Supporting Democracy and Human Rights in Illiberal Regimes - A Case Study of a "Closing Space" for Civil Society in Russia
Today in Central and Eastern Europe, nationalist rhetoric is increasingly pitted against the concept of liberal democracy, depicting those promoting democratic values as threats to the illiberal nation state. Transnational donations to civil society organizations (CSOs) is a prevalent manner to counteract these tendencies by promoting democratic values and human rights through financial support. However, a closing space has emerged for those transnational donors who once proudly and openly supported democracy and human rights in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. By banning, or severely restricting, transnational donations to local CSOs a regime may strengthen its hold on society at large. One of the most systematic manifestations of a closing space in an illiberal regime can be seen in Russia.
Foreign funding has played an important role in promoting human rights and democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the freedom that initially existed for foreign-funded CSOs has been radically reduced. Over the past fifteen years, foreign funding to Russian CSOs has been put under severe scrutiny and several prominent transnational donors have been outlawed. Despite the restrictions, some CSOs in Russia, like in other illiberal regimes, still manage to interweave the promotion of democracy and human rights with local discourses and practices. The purpose of this project is to explore the support of democracy and human rights in illiberal regimes by looking at the relationships between Russian civil society organizations, their transnational donors, and the local regime over time (1991-2018). These complex relationships are operationalized as negotiated accountability, where accounts are concurrently directed both to the transnational donors and to the local illiberal regime.
The study is based on funding applications and reports from Russian CSOs to their transnational donors, as well as annual reports and other information directed at the local authorities. This documentation, in combination with interviews, creates a historical research material showing the precarious balancing of CSOs between transnational donors’ expectations, and the local regime's demands. The material will be analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively. The study contributes to an in-depth understanding of the challenges of promoting democracy and human rights in increasingly illiberal regimes in Central and Eastern Europe.