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Interview | Richard Youngs: Democratic Quality of States is Diminishing

Most democratic backsliding today is not about coups and the army seizing power in a very dramatic way. It is democratically elected governments gradually taking the oxygen out of opposition and barring the avenues for democratic checks and balances,” tells Richard Youngs, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy, and on issues of international democracy. Richard Youngs has written extensively on closing civil space, its mechanisms, and the ways to counteract it. His most recent paper discusses the democratic roadmap for Ukraine.

Kristina Pitalskaya spoke with Richard Youngs in Brussels.


You wrote extensively about shrinking civic space and the operation of democracy support organizations in fully hostile environments. What we would like to speak about is more of a process of transition from relatively liberal to hostile environments. Is there a pattern of such transition, typical steps that are being taken by the governments?

Unfortunately, the problem of closing civic space is becoming much more widespread. Some 15 years ago, the trend started in a few very notable authoritarian contexts – Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela – where the governments used legislation to restrict the activities of civil society. What we have today is the problem of not just a closing civil space, but a closing democratic space. 

We need to talk about this in more political terms because regimes have widened the scope of tactics they use against civil society organizations (CSOs). Today, between 110-120 regimes across the world operate some form of restriction against civil society. Many of the countries where these restrictions have tightened include countries that are reasonably democratic, including Georgia and the EU member states. Hence, this is not just a problem affecting the most closed authoritarian regimes today. It is happening in Western countries and in all regions of the world.

Today, the restriction of civil space is not typically about already authoritarian regimes targeting political opposition. It is about a systemic strategy by certain types of governments that move – step-by-step – to weaken the quality of pluralism that exists within a democratic system.

A significant challenge is that this problem has become broader, deeper, and more severe in a very incremental way. Governments have become cleverer. In many of their tactics, they have become more subtle. The way they tackle civil society is one part of a broader range of tactics they have to gradually undermine or diminish the democratic quality in a state. 

This trend is developing in different ways in different political systems. If we limit ourselves to looking at countries that started out by having reasonably open, democratic politics and then moved somewhere midway between being democratic and authoritarian, we can see that the restrictions on civil society are one of the leading edges of their gradual, incremental strategy of autocratization. 

Today, the restriction of civil space is not typically about already authoritarian regimes targeting political opposition. It is a systemic part of the strategy by certain types of governments that move – step-by-step – to weaken the quality of pluralism that exists within a democratic system. We may not even be able to say decisively that they tip over the line into being completely authoritarian. But many of the tactics they use against civil society are more and more restrictive.

What are the structural vulnerabilities of the CSOs once the government decides to act to challenge civic space, and what helps their resilience?

There is no easy solution, but CSOs need to look for a number of different ways of giving themselves greater resilience. Sometimes this will mean adopting a lower profile, perhaps, engaging in activities that are slightly less overtly political. But sometimes it may mean the opposite – building more political alliances so that that particular part of civil society has stronger protection against attacks from the government. It very much depends on the political context of a particular country.

Very sadly, what we have over the last decades in many countries, is the human rights and democracy communities having to leave and set up operations in other countries. In many cases, this has enabled them to keep functioning and remain politically relevant to some degree.

One sphere that is very important is digital: more and more CSOs rely on digital technology to pursue their activism, often with the support of international donors. We know, based on several years of experience,  that regimes use their opponents’ online presence to target activists in much more tailored ways.  The international community should be conscious of this not to leave CSOs more vulnerable by developing their digital activism. 

A very sobering and disappointing fact that we found in our research is that sometimes, when governments put pressure on civil society, CSOs do not get much support from other parts of society. International organizations and CSOs in general need to ask themselves, why this is. Perhaps, in the future, a way for CSOs to give themselves more resilience and protection is to focus more on building up their alliances and their network of support locally, also focusing more on generating their own funds locally. If there is more chance of them getting local support, this may make regimes think twice about adopting some of the more aggressive strategies against civil society. 

One challenge related specifically to a closing democratic space is when civil society itself is drawn into this polarization. In a way, it makes it easier for governments to target one part of civil society to delegitimize it.

One of the main drivers of democratic backsliding has been the emergence of polarization. There are different forms of polarisation – ideological or personality-based, some of them run deep in a social sense, and some of them do not. But one challenge related specifically to a closing democratic space is when civil society itself is drawn into this polarization. In a way, it makes it easier for governments to target one part of civil society to delegitimize it. I think there is perhaps quite some rethinking on the part of civil society to do, on how to maintain an effective democracy-related agenda that is firm on basic democratic principles, but that keeps civil society somewhat out of polarized party rivalry. 

A significant change in recent years came about because of COVID-19, which in many countries pushed CSOs to focus on issues that really mattered in a tangible way for local communities such as health, issues of injustice, and the emergency response. In many countries, civil society adapted by being creative and innovative and played a really significant role. Georgia is among the countries, where civil society adapted in an impressive way. 

Maybe if some of that spirit can be carried through, that will help civil society demonstrate to populations that they have a very important function. Also, as a note on political polarisation, if polls are to be believed, most members of the population are increasingly tired of it. Maybe that is where civil society can find its added value – and that can help it defend itself against government tactics. Thinking through these different tactics will become increasingly necessary.

How developed are the democracy-supporting organizations’ (DSOs) tools to diagnose and deal with negative transitions? What are the ways, in your mind, that CSOs can help the DSOs to sharpen their diagnosis?

There are lots of things on the agenda. I will pick out two. One – I think we don’t have effective enough mechanisms of early warning. There are lots of such mechanisms for conflict situations or climate disasters. I think we need much more preemptive warning of problems with civil society because if they appear in this very incremental way, it’s easy to ignore their significance until it is too late until there is much less of a civil society left to defend. 

We need much more preemptive warning of problems with civil society because if they appear in this very incremental way, it’s easy to ignore their significance until it is too late until there is much less of a civil society left to defend. 

There are debates within certain international organizations about developing more effective early warning mechanisms that don’t just provide a methodology for getting ahead of the curve in being able to detect where civil society may be in danger, but also push governments/international organizations to implement early actions – here we move from early warning to early action. 

Given the trends over the last decade, we should know well by now, that these kinds of problems need to be raised early because the longer they are left festering, the more systemic they become and the more regimes neutralize any kind of democratic checks and balances. Once that trend sets in, it is more and more difficult to reverse these negative trends.

The second trend is that international donors have done quite a good job at moving quickly to protect either CSOs or individual civil society leaders when governments are attacking them in a very direct way. Such protection might include help with legal action, help with physical and/or digital security, and in the worst of cases, making sure they get out of their country. For me the challenge of the next phase is how these organizations can provide a supporting bridge between activists that are supposed to leave their country and people that are still there – at the local community level – trying to organize, trying to make sure that they express their rights, who might be trying to exercise whatever is left of their democratic and social rights. What needs to be avoided is the division between a political opposition that is forced out of the country and society at large that stays in the country.

Where international organizations can help more readily is to build up a kind of broader network of social linkages and democratic engagement on issues that are less directly political: the environment, health issues, and local social rights.

Perhaps, where international organizations can help more readily is to build up a kind of broader network of social linkages and democratic engagement on issues that are less directly political: the environment, health issues, and local social rights. Most citizens want to organize around these issues and make sure that affected policies are implemented, even if they might not define themselves as being against the particular government or against a particular political party. Maybe from there, the basic capacity of civil society can be strengthened, so that it protects basic democratic rights in a more general sense. 

There are many examples of governments making life difficult for some civic movements – there are high profile cases of this in Georgia, of course. Perhaps, civil society, the business community, or local associations have come forward fully to defend the movement or organizations that had been targeted. If organizations were slightly more invested in building their local partnerships rather than focusing mainly on their international ones then maybe they would have had more domestic resilience. This is to not suggest that this would have solved the problems, of course, but we also find that more and more CSOs do recognize this and they have already moved in quite creative ways to try and mitigate them.

What happens when any space for civil society or opposition has been closed? What possible scenario(s) exist in this case?

This is the case where the closing of democratic space happened in a very incremental way and perhaps, more attention could have been paid to this earlier by the international community. If we look at examples like Hungary, when you get to a stage where a particular leader or a party controls all the branches of the government – then it’s incredibly difficult to reverse the process. This speaks to the need to have much more pre-emptive reactions and to convince governments and civil society organizations that often civil society needs to work with governments so that it understands that civil society has its functions – that it is not about political opposition.

When you get to a stage where a particular leader or a party controls all the branches of the government – then it’s incredibly difficult to reverse the process.

In Hungary, local civil society realized what’s been happening and tried to stay active in keeping some democratic space alive. 

Perhaps from the outside, international organizations and other governments don’t realize how severe problems are becoming because they are taking place in this incremental way. Most democratic backsliding today is not about coups and the army seizing power in a very dramatic way. It is democratically elected governments gradually taking the oxygen out of opposition and barring the avenues for democratic checks and balances. 

Civil society can play a very valuable role in alerting the outside world when this is happening, earlier on. Now we have enough examples of this happening over the last ten years, we had time to recognize the patterns, and the steps the governments are usually taking. Individually, these steps may not look particularly serious, but we should be able to identify the patterns and recognize that concrete action must be taken much earlier on.

Recently, in the programmatic approach of many DSOs, there has been a growing understanding that programs need to take stock of their implementation environment. USAID, UKAID, and partially UNDP increasingly incorporate Implementation Context Analysis (ICA) or politico-economic analysis segments in their reporting. Do you think this is an effective way of improving situational awareness? Any other tools you could think of?

These tools are not new and have been around for quite some years, which of course improved the quality of political analysis that underpins funding, decisions, and strategies on democracy support. I find often that the quality of these analyses has improved, but then donors still tend to fund the same kinds of programs.

The challenge of supporters of democracy is to translate better quality analysis in local sensitivity into different forms of programs.

I think the challenge is to translate better quality analysis in local sensitivity into different forms of programs. Particularly the EU funding, for example, has changed a lot over the last decade. In some circumstances, the fact that civil society is still able to mobilize – as we have seen in Georgia over the last couple of months – is perhaps a testament to the fact that ways had been found for keeping civil society reasonably active, for maintaining the overall growth capacity of CSOs, which has been building up quietly throughout the recent years.

Ukraine might be an example now: for several years, in the mid-2010s, the quality of Ukraine’s democracy was getting worse, life was getting more difficult for civil society and it was being attacked in severe ways. But we see a very strong civil society with a lot of resilience. Now, all the support provided to Ukraine’s civil society is being shown to have had both relevance and impact.

What about the need for ‘more flexible’ funding to even better adapt to rapidly changing environments and priorities? 

This issue has been on the agenda for many years. Most donors would say they have become more flexible and most of them in fact have done so. Some do provide more core support, for example. Others are more willing to take risks and fund smaller organizations. They have found indirect ways of getting funds out to smaller movements in rural locations.

Decisions over EU funding have been decentralized at the levels of EU Delegations. One can always argue that a lot more needs to be done in terms of flexibility and local sensitiveness, but none of that is news for donors and many have moved in these directions.

I just think that defining appropriate strategies would depend on each political context – how severe the problem is; whether there is still scope for working positively with governments or parts of the governments, or a diplomatic community representing a particular government. In some cases, the answer will be positive. In other cases, one may need a more politically engaged approach. In some circumstances, it may be that civic organizations need to look to less overtly political strategies, whereas in other cases the need may be to join together the funding decisions with more diplomatic engagement.

In a context where governments are making life more difficult for civil society, we need a more high-level diplomatic engagement over these civil society challenges, and in most cases that is still not happening.

One striking feature of donor support is that you have low levels of support for civil society happening quite separately from the donor government’s diplomatic relations with their regime. There may have been some logic to keeping these strands quite separate from each other, but in a context where governments are making life more difficult for civil society, we need a more high-level diplomatic engagement over these civil society challenges, and in most cases that is still not happening. Interestingly, regimes that are not most repressive, still maintain good relations with the international donor community, and therefore, perhaps, they are able to divert attention away from certain things that are happening domestically.

What we have learned from our research is that in many countries in all regions of the world: when you get a situation, where your civil society is robust, active, and dynamic trying to push back against these kinds of restrictions, then it is looking for political support from the international community. In some of the more closed regimes, civil society seems to be quite weak and not particularly active. But where there is clearly a demand coming from civil society, then it seems to me that the EU could get itself into a very strategic difficulty if it does not acknowledge and respond to that. In all fairness, where dynamic civil societies exist in the three EaP countries (Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia), the EU has tried to respond to that and things have moved forward because of that.

As one of the tools for improving situational awareness, can we talk about the need for increased regional cooperation and best practice sharing?

There needs to be a lot more lesson-sharing across borders. Regional civic forums represent an adopted practice of CSO cooperation in different regions of the world, which is very valuable, but these networks can be expanded to look at countries with similar experiences. There are countries beyond the immediate region that have gone through similar processes – positive and less positive – that civil society can learn from. Also, the EU member states need to accept that they can learn from other countries, where civil society is perhaps stronger, more imaginative, and creative, and perhaps, more successful in limiting anti-democratic trends and pushing back against government restrictions that we see increasingly in some EU countries. 

The EU member states need to accept that they can learn from other countries, where civil society is perhaps stronger, more imaginative, and creative

From what we talked about in the beginning – this is an increasingly common trend. Governments that have genuine democratic legitimacy are gradually narrowing space for civic organizations, not in a particularly dramatic way, which is not complete authoritarianism, but it’s something that needs to be limited if we are really concerned with just having a formal democracy, but better quality democracy in a meaningful way. I think CSOs should be looking a lot further to learn lessons on how to develop strategies against this.

What would you recommend to CSOs that see the space of their work challenged rhetorically by the claims of lack of transparency and accountability, lacking connection with grassroots, and serving foreign interests, even if (and perhaps especially) when those claims are patently untrue? Given the intrinsic imbalance of power with the state institutions, what can CSOs do to stop or slow down the transition toward a fully hostile environment? 

I don’t think there are one or two strategies that could completely solve the issue. But I do think there are certain things these organizations can do to move early to develop different narratives that speak to local concerns and to distance organizations from more political agendas. They can develop identities, projects, and ideas that speak to local communities’ very real concrete needs. Begin to build alliances and partnerships with other actors from an early stage. Engage with the international community at an early stage and make sure these problems are not overlooked. Try to develop alternative business models, where resources can be generated locally. Try to build up relations with the business community that might act as some kind of protective shield. If the environment begins to feel hostile, prominent people have to consider leaving the country or closing down their organizations. Try and find ways of keeping these people active even if in a rather cautious way because this can keep basic civic infrastructure alive and keep some kind of residual activity ready to react. What we’ve learned from the last decade is that things can look very bad, but then openings can appear. 

CSOs can develop identities, projects, and ideas that speak to local communities’ very real concrete needs – begin to build alliances and partnerships with other actors from an early stage.

One failing we have seen from domestic and international organizations not to take full advantage of a potential for democratic breakthrough, if we do not move quickly enough, this gives the non-democratic regimes the chance to regroup and prevent democratic transition.

Yet, the battle for legitimacy and fully open democratic politics needs to be won domestically, but perhaps, more could have been done and could be done to try and lessen the severity of this problem. I think that requires a change in understanding of what civil society is, how it operates, and of the international dimension of democratic change as well.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)

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