How to wake the “civil” in societies in Eastern and Central Europe? After coming back from this year’s edition of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum Civil (EaP CSF), I realised I had no idea how to engage all those Central and East European non-governmental organisations and encourage them to work towards one common goal. This would be the toughest challenge for best organisers in the world. We have no miracle remedy for the inactive attitude of citizens, which goes back in the past, yet we still can list down our remarks and observations, and ask one question: how to release the energy that was stifled in the Soviet times?
This article is reply to
Krzysztof Bobiński‘s article and Adrienne Warren‘s contribution.
The root of all evil
Where should we start? Perhaps, quite paradoxically, at the very beginning, almost 100 years ago. We should remember that our neighbours in Belarus and Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics, dwelt behind a much thicker “iron curtain” for a longer time than we in Poland and Estonia, or, thinking broader, in Central and Northern Europe. Maybe the know-how and solutions we try to apply in Eastern Europe, even those verified and successful here, are слишком [in Russian: too] advanced?
“Now it seems we are victims of the Western perspective”.
Yes, Winston Churchill noticed the barrier he called the Iron Curtain in 1947, but it doesn’t mean there had been no such thing earlier. I would be so bold as to state that it appeared back in 1920. That was the very moment a “pre-Berlin wall” was erected across the lands east of the Finish-Baltic-Polish-Romanian borders. The Second World War was just a shift, that’s all. Nihil novi in this region. As the winner in this war, the Kremlin moved the bricks a few hundred kilometres to the West, right under the noses of the Allies. Now it seems we are the victims of the Western perspective on the history of Europe. Thus, we should not emulate the Cambridge or the Sorbona approach, because: a) it complicates our efforts to fix the situation in this region, and b) it’s simply false and may result in a wrong diagnosis. We should forge our own methods, create tools and shape strategies.
The lack of a common goal…
So let’s go back to the EaP CSF. First and foremost, NGOs attending the Forum did not gather there around their own common goal. Surprised? It’s true. It was not a grassroots initiative or a conscious decision of those organisations as they did not call on the European Commission to organise and cover their meeting because they just felt this extreme need to debate. They – or rather we -were summoned by Mr Fule. Indeed we are a wonderful layout for “something”, yet undefined, but we do not have a clear aim and our interests in front of us. We are expected to have it and actually it would be good if we do, but in my opinion the end result so far is a washout.
“Indeed we are a wonderful layout for something yet undefined, but we do not have a clear aim”.
In the end, however, it doesn’t mean there is no need for us to meet. There’s a profound sense in these meetings, even though, after 5 such events that took place so far, we ought to change their formula. Let’s give up the idea that we participate in this Forum because we have a concrete, visible goal. We don’t. Oups! Sorry, but let’s call a spade a spade. As I mentioned: it doesn’t mean there is no desire among us, the NGOs of the region, to meet. It exists and it is enormous. And we need to continue such meetings for the lack of an alternative – a real possibility to meet among NGO activists from the whole region in one place. But let’s start simply, from intensive networking!
…and democratic standards
Another factor determining the present condition of the EaP CSF is the attendees’ understanding of how democracy works. Let’s go back to the very roots: democracy is a system of grassroots activity. In many cases the understanding of this mechanism is poor. Many NGOs in Eastern – and also Central – Europe can’t be called democratic. I met organisations that I would name a one-man / one-woman institution model. Their chairmen, presidents, directors or whoever heads them are not elected though in papers it may look like they were.
“I met organisations that I would name a one-man / one-woman institution model. Their chairmen, presidents, directors or whoever heads them are not elected though in papers it may look like they were. The truth is quite the opposite”.
The truth is quite the opposite. In this “democratic” theatre, their voters were often friends or relatives, puppets in a non-democratic play where a real internal competition for positions was absent while the stage was ruled by pure formality. Moreover, the whole mechanism reflects the top government system – the presidential elections in Azerbaijan or Belarus only mirror the actions of the players on the lower levels. Even in Poland institutions are often managed according to a strict vertical hierarchy. So, once again, what understanding of a grassroots organisation do these activists really have? None. Here we face a serious obstacle – how to unlock the real potential of the third sector in Eastern but also Central Europe?
Digging in the deep
If we want to see a real change, we need to understand the meaning of democracy, a word usually associated with a “crisis” in Eastern Europe. Democracy means free and fair rivalry among many contestants and candidates for one position, on every single level of an organisation.
“How to unlock the real potential of the third sector in Eastern but also Central Europe?”
The purpose of this process of competing is to spread real, peaceful energy, to formulate arguments and arm the participants with determination to overcome difficulties standing on their ways. Finally, in this process we learn how to win and how to lose, and – in the end – how to engage people. Therefore we need to care for the quality of the competition on the ground levels of organised life in Central and Eastern Europe. We need to tend it, to support it. Yet we should be also prepared that we have to wait two or three generations till the quality, this tree we take care for, will break roofs of authoritarianism in the region and change the directions of our thinking about governing from NGO to the state level.