On Saturday, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill forcing all foreign-funded media in Russia to register as ‘foreign agents.’ The move echoes a 2012 Russian law asking the same of any domestic NGO receiving external funding. In June, Hungary passed a law forcing any NGO that receives more than 24,000 Euros a year in foreign donations to register as a ‘foreign-supported organization.’ Israel set up a similar register in 2016. Prime Minister Netanyahu has since been calling for limits on foreign funding to Israeli civil society groups.
If you’re spotting a pattern, you’re on to something. Authoritarian regimes have always tried to defang civil society as a potential source of dissent, but Russia, Hungary and Israel are part of a new trend. Instead of trying to openly coopt or subdue civil society, many states are turning to a simpler strategy: Under the guise of protecting national sovereignty, they starve out civil society groups that rely on foreign assistance. The follow-the-money approach extends beyond outright authoritarian states – Hungary and Israel were both classified as ‘free’ in this year’s Freedom House ranking – and threatens democracy across the globe.
Why is an independent and well-funded civil society vital for democracy? One answer lies in the idea of responsiveness, as articulated by scholars like Robert Dahl: If a democratic government is supposed to be responsive its citizens, people need space to form and communicate their interests in a setting free from state control. Civil society organizations (CSOs) offer this space in countless ways. Anticorruption watchdog groups and election monitors provide information and transparency. Newspapers often play a similar role. Many NGOs work to increase people’s ability to articulate informed interests, be it through civic education, women’s empowerment, or environmental activism. Some provide assistance to parties and parliamentarians in fledgling democracies. Others work to strengthen the rule of law by training judges.
Such activities are often a thorn in the side of political incumbents. Rulers who want to tighten their grip on power feel threatened by an independent civil society and its capacity to organize and mobilize people. This is particularly true for groups promoting democracy and the rule of law. In the traditional authoritarian playbook, the response to this threat is a mix of cooptation, repression and violence. This strategy persists today, but has become costlier. Nowadays, states that openly flout democratic norms run the risk of facing international opprobrium and even sanctions.
In response, many rulers have devised subtler strategies to hold on to power. This kind of “stealth authoritarianism,” as some scholars call it, has reshaped how states seek to control civil society. Aware that many domestic NGOs engaged in democracy promotion rely on foreign funding and grants to carry out their work, governments set up administrative and legal hurdles to limit or block those funds.
These hurdles come in many different forms, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Some states, such as Ethiopia, impose limits on the permissible percentage of foreign funding. Others, such as India or Venezuela, restrict or ban foreign funding for specific issues, such as human rights. Onerous registration requirements are another popular tool. These measures substitute the power of red tape for the blunt force of the police baton, but they are no less consequential: Of the 158 NGOs labeled as ‘foreign agents’ by the Russian government as of September 2017, some 30 groups have shut down rather than work under the label, according to Human Rights Watch.
The new rules often go hand in hand with government campaigns to portray externally-funded NGOs as puppets doing the bidding of foreign masters. Restrictions, so the argument goes, ensure transparency and prevent the subversion of democracy by outside powers. In Hungary, the push to register foreign-backed NGOs has coincided with a sustained public campaign against Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist George Soros, whose foundation supports pro-democracy civil society groups in the country. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has accused Soros of trying to undermine Europe by encouraging mass refugee migration, and his government put up anti-Soros billboards around the country. Likewise, after Uganda passed a restrictive NGO law in 2015, a human rights activist described the Ugandan government as “flash[ing] the sovereignty card demonizing NGOs as agents of foreign interests.” When Russia expelled USAID in 2012, it accused the US agency, which had provided funding to many pro-democracy groups inside Russia, of meddling in its elections.
This is an intuitively appealing, but ultimately unconvincing argument. Granted, foreign attempts to directly shape political outcomes in a country clearly run counter to democratic norms. This is because foreign governments are not accountable to the citizens of the state in whose politics they are interfering. Likewise, states usually do not let foreign individuals vote or make donations in national elections.
Yet foreign-backed providers of democracy assistance tend to argue that their activities are non-partisan and designed to consolidate democratic processes in general, not to favor one political actor or group over another. As the authors of the 2014 Carnegie study note, this distinction is often a challenging one to make in practice, and even civil society is often rife with partisan divisions. But the researchers also point out that, wherever democracy promotion benefited some actors more than others, “donors have argued that they are not taking sides in a pluralist, democratic context, but instead helping level an uneven playing field to give pro-democratic actors a better chance.”
This distinction should not be missed. Inevitably, efforts at promoting an independent civil society in a semi-authoritarian setting run up against the interests of entrenched political elites. Working to strengthen democratic norms in such a setting – e.g., by supporting election monitors – often amounts to empowering dissidents, but this happens not so much by design as by definition. The bottom line is that countries are legally entitled to invoke national sovereignty to shut CSOs off from foreign funding, but this does not mean that such measures will strengthen democracy – quite to the contrary. Cutting off a crucial lifeline for a robust civil society from the outside, governments are working to ensure that they face less dissent from within.
Photo: Civil society protesters in Taiwan. Public Domain.