Civil Society in Central Asia [explainer clip]

What makes democracy work? The amount of literature written in an attempt to answer this question is vast. Many conclude that there is no way of finding a single answer, but the common perception is that civil society is an integral part of a functional democracy. [1] Thus, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international community encouraged countries in Central Asia to develop strong, representative, and inclusive civil society to smooth the transition from totalitarian to democratic regimes. 

However, three decades later, civil society in Central Asia did not form itself as expected. [2] Every country in Central Asia chose their own way of transition and their stance on what civil society should look like. For example, civil society is extremely limited in Turkmenistan. In Uzbekistan, civil society became a tool of the state to exert its power over people. Kazakhstan has imposed strict regulations on how civil society functions, while Kyrgyzstan initially welcomed the idea of a strong and vibrant civil society, but has been attempting to impose restrictions over the past two decades. 

What is civil society after all? Despite being an inherently vague and complicated concept, civil society can be explained as an “intermediate group of people” that moderates political views and mediates between ordinary citizens and the political elite. [3] Thus, civil society can, in some way, be a watchdog that prevents the latter from abusing its powers. Cooperation and civic engagement that lead to increased trust and reciprocal principles are the main components of the generalized social capital (or connections among individuals), which constitutes a vibrant and inclusive civil society. Social capital is characterized by a high level of associationalism that enables people, regardless of social and economic status or ethnic background, to actively engage in community activities and collectively address issues for a greater benefit for all. [4]

The concept of civil society with generalized social capital and high levels of trust originated in the west. Civil society took a different form in Central Asia and many scholars question whether the western concept of civil society is applicable at all in a non-western setting. [5] What constitutes civil society in Central Asia are non-governmental organizations that have sprung around Central Asia in vast numbers. 

In addition to rigorous control of civil society organizations in Central Asia, organizations have been facing other challenges. After the enactment of “foreign agent law” in Russia, some countries in Central Asia have followed or attempted to introduce similar laws. These attempts gave rise to increased hostility from the public, as well as from state agencies, who have become even more suspicious of civil society organizations and have labeled them as “foreign spies” and “enemies of the nation”. Civil society organizations are also criticized to be unrepresentative of populations, led by few professionals, politicized, detached from reality, as well as led by the interest of international organizations in a given country. [6]

Scholar Yulia Shulte refutes arguments against civil society organizations stating that the criticism addressed to civil society in Kyrgyzstan is not the fault of organizations per se, rather it is the governments, who failed to implement democratic reforms and lacked “a vision of a governmental and social structure that would ensure social development, let alone consolidate the principles of  democratic governance and culture.”[7]  Social processes that took place in Kyrgyzstan since the 1990s up until now have always been critical and resulted in social disintegration and “absence of social responsibility or public trust.” [8] This in turn has undermined “social cohesion and individual aspirations.” [9]  As the government failed to perform well, citizens became increasingly frustrated. Frustration led to distrust in government, which made reformation of institutions problematic. 

It is often implied that civil society is a cornerstone of democracy, but there are other theories about what drives democracy forward. Dankwart Rustow, researcher on democratization, argues that the only necessary pre-requisite for successful democratization is national unity, which in reality means that people don’t have any doubts or “mental reservations as to which political community they belong to.” [10] Or in other words, people organize around common values that are based on inclusivity and aim to bring benefit to all. National unity is also a necessary precondition for social capital to emerge. What is interesting is that the existence of national unity implies that no minimal level of economic development or the level of societal difference is necessary as a precondition to democracy. Over the past three decades each country in Central Asia has introduced nation-building policies to identify themselves as political entities and unify different communities residing within their borders. These policies are based on histories and legends around figures such as Tamerlane in Uzbekistan or ideas of “Common Home” such as in Kyrgyzstan. [11] It is hard to predict as to how long it will take for nation-building policies to enable different communities and groups of people to feel that they belong to a given Central Asian country. 

Disclaimer. This clip was created with the funds from SIDA and managed through ForumCiv. ForumCiv does not necessarily share the views expressed in this clip.

Written by: Talgat Subanaliev, board member at Central Asia Solidarity Groups
Viktor Romanov, operations coordinator at Central Asia Solidarity Groups


List of Literature Used:

1) Timothy J. Peterson and Jon Van Til. Defining Characteristics of Civil Society.

2)Kathleen M. Dowley and Brian D. Silver,Social Capital, Ethnicity and Support for Democracy in the Post-Communist States”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54, No 4 (2002): pp 505-527,

Holt Ruffin, Daniel C. Waugh, “Civil Society in Central Asia”, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1999

4) Putnam, Robert. “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy,” Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1993

David Lewis, “Civil society in non-Western contexts: Reflections on the ‘usefulness’ of a concept,” Civil Society Working Paper 13, (2001): pp.1-17

6) Maija Paasiaro, “Home-grown strategies for greater agency: reassessing the outcome of civil society strengthening in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan,” Central Asian Survey, 28:1 (2009): p 59-77

7) Yulia Shulte, “Policy Brief Reflection as a Necessary Stage in the Development of Civil Society,” Social Research Center American University of Central, pp. 1-6

8) Ibid

9) Ibid 

10) Rustow, Dankwart A. “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model.” Comparative Politics 2, no. 3 (1970): 337-63. Accessed January 11, 2021. doi:10.2307/421307 

11) Erika Marat “National Ideology and State-building in Kyrgyzstan building in Kyrgyzstan building in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”