Taking stock with theories of civil society, this project will examine to what extent Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) contribute to the development of civil society in contemporary Post-Communist Latvia and how this is related to problems of democratic consolidation. The relationship between civil society and democracy should be seen as an issue for empirical research – not a priori assumptions. Whereas most scholars argue that civil society has a positive effect on democracy it has also been argued that civil society has contributed to the development of highly repressive authoritarian regimes. It is essential to acknowledge that civil society groups may be anti-democratic as well as pro-democratic. Furthermore, despite the strong interest in civil society within democratization research, there is still a lack of solid empirical evidence concerning the specific relationships between civil society and democracy. Partly, this is due to methodological problems of how to “measure” civil society. NGOs are often used as a proxy for civil society, but this is an inadequate indicator. It is unclear not only exactly how civil society strengthens democracy, but also how NGOs might strengthen civil society.
This project will inquire into the role of different kinds of NGOs within civil society and analyze what challenges the specific configuration of civil society constitutes for the consolidation of Post-Communist democracy in Latvia. Hence, the aim of this project is to provide a critical analysis of the relationship between NGOs, civil society and the consolidation of democracy. Two major research questions will form the core of this project: How do different kinds of NGOs contribute to or hinder the development of civil society? How and under what conditions does civil society contribute to the consolidation of democracy?
A disentanglement of the civil society concept – differentiating between various forms of civil society – is a central aspect of the research design. The present project will deal with three subtypes of civil society 1) pro-democratic civil society; 2) a-political civil society; and 3) anti-democratic or “uncivil society”. Latvia – with its recent history of massive civil society mobilisation during the struggle for independence, a rapid growth in the number of NGOs during the 1990s, and a variety of ethno-political and exclusivist organisations – is particularly suitable for this kind of inquiry.
A combination of quantitative survey data and qualitative case studies will be used. Drawing on existing databases of NGOs (available from NGO-centers and/or state authorities) a selection of NGOs will be made. A survey will be conducted, including questions on attitudes towards democracy and NGO relations to a) the people they claim to represent, b) the general public, c) the state, d) political parties, e) capitalist interests, and f) international donors. This will be complemented with a mass survey on public views on NGOs and civil society activities in general. This mass survey will allow us to go beyond the exclusive focus on NGOs and analyse other dimensions of civil society too. In order to deepen our knowledge of specific relations between NGOs, (un)civil society and democracy a few NGOs will be selected for case study analysis, based on documents from these organisations as well as qualitative interviews with leading members.