Special for the Armenian Weekly
Civil society is a system of public mechanisms and relations that is self-contained and independent from the state. It provides conditions for the satisfaction of the private interests and needs of groups and individuals. In the Western political understanding, a strong civil society allows for the promotion of democracy and good governance in transitional democracies such as Armenia.
Armenian non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—and in the broader sense, Armenia civil society organizations (hereinafter CSOs)—have grown in number and prominence over recent years. However, there are still various institutional and organizational barriers that do not allow CSOs to strengthen their capacity and become key factors in promoting democracy in Armenia. Today, a large number of Armenian NGOs is involved in democracy building, human rights advocacy, and good governance promotion.
It should be stated that non-governmental organizations have a unique position in the Armenian social system. In a broader sense the role and mission of the NGOs is, firstly, to protect and advocate for the rights of Armenian citizens, prescribed by the Constitution and by international treaties; secondly, NGOs have a function of promoting private interests and the demands of citizen groups and individuals, as well as participating in public governance; thirdly, through NGOs, the community is able to determine public control and sub-control over Armenia’s state governance and local self-governance.
Whenever we talk about the role of Armenian NGOs as democracy promoters, we need to face a cold reality: Today, government-civil society cooperation and dialogue are weak in Armenia—for many reasons, including:
– NGOs are often viewed by government officials as being disconnected from the general public, and not representative of the people’s voice;
– many civil society organizations are perceived by the public as profit-making and non-transparent;
– the CSO sector usually lacks the required competence and skills to affect government policies;
– CSOs are in a permanent struggle against each other for finding sustainable financial donors.
These factors create an atmosphere in which the level of trust and reliability between the government and CSOs is increasingly declining. If we compare the development of civil society in Armenia with other Eastern Partnership countries (like Moldova, Georgia, or Ukraine), the main and fundamental difference is that in Armenia, CSO involvement in the policy-making cycle and generally its influence on government policies seem to mostly be an imitation of other movements rather than a natural and logical process.
It is important to mention that the opportunities for independent and democracy-promoting Armenian NGOs to participate in policy-making—not as consumers, but as providers of policy alternatives to the government—are very limited or simply do not exist yet in practice. The case of President Serge Sarkissian’s unpopular decision on Sept. 3, 2013 to withdraw from the Armenia-EU Association Process is one of the best proofs of the above-stated thesis. Although the vast majority of civil society actors were against this decision, no public discussion or debate was conducted with them and no large-scale protests by NGOs or civic movements were launched in Yerevan. Of course, one may debate that in this case, the president’s decision could not be characterized as “unpopular.” However, it clearly highlighted how unprepared the civil society actors were, especially the pro-European organizations, to stand up and advocate for their values, as it was, for instance, in Ukraine.
Generally, the existence of a weak and disorganized civil society may open doors for bigger challenges. Unfortunately, one challenge that exists in Armenia is the replacement of independent civil society organizations with “quasi civil society actors,” who get a platform to present their views, though in reality they simply present the government’s viewpoint and understanding of democracy promotion in Armenia. To some extent, they are even established by pro-governmental individuals and get direct funding from various state institutions.
The other challenge for Armenian NGOs is the search for reliable and sustainable financial donors, which will allow them to enhance their existing administrative and institutional capacity. Usually, the donors list includes stakeholders from abroad. However, external financial support is also quite tricky to deal with, as there are cases of biased and non-professional implementations of externally funded projects in the field of democracy promotion and good governance by different Armenian NGOs, which in turn may lead to the discrediting of NGOs as real agents of change and promoters of democracy and transparency. Therefore, addressing the matter of financial sustainability of Armenian NGOs is imperative in the context of civil society development, as external financial support cannot be considered as a solution for the existing internal and local inter-organizational problems (lack of qualified staff and experts, and corruption).
It should be noted that there have been many cases when locally self-organized civic movements—and not Armenian NGOs—have executed their aims and mission without any external financial support or without any institutionalized structures. The success stories of the Mashtots Park, “100 AMD,” and “DEM ENQ” civic movements stand as milestones, showing that it is possible to impact government policies via civic activism. Accordingly, civil society could also be described as a tool for empowering citizens to act for the benefit of the wider community. The civil society movements and groups mentioned above represented the interests of Armenian citizens and also successfully shaped government policies.
The right key for expanding Armenian civil society participation in the democratic change of Armenia could lie in building, developing, and sustaining an understanding between civil society actors and the general public. Simply said, if we want civil society and NGOs to become real agents of change and sources of democratization, the Armenian government needs to change its attitude and rethink the role of civil society in policy-making and democratization, and refrain from treating civil society and NGOs as potential threats/spies/agents, but rather as strong and reliable partners. Additionally, ordinary Armenian citizens should value the activities of various civic groups and NGOs, who in many cases struggle for the citizens’ prosperity and welfare.
Simultaneously, in order to increase the role of NGOs in Armenia, as well as the efficiency of the public control of state governance and local self-governance through NGOs, the Armenian government and National Assembly should take further legislative steps to tackle the above-mentioned problems.
The door of cooperation and understanding between the Armenian government and civil society is not locked…yet.