Shrinking Civil Space in Europe: Part I

Annie Schultz Credit to C. VenablesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis post is by Annie Schultz. Annie is currently working at QCEA as an intern on the Human Rights Programme for two months.

On 11th June, the Greek government decided to shut down public media broadcaster ERT as part of its budget cuts, provoking strong disapproval in Europe. Although the Greek state-owned broadcaster has reopened since then, concern raised by this event remains, for it fits into a bigger picture: the shrinking civil space in Europe.

Shrinking civil space is a concept that encompasses a range of different processes currently happening in Europe. Defining and describing it is necessary to understand its extent. The threat it represents to the state of human rights and democracy on our continent makes it an urgent issue to be addressed.

What is civil society?Confusion

Shrinking civil space is easier to understand once we’ve established what civil society is. But defining civil society is a tricky business: as the European Commission puts it, there is no universal definition of civil society. According to the UN[1], civil society can be embodied in a great variety of actors, either organized (Trade Unions, NGOs, Community groups, Faith based organisations, etc.), or individual citizens. Their main features are their independence from state institutions and businesses, and their voluntary basis[2]. According to the European Commission[3], civil society defends people’s voices and interests in the public arena. To put it simply, what they do is shaping society by using their freedoms: of expression, and of association and assembly[4].

What is shrinking space for civil society?

But civil society actors are having their civil rights restricted or even denied – and that is the problem of shrinking civil space. This is a problem in states where a real shift towards democracy has once been made, rather than states where civil society is weak because of a lack of democratic culture. In those states, recent crackdown on civil society represents a step backwards in their democratic development.

Shrinking Space in Europe

In member states of the Council of Europe[5] (CoE), two trends appear.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former Russian oligarch and opponent to Putin, has been a victim of the political use of Justice in Russia. Last Wednesday, he celebrated his 50th birthday in jail. This event sadly coincides with the 10th year during which he has been detained in jail

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former Russian oligarch and opponent to Putin, has been a victim of the political use of Justice in Russia. Last Wednesday, he celebrated his 50th birthday in jail. This event sadly coincides with the 10th year during which he has been detained in jail

         On the one hand, some CoE Member States, namely the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan and Hungary, seem to be deeply embedded in an institutionalized crackdown on civil society. Governments or heads of states are clearly driving the restrictions on civil society using state power: constitutional reforms, restrictive laws, political use of justice, etc. The victims of these crackdowns are all opponents to the government: journalists, protesters, NGOs, human rights defenders[6]. In Azerbaijan, restrictive laws have recently made it more difficult to use one’s freedom of assembly. Demonstrations have been banned since 2006 in the centre of Baku, the capital city, and sanctions for unauthorized demonstrations have recently been reinforced with very high fines and imprisonment. Russia remains the most frightening example. A representative element of Putin’s fierceness on civil society is the Foreign Agent Law, passed in July 2012. It forces organizations engaged in “political activities”[7] that receive foreign funding to register as a foreign agent. By striking once, Putin hit NGOs twice. Firstly, by forcing them to register under this label, which means “spy” in Russian, Putin started a smear campaign against NGOs. As a result, NGOs have been discredited and their access to funding is compromised[8]. Secondly, the law criminalizes NGOs that do not strictly obey by that law and register as ‘foreign agents’, enabling Russian authorities to either issue large fines or even suspend their operations. Enabling Putin to suppress their voices.

On the other hand, shrunken civil societies in Europe are also the result of another phenomenon. It might be considered less institutionalized than the first trend, or dependant on economical circumstances. It should not be considered less alarming. Reactions to the 2011 and 2012 anti-austerity and anti-government demonstrations, especially in countries badly hit by the crisis, showed excessive use of violence by police forces[9]. In Spain, Greece, Portugal, Romania, many fed up and mostly peaceful protesters were injured or held in detention. According to Peio Aierbe, “Fear is being used to coerce the population into accepting these (austerity budget) cuts”.

          It remains to determine how these European crackdowns on civil society can be swept away.

Policeman kicking a protester during an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens in May 2010. (Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images)

Policeman kicking a protester during an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens in May 2010. (Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images)

[1] UNRISD, Mario Pianta (2005). UN World Summits and Civil Society, The State of the Art. Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper Number 18. P.5: “Civil society is a complex social arena, with individuals and groups organized in various forms of associations and networks in order to express their views and fulfil their interests. They could constitute anything from a global advocacy movement down to a village self-help group

[2] World Bank (2013). Defining Civil Society. « The term civil society to refer to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations”. Retrieved from:,,contentMDK:20101499~menuPK:244752~pagePK:220503~piPK:220476~theSitePK:228717,00.html

[3] European Commission (2001). White paper on European Governance. P.11. Retrieved from:

[4] Those civil liberties are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, Art. 10 and 11.

[5] The Council of Europe should not be assimilated to the European Union, for they are two separate entities. The Council of Europe has 47 Member States, including all EU Member States, but also others that are not part of the EU, for instance: Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, etc. See:

[6] In Hungary, the crackdown is more focused on Media Freedom and Freedom of religion

[7] According to this law, a political activity is broadly defined as to: « participate in organizing and implementing political actions aimed at influencing decision-making by state-bodies intended to change state policy pursued by them, as well as in the shaping of public opinion for the aforementioned purposes » Human Rights Watch. 2013. Laws of Attrition, Crackdown on Russia’s civil society after Putin’s return to the Presidency. P.14.

[8] The Observatory for the protection of Human Rights. 2013. Violations of the right of NGOs to funding: from harassment to criminalisation. P58-60. Retrieved from:

[9] Excessive use of force refers to a way of policing demonstrations that goes beyond what is accepted by International law: « Art. 3 of UN Code of conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states « law enforcement officials mays use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty » », Retrieved from: Amnesty International. October 2012. Policing demonstrations in the European Union. P.3. Retrieved from:

About Bethany Squire

Bethany worked as QCEA's Sustainability Programme Assistant from September 2012 to September 2013
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