Research article
Issue: № 6 (48), 2016

Коберидзе Т. 

ORCID: 0000-0001-8062-2958, Кандидат Политических и Социальных Наук, Грузинский Институт По Вопросам Общественности  (GIPA)



Ослабление советского режима и политические изменения 20-го века заложили основу для активизации национального самосознания, стремления к новому - либерально-демократическогу типу государства в странах Центральной и Восточной Европы, а также Грузии, что, естественно, повлекло за собой интерес к развитию гражданского общества. Многие исследования подчеркивают важную роль международной помощи в построении гражданского общества. Вместе с этим, общепринято, что в результате общего исторического опыта,  гражданские общества этих стран сходны, в основном в отрицательном контексте содержания и поведения. Пост-советское гражданское общество часто называют «наследием 1989 года» и одновременно критикуют за свою слабость и фрагментарность, за неспособность выполнять обязательства, и в особенности за отчуждение от потребностей населения. Несмотря на это, настоящая статья подчеркивает различия как между гражданскими обществами стран т.н.пост-советского пространства, так между различными элементами и субъектами внутри концепции. В тоже время статья ответит на вопрос: существует ли "пост-советское гражданское общество”, как таковое.

Ключевые слова: гражданское общество, НПО, демократизация, пост-социалистическое пространство.

Koberidze T. 

ORCID: 0000-0001-8062-2958, PhD in Political and Sociology Science, School of Social Sciences of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA)



Weakening of the Soviet Regime and political changes of the 20th century provided a ground for revitalization of national consciousness, aspiration for the new type of a state bearing liberal-democratic norms, in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and in Georgia. This naturally resulted in the interest towards civil society development.  Many surveys highlight the important role of international assistance in building civil societies, and it’s widely accepted that common historical experience have caused similarities of the latter, in a negative context at most. Post-soviet civil societies often refer to “legacy of 1989” and simultaneously criticized for being weak and fragmented, not being able of fulfilling its obligations, and most importantly - for not responding to populations’ needs. The current article questions the common approach to assessments, highlights multiple differences among civil societies of different countries, also among different units and subjects involved with the concept of concern, and aims at answering the question: does “post-soviet civil society” exist, as it is.   

Keywords: civil society, non-governmental organizations, democratization, post-soviet environment.

Historic experience and review of theories show that part of civic participation and engagement mechanisms stems from national traditions and civic culture, while the other part has been elaborated and developed in post-soviet context, in line with development of Western liberal models and through support to civil society and economic liberalization.

Like in 17th-18th centuries, emerging of the idea of civil society in the 20th century is linked with collapse of existing state order. Demolishing of Berlin Wall in 1989 embarked the idea of post-soviet civil society on a different level. Therefore, both Eastern and Central European and Georgian civil society are often referred as “legacy of 1989”.

By the end of the 20th century, new approach  –the “third way” emerged to counter the government and/or market domination and at the same time solve social and economic problems. The main essence of the “third way” is partnership between three sectors of society – public, private and civil. The “third way” includes three main directions: a) necessary laws of state power (including social mechanisms), resulting from non-directed action of individual decision in market space, b) voluntary work and c) discussions and agreements. In addition, association life became central and is assumed to be the way to social progress that is equaled to “civil society” development.

The idea of institutional and ideological pluralism in post-soviet space was matched with formation-development of civil society that would contradict power monopoly, balance state institutions or complement public policy. In addition, the civil society was tasked with very importance role of promoting liberal values in the society, revitalization of communities, nurturing of active citizenship, introduction of respect and cooperation practices, provision of morality as a means of self-interest, reviving of public life, etc.

It is obvious that the international organizations, that provide wide support to civil sector development within the frames of development assistance, were the ones to impose these rights and obligations on civil society organizations of post-soviet countries. However, it is clear that in this respect “civil sector” implies non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and it is assumed that in the countries of new democracy classic civil society does not exist, as it is.

Development assistance programs do play importance role in public and political lives of new democracies. For example, the statistics published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that by 2015 the Country Programmable Aid (CPA) from different donors made USD 106,706.89 billion. Out of this figure, assistance to Eastern and Central Europe made USD 4,508.25 billion and to Georgia USD 480.23 billion (

Through the above substantial financial support, western-type civil society organizations successfully provide services to Donors and, where possible, to state. They protect human rights, study and assess public policy issues, write reports and policy documents, conduct trainings for both public and state representatives, organize various types of thematic conferences, etc.

Nevertheless, the scholars argue that civil society organizations of post-soviet countries do not meet demands and are not able to implement their obligations. Vertical intervention from western partners, surplus funding, legal and other advantages are named as reasons behind the fact. According to the evaluators, the NGOs a) represent so-called non-governmental elite and b) are not linked with real problems of the society and therefore, do not provide platform for large-scale participation. For example, international polls and multi-national studies, such as USAID’s NGO Sustainability Index, World Values Survey, etc., characterize the Eastern and Central European, as well as Georgian civil society as weak and fragmented, lacking ability to cooperate and having very low public image. The capacity of civil society organizations to do in-depth analysis of public policy is also criticized as, according to scholars, this impedes the process of responding to people’s needs and hinders the possibility of making real impact of public policy.

Inability of states to develop and strengthen civil initiatives, as well as low level of voluntary organizations’ membership and lack of civic engagement are named as reasons for inefficiency of civil sector in new democracies (Howard 2003, Bernhard and Karakoç 2007). Reasons for low civic engagement are also named, mainly connected with lack of trust towards communist organizations that, in general, is equaled with mistrust in organizations’ membership. In addition, domination of friendship networks in soviet era caused “closing” of human relations in narrow circle that had negative impact on willingness to participate in civic initiatives together with “unfamiliar” people. Disappointment with post-communism era (economic conditions), in line with high expectations from independence, is named as the third factor (Howard 2003).

It is worth mentioning that big part of the classic Tocqueville theory on “active citizen” was elaborated and developed in Western Europe and the United States. Therefore, certain assumptions are made on rights, obligations and roles of an active citizen, as of a member of civil society. On the other hand, criticism of civil society, in most cases, is not targeted towards Tocqueville-type civil society that includes all associations and networks between family and state (formally established civil society organizations, political parties, churches and other religious groups, professional and other business associations, community groups, social movements, independent media etc. (Edwards 2004)). On the contrary, like in case of above-mentioned rights and obligations, it targets donor-supported so-called “NGOs” that in post-soviet space are often equaled to civil society.

Obviously, such “narrow” focus can distort the result of assessment.

Despite of wide-spread views, Eastern and Central European and also Georgian civil society was founded much earlier than 90s of the 20th century. However, irrespective of institutional forms, activities of civil society were revealed in the form of civic activism and/or social movement.

It is a well-known fact that civic activism in Europe by the end of 19th and beginning of 20th centuries was conditioned not by economic grievances but rather by the desire to get individual right in public life, such as widening of membership, association right, right to establish trade union, right of movement within state, freedom of speech, freedom of press, right to establish political party and participate in elections.

Elements of civil society establishment can also be found in pre-socialist past of Georgia. For example, existence of Tbilisi artisan and merchant guilds and similar organizations in medieval Georgia is considered by scholars to be a pre-condition for relatively high level of civic engagement in the 19th century Georgia (Tevzadze  2005 sighted by Nodia 2005). Civil society organizations emerged in this period mainly had cultural and educational focus (e.g. Literacy Development Society of Georgia) and also had big potential for development (Nodia 2005). Nevertheless, Georgian civil society was developed beyond western or current Eastern European models.  According to content and authority, it is closer to the model of “promoters of progressive liberal ideas” than to the model of “groups of people united around economic interests”. This is the former model that fits activities of Ilia Chavchvadze[1] and other “Tergdaleulebi”[2], who triggered activation of civil society in Georgia and development of liberal ideas in general (Nodia 2005, Tevzadze 2003). This is the time when printed media appeared in Georgia that created opportunity for discussion and debates around public issues and starting development of political organizations.

Soviet totalitarian system did not leave the room for private initiatives aimed at creation of public goods neither in Georgia – after Russia’s intrusion in 1921, nor in Eastern and Central Europe – after they joined Soviet Block in 1940s. Nevertheless, in line with weakening of the soviet regime, civil society emerged in different forms much earlier than international donor assistance entered these countries.

In Eastern and Central Europe multi-dimensional and institutionally strong association sector started to enhance in 1950s, still within the borders of communist state. For example, by the end of 1960 these kinds of organizations in Hungary and Poland became less submissive to ideology and took over the function of “interest groups” and advocated for the need of economic incentives with state. In 1980 strong trade unions, professional associations, churches and interest groups protecting rights of youth, farmers, customers, women, and ecology managed to ensure mass mobilization as a result of political crisis that transformed into solidarity movement (Ekiert & Kubik 2014).  This lead to strengthening of organizational capacities beyond the government-controlled framework (Ekiert & Foa 2011).

Many forms of civic activism emerged in Georgia in1960-80, such as dissident movement inspired with ideas of national independence and cascade of public rallies aimed at solving public policy issues. Main motivation of this kind of civic activism was mass mobilization against soviet regime. In Georgia of that period, no clear distinction was made between political parties and civil sector. The examples of civic activism, such as protests of 1978 aimed at preserving Georgian as state language (in the Constitution), or environmental protection protests of 1980s against construction of Trans-Caucasus railway and Khudoni power station, are worth mentioning.

After 1989, in line with strong anti-socialist attitudes in the countries and development of liberal values, uncommon effect appeared in terms of state-controlled “civil organizations”:

In Eastern and Central European countries, many associations that previously were under communist control implemented self-reform taking into account new democratic conditions. Many of them lost members and resources, became fragmented in small groups, changed names, changed leaders and agenda. Nevertheless, many of them survived and preserved big part the resources that they owned before 1989. Due to substantial international assistance, “non-governmental organizations”, charity organizations and foundations were added to the sector. Number of these organizations still continues to grow.

Unlike European countries, due to anti-socialist attitudes in Georgia, so-called “civil” organizations became fully discredited and after declaration of independence disappeared. Till nowadays, the organizations, such as political organizations, professional associations and trade unions, are not considered to be part of civil society in Georgia and are viewed as remnants of soviet past. Due to historic experience, civil society activities are equaled with civic activism that is more associated with rallies and barricades. Therefore, despite of 25 years’ assistance from the West aimed at institutional development of civil society and resources available for civic initiatives, street actions have important function in the process of influencing public policy.

Despite of confrontational nature of civic activism, examples of applying this mechanism using non-violent but rather peaceful and creative forms can be observed in Georgia during recent years. That supports the process of people’s engagement in addressing social, political or economic problems. According to 2013 analytical publication of Chatham House “new civic actors (in Georgia) tend to increasingly use strategies of civil mobilization and social media and are more visible in public domain. They are more efficient in terms of influencing state and public than Western-funded NGOs”.

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thoughts defines modern and global civil society as “unity of the institutions, organizations, subjects, values, networks (etc.) that stands beyond economic and political boundaries of state”.

If we base our judgement on the above definition, unlike transnational and large-scale studies, characterization of the country’s civil society requires individual study. In summary, historical experience that developed model of country’s association life is defined according to three features:

First, it is worth mentioning that civil society of post-soviet era was not established from scratch and starting from the beginning of the 20th century it formed quite strong and functioning segment of society in Poland, Baltic states and Finland, as well as Georgia (within Russian empire) (CIVICUS 2010).

Second, events of 1989 play important role in development of civil society. These events are indisputably acknowledged as victory of civil society movements over monolith communist regime (Ekiert, Foa 2011). It is interesting that both in Eastern and Central Europe and Georgia the mentioned historic precondition equaled the concept of “civil society” with opposition (dissident) groups.

Third noteworthy condition is the fact the communist regimes not only suppressed independent social and political organizations, but also actively built their own association structures (trade unions and professional associations, churches and various interest groups  - youth, farmers, veterans, customers, women, economists, ecologists, sports, etc.) that formed strong intellectual and institutional potential and in cases of some countries represented important force beyond state framework (in the conditions of country’s independence).

The above clearly shows the differences that should condition distinctiveness of post-soviet era civil society from not only countries’ civil society in general but also between units and subjects comprising the concept. Presumably, the countries that historically made steps towards democratization earlier are far advanced in terms development of all segments of Tocqueville-type civil society. Moreover, the important factors are how big was influence or how communist leaders treated association life, how big were the efforts made to build new organizations after collapse of communism, what was a historic tradition and to what extend the current political environment is supportive. It is clear that the term “post-soviet civil society” is no more relevant and does not meet modern standards of civil society assessment.

[1] I.Chavchavadze (1837- 1907), Georgian writer, poet, jurist and politician, the leader of Georgian National Movement

[2] A revolutionary democratic school of social thoughts at the end of 19th century in Georgia. Tergdaleulebi is a Georgian term that literally means “one who has drunk the waters of the Terek”; that is, one who has been to Russia (education-wise)


  1. CIVICUS Civil Society Index Analytical Report for Georgia, 2010
  2. Ekiert G., Kubik, J., Myths and Realities of Civil Society, Journal of Democracy V.25., #1, Jan, 2014
  3. Ekiert, G., Foa, R., Civil Society Weakness of Post-Communist Europe: A Preliminary Assessment, Collegio Carlo Alberto, #198, Jan., 2011,
  4. Tevzadze G., “Public Image of the Third Sector”, Discussions at the Caucasus institute 2 (8), Tbilisi, CIPPD, 2003, p.18-19,
  5. Nodia Gh., Policy Paper “Civil Society Development in Georgia: Achievements and Challenges” , Tbilisi 2005, p.12
  6. Howard, M.M., The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2003
  7. Lutsevych, O., How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, Chatham House Briefing paper, Jan, 2013, REP BP 2013/01
  8. Nodia, Gh., Civil Society Development in Georgia: Achievements and Challenges, Policy Paper, 2005, CIPPD Citizens Avocate! Program, pp1-60
  9. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development statistic
  10. The Balckwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thoughts, edited by Miller, D., Coleman, J., Connolly, W., Ryan, A., Blackwell Publishers, 1991 (pp-160-176)
  11. USAID’s NGO Sustainability Index (2000-2015)
  12. World Values Survey (2000-2015),
  13. M., Karakoç E., Civil Society and the Legacies of Dictatorship, World Politics, Volume 59, #4, July 2007, pp-539-567, 10.1353/wp.2008.0001,
  14. Edwards, M., Civil Society, Polity, 2004, p. 13, 18-21