Human rights situation has recently deteriorated in the number of countries of Europe and Central Asia, similar as in some other parts of the world. The right to association is among those human rights that are especially threatened.
Whereas the political changes of the late 1980s and 1990s - themselves marking the end of the Cold War and of communism in Europe as well as the institutionalization of political pluralism in many countries on all continents - had hinted at an emergence of a new era, of a more peaceful, more democratic, and more free world, the last ten years have witnessed setbacks. In some previously democratized countries the concept of “illiberal democracy” has emerged. Populism is in the rise everywhere. Authoritarian leaders have taken charge and democracy is endangered in some countries that had been on the path of democratization, while the rule of law - together with human rights as its vital ingredient - has been degraded or even openly rejected.
This new wave of authoritarianism has not spared any continent and has swept over countries very much different in culture, economic development or democratic traditions – from centuries` old democracies such as United States, via previously stable countries such as Venezuela, to relatively fresh democracies in Philippines, Turkey, Russia, Hungary or Poland. In numerous countries in the east of Europe or its neighborhood (Azerbaijan, Central Asian countries, Russia, but also some Central European or some Balkan countries) freedom and democracy seem to be - or somewhere clearly are - in retreat. However, the reaction of the liberal political spectrum is not anymore as weak and disorganized as it used to be a few years ago and some national elections have proven that populism was not invincible.
In its recent report titled “Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians” Freedom House (FH) has found out that contemporary authoritarians had developed new strategies, with which they successfully practiced and increased repression even in formally democratic countries. They readily use all the benefits of open society, combine unfair elections with majoritarianism (a notion that government which was once elected by the majority might feel free to implement any policies it wished, regardless of constitutional restraints or other modern democracy principles) and (instead of domestic, ideologically stubborn propagandists) extensively use consultants, lobbyists or proxy media from the democratic countries to promote their regimes or water down the criticism. FH noted: “China is in the vanguard, but there are also K Street representatives for Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and practically all of the authoritarian states in the Middle East.”
The report is, from our perspective, especially interesting in as far as it portraits the challenges that civil society organizations face under the rule of the new authoritarians. The legislative actions of Russian authorities aimed at limiting the ground for NGO activities are thereby paradigmatic. Russian law on “foreign agents” is, by the way, a role model for all authoritarian tendencies towards repressing CSOs, from Central Asia to Balkans. From Tajikistan to Macedonia, governments tried, at different levels of success, to copy-paste the Russian law and adjacent methods of limiting civil society activities.
In a nutshell, Russian “foreign agents law” (in fact, the amendments to the Law on Non-Commercial Organizations), carried in 2012 and subsequently re-amended in 2014 and 2016, requires NGOs that carry out (vaguely defined) “political activities” and receive foreign funding to separately register with the Ministry of Justice, to file quarterly financial reports, to be subject to extra (and arbitrary) monitoring and audits and to mark all their publications as a product of “foreign agents”. The amendments as of 2016 broadened the definition of “political activities” to any public policy advocacy, or analysis of the government`s performance, or opinion polls on political issues, or petitions aimed at implementing certain policies by the government. Yet another set of amendments, to others of the dozens of NGO-related laws, carried in 2015, barred the activities in Russia of - or working contacts by Russian citizens or organizations with – the foreign organizations deemed as “undesirable” (defined as those that were a “threat to constitutional order ... defense capability of the country, or the security of the state”.
The concept of “undesirables” is in fact the recycled old communist concept of an “internal enemy”, or “enemy from within”, or “fifth column”, or “class enemy”. Starting from the premise that Russia is encircled, besieged and vitally endangered by Western-style democracies, all those in Russia that cooperate with Western-based organizations (GOs or NGOs alike) become suspicious. In communist times, it was Western secret services that were accused as the mortal danger for the country. Nowadays, “the enemies” are mainly transnational NGOs that promote liberal values, rule of law, democratic transition and human rights, such as those sponsored by George Soros. Not least for Russian, but for many other authoritarians in between Danube and Pacific, “Soros” is a symbol of evil and a dirty word. By cutting foreign funding to local NGOs, as well as by satanizing them in the eyes of domestic public, authoritarian governments manage to suffocate some NGOs. In a situation where there is not much culture of charity in transition countries, coupled with clientele economic system whereby rarely any domestic potential donor dares to fund politically sensitive NGO activities, cutting or severely limiting foreign funding means an end of activities, especially for those NGOs that advocate democratic change, or curbing corruption, or developing of a more opened and tolerant political culture.
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) also monitors and tries to encourage more freedom of association in countries of its activity, including in the framework of its Freedom Barometer project, itself launched in 2013 in five Western Balkans countries, while later spread to 30 countries of Europe (both Western and Central and Eastern), Caucasus and Central Asia. Freedom Barometer monitors, marks and comments the state of freedom in those countries, in its three main components: political freedom, economic freedom and rule of law. Besides independence of judiciary and fighting corruption, respect for human rights is among essential ingredients of the rule of law.
For monitoring human rights in those 30 countries, FNF has been developing its Human Rights Index. Its goal is to become primary or secondary (while no more tertiary) source of quantification of various aspects of human rights. Thereby, “Freedom of assembly” is placed in the section of “Personal rights and choice”.
The quantification of the “Freedom of assembly” in the Freedom Barometer Europe Edition 2016, based on the figures from the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, has shown that full membership in the EU usually coincided with high level of respect for the freedom of assembly. For the EU member states, it is hardly thinkable to maintain a concept of “internal enemy” for their own citizens and their voluntary associations. A notable exception is post-2010 Hungary, where many elements of the Russia-inspired crusade against “foreign agents” are in action. “Soros-mercenaries” or other “undesirables” are not yet banned, but the intention to do so is clear. Another exception might, in future, be Poland, yet in that particular case a very strong civil society resistance might be expected (which has already been practiced in cases of a few anti-liberal draft laws). Romania is also a special case (freedom of assembly is a bit below EU average standards), but the tendencies are not as gloomy as in the former two cases.
The analysis of the state of freedom of assembly in transition countries shows that a stagnantly poor result, or a deterioration of a previously decent record on the freedom of assembly, coincide with recent tendencies towards more authoritarianism in the political sphere, with the increased introduction of the elements of “illiberal democracy” (including majoritarianism) and/or with “sharing practices” with the official Kremlin. Russia, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are the worst among 30 monitored countries regarding freedom of assembly (marked just 3/10). The decline - as compared to the previous years (2014 and 2015) - has been noted in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Hungary, Turkey and (pre-December 2016) Macedonia.
Regardless of different purely political, military or diplomatic level of alliance with nowadays Russia, in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia (not to forget also Serbia, in particular when it comes to NGOs dealing with war crimes "legacy" of the 1990s) it is a legitimate (and often even distinguished) element of the public discourse on associations, especially on those advocating human rights or on those representing minority or vulnerable groups, to copy-paste Russian official discourse and/or to launch similar legal initiatives (be they carried or not). In Turkey or in Hungary, Russia is rarely mentioned explicitly, yet many methods of dealing with “undesired” are similar. Following a failed coup as of July 2016, Turkish authorities have outright banned an unprecedented number of civic associations, on a wide scale between humanitarian, educational and human rights advocacy ones, whose activists were, to it, often jailed. Meanwhile, Hungarian government`s legal crusade against “Sorosites” has so far been surgically precise and has mainly targeted the university CEU in Budapest and a few adjacent organizations, while others are attacked verbally.
Besides, in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Central Asian countries, the struggle against terrorism is often misused for a showdown with purely political opponents of the government, both in opposition parties and in the NGO sector. The vaguely defined label of “extremism” is readily put on all those whom those governments want to silence, in a hope that Western media and governments will not object. Btw, the limits to religious freedom are often justified by the struggle against extreme Islamism and adjacent terrorism. Those limits equally hit the violent and peaceful religious cults, provided they were not government-approved and controlled. Thereafter, not least small independent religious communities (including new religious movements) suffer, but the long-established, legitimate (and often peaceful) Islamic schools of thinking are discriminated against, for the benefit of the privileged government-approved cults (and their clerics).
In Western Balkans, e.g. in Montenegro, Serbia or Macedonia, legal limitations to normal NGO gathering and activities are rare. Yet nothing is done to encourage the development, modernization and sustainability of those organizations. Budget subsidies to NGOs are often granted selectively and arbitrarily, to organizations that avoid criticizing the government, or to mere “Quangos” close to the ruling political parties. Domestic private charity activities are actually discouraged, except in the purely non-political sphere. Tax system provides little or no incentives for the domestic private support to charities. Defamation of de facto “undesirable” NGOs (and their front people) is practiced by the pro-government tabloid media, while legal and judicial protection against that is scarce.
All taken, it seems that - a few exceptions aside - EU accession or membership have positive impact on the improvement of human rights situation, including in the field of freedom of assembly. In the EU, in its members and candidates, as well as among aspirants to it (such as Georgia or Ukraine), it is better than elsewhere in the region understood that economic prosperity and social stability are also based upon a strong respect for human rights. Freedom of assembly is an essential element of those, both traditionally and regarding modern society`s needs.
To defend the achieved progress in democratic transition against new threats of populism and authoritarianism or from the proponents of “illiberal democracy”, liberally minded civil society organizations (as well as liberal political parties) need to develop new strategies. The recent electoral defeat of populists in Austria, Netherlands, France and some German federal states showed that by better addressing the needs of citizens and finding new modern ways to approach them, liberal or other democratic politicians (and policies) could prevail. By cooperating trans-border, by identifying the needs and concerns of citizens and by educated them in civic activism, as well as by identifying and boldly opposing cases and methods of repression used by modern authoritarians, NGOs could do favor both to themselves and to the case of freedom in general. The same goes for liberal political parties. In the task of stopping authoritarianism, they are allies.
FNF Freedom Barometer Team