This report was published by Middle East Political and Economic Institute in February 2020 based on the project financed by the International Foundation for Sustainable Peace and Development.
The book has the following contents
- Civil Society: Concept and Perspectives
- Case Study: The Impact of Civil Society in Romania
- General Data Overview
- Conclusions and Final Remarks
Despite the fact that civil society is a concept having its roots in Western Europe since the 18th century, its development in Romania is closely linked to the political transition from the communist system to capitalism.
In this regard, even though the civil society represents a wide range of units, from environmental movements to political organizations, trade unions, sports, religious or cultural organizations, the present essay will be strictly focused on the relationship between the civil society and the government.
The impact of civil society is strictly connected to the democratic capacity of a state, explains why in countries with consolidated democracy, we encounter a strong and autonomous civil society, while in countries with a weak democracy or those led by authoritarian regimes, civil society is either controlled or turned into a political instrument. According to the hypothesis that we put forward, in Romania, the balance of power between the state and civil society has changed along with the democratic consolidation.
In this regard, the civil society is not only an indicator of the level of a country’s democratization, but also an engine itself of the process of democratization and development (social, societal, political, economic, etc.), being the link between the state, free-market economy, and citizens.
A strong civil society will lead to the consolidation of the good governance acknowledged as a decision-making process of the rulers carried out for the purpose and benefit of the citizens, which can be measured by a series of indicators, such as the level of political decision-makers’ involvement and the respect of human dignity in the elaboration of laws, fairness, responsibility, transparency, and efficiency.
Based on that, in a consolidated democracy, the relation between the state and society is based on an active process of reciprocal influence and cooperation, while in an authoritarian regime civil society either does not exist or is fully controlled, its role being merely demonstrative.
In hybrid regimes that are combining democratic values with authoritarian policies, also known as illiberal governments or competitive authoritarian regimes, the civil society has limited freedom of expression as a result of the government retaliation, yet its voice is still present. Moreover, in this case, civil society is regarded as one of the last internal resorts that can prevent the transformation of the state into a completely authoritarian regime.
Hence, in recent years, a number of academic studies have been focusing on the closing space around the civil society, which results from the restrictions of some governments imposed on the external financing of some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or hosting some representatives of international organizations. Nonetheless, certain restrictions may represent a legitimate policy of a state and not necessarily a democratic abuse. For instance, even the United States (US) invoked such policies that concerned certain NGOs following the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, or the outbreak of the Arab Spring in December 2010.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the relationship between civil society and the government, the present essay also concentrates on the broader picture but does not go in details, which could still pave the way for new studies which would respond to many research questions, such as, for example, the connection between NGOs in Romania and the interests of the partners that finance their activity.
Its structure is centered on the last three decades during which Romania has been consolidating internal democracy. Thus, we have correlated the evolution of civil society consolidation with indices used by the international community for measuring the level of democracy of each state.
Generally, the studies available on the Romanian civil society focus either on a post-transition (beginning of the 1990s), either on a digital and youth activism (post-2010), whereas a few encompass a detailed analysis of Romania’s civil society. Thus, we identify the need for an in-depth sequential study that will underline different stages of the evolution of the Romanian democratic experience, via the means of civil society.
The Romanian society experienced a challenging post-communism scenario, marked by successive stages of civil engagement. It is worth noting that in the aftermath of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) integration, Romania passed a maturity test for its democracy, and hence, the civic expressions have found a suitable forum where to manifest. Additionally, in the last decade or so, there was a major overhaul of civic engagement, marked by the informational revolution arising in early 2000. As a result, youth movements gained prominence and visibility, reaching out to different layers of the society, enhancing the democratic life.
There are several theoretical frameworks of the concept. In a classical tone, Michael Walzer defines civil society as the sphere of free-will association between the individual and the state, where people commit collectively for a normative or substantive purpose, without much interference from the government and the market. The classical theories operate with functional definitions of the civil society, observed as an intermediary layer between the state and the individual. This layer is crucial in promoting and nourishing an elaborate nucleus of relations (Tonnies & Harris, 2001). Edwards et al. (2001) specify three functions of civil society: socialization, public and quasi-public, and representative or contestatory.
The case study will go back to the history and emancipation of the Romanian civil society, with a predilection for the past three decades of democratic experience. As such, the emergence and development of civil society in Romania is directly linked to the development of a public sphere for debates, a process facilitated by the modernization wave in the late 1850s, in the context of a surge of written publications and Western-educated intellectuality. The creation of Greater Romania through the unification with a number of multicultural provinces a century ago enabled the legal framework for the principle of freedom of association. During the Great Wars progress on associative rights was hampered, due to restraint conditions of life, a gap further deepened under communism. In authoritarian regimes, where the state is hegemonic, it is confiscating parts of the traditional or day-to-day relational networks. The fall of communist systems at the beginning of 1990 triggered a complex phenomenon of societal change, Romania committing itself to democratization. The case study will focus exactly on the specificities of these past decades. The study encompasses three stages of evolution of the civil society presence in democratic Romania, namely: 1990 – 1999, 2000 – 2010, and 2011- present.
The period 1990 – 1999 marked an incipient stage for the NGOs world, Romania witnessing the first waves of democratic engagement, free elections, and structural economic changes. The complex nexus of organizations, associations, and political structures are core imprints of a nascent democracy. Especially, after the 1992 parliamentary and presidential elections, the civil society entered a process of consolidation.
The period 2000 – 2010 equates a maturity test for the Romanian democracy. In fact, after 1999, when the European Union integration has become almost a certainty, the non-governmental sector has managed seized the opportunity of receiving more visibility. At the end of 2000, as a consensus, Romania was declared as a consolidated democratic environment where various actors can make their voices heard. After 2000, a major informational change happened. The internet culture induced a new pathway for a civil action, equivalent to more engagement for the youth and structural changes for communication.
The period 2011- ongoing is a prolific stage for the civil society in Romania. Many of the NGOs established to differentiate their activity. They focus on either environmental problems (mining, the protection of rare species in Danube Delta); either on human rights (children, women, and judiciary rights). Some represent global views, while others represent local aspirations. It is a transformative symptom of a maturing democracy. In addition, in recent years, the Romanian youth contestation movement has had several significant moments.
The general data and chronology mentioned are collected in the report, summarizing the salient aspects of the civil society movement in Romania while highlighting its relations with the overarching power structures and events in Romania that paved the way to democratization.
Conclusion and Final Remarks
The study demonstrates that civil society is the foundation of a solid and functional democracy, confirming the hypothesis launched in the introductory section. We may estimate that the power ratio between the state and civil society has become much more balanced alongside the consolidation of democracy.
While Romania still has to develop a series of characteristics to consolidate its democratic system, even more, civil society can advance a public agenda and also influence it.
Regarding the evolution of civil society in Romania, we may state that:
- It developed concomitantly with the democratic consolidation process, which Romania undertook as part of its transition from Communism to Capitalism;
- The cultural legacy of Communism, the reticence when confronted with change and the need to adapt, as well as the immaturity of civil society, made it more difficult to consolidate civil society during the 1990s;
- The difficulty of political transition is also given to the fact that, unlike Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, the Communist period in Romania did not experience a political dissidence that fostered the emergence of civil society;
- Accession to the EU and NATO played an essential role in the development of Romanian civil society;
- Financing remains a vulnerable issue for many NGOs. A part of them remain vulnerable to offers of external financing, which may contribute even to a populist political narrative;
- Starting with the year 2000, the Romanian civil society played an ever-greater role in setting the public agenda;
- Social media played an important role in the large-scale protest movements of the 2000-2010 period;
- Despite the presence of multiple organizing NGOs, the protest scene was bereft of strong leadership and other decisional factors.
To conclude, one should note the role of the civil society organizations in various domains, ranging from the consultations organized (formally recognized by law) by the ministries proposing normative acts. The NGOs can issue warnings in various areas to be regulated; also, they try to make proposals to remedy slips. Through their mediation powers, these organizations can manage to influence the governmental decisions and ultimately have an impact on the public policies of Romania. Civil society groups and networks are formally part of the decision-making processes.
The case of Romania represents a story of nascent democratic attributes, respect for the freedom of association, trying to protect the intermediate layer between citizens and the state. Despite the challenges at the rise of the 1990s, Romania proves the maturity of its democratic values and involves citizens in public policies, encouraging free expression. The study can thus serve as a starting point for debates on democracy, functional civic implications, and the possibility to enhance the relation state-citizen. It can ground exchanges with decision-makers and academia in other parts of the world, as well, taking into account Romania’s past and successful transformation.
Alexandra Sarcinschi, Dimensiunile non militare ale securității, București, Editura Universității Naționale de Apărare Carol I,2005, pp.19-20.
Ralph Schattkowsky, Good Governance and Civil Society: Definitions and the Political Dimension in Adam Jarosz (Editor), Good Governance and Civil Society: Selected Issues on the Relations between State, Economy and Society, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, p. 3.
Rachel Cooper, What is Civil Society, its role and value in 2018?, K4D Report, available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5c6c2e74e5274a72bc45240e/488_What_is_Civil_Society.pdf, accessed on 07.02.2020.
About the author:
Flavius CABA-MARIA, President, Middle East Political and Economic Institute (MEPEI), Bucharest Răzvan MUNTEANU, Strategic Analyst and Project Manager, Middle East Political and Economic Institute