionalized in any of the four participating countries (Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) . Reform efforts are counterbalanced in some places by closing civic space and entrenched corruption. CSOs have struggled to maintain the broad coalitions and the high level of public engagement they relied on during the revolutionary period. Meanwhile, international donors and CSOs are increasingly focused on the problem of securing sustainable funding for rule of law work in the region, a difficult prospect when most CSOs are dependent on external funding support. Governments, even pro-reform governments, have not set aside public funds to support civil society work, and have preferred to capture international aid for government ministries and rule of law initiatives. Not all CSOs have sufficient financial or management capacity to develop lasting donor partnerships or build a collaborative relationship with government actors. CSOs are also facing new threats from the false news industry, where individuals and organizations are often targeted with smear campaigns and false accusations of criminal conduct intended to undermine their advocacy for reforms.
Symposium participants were divided into three Working Groups, each of which engaged in discussions focused on civil society collaboration in a different thematic area (“Improving Access to Justice,” “Promoting Transparent and Accountable Government,” and “Building Safe and Secure Communities”). The Working Groups each prepared a set of recommendations related to their topic – a compilation of the recommendations from all three Working Groups appears at the end of this report.