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NGOs are the left in the East

Igor Stokfiszewski wants progressives in the West and South to urgently form alliances with progressive parts of civil society in CEE and the Balkans.

21. March 2018
Magazine > Voices > NGOs are the left in the East

Europe is on fire. Progressives – especially in the West and South – should recognise the unprecedented role and the historic transformation of NGOs in the East, accept the Eastern third sector as a political partner, and urgently form alliances with progressive parts of civil society in Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Europe is on fire. Eastern Europe (former Soviet Bloc countries plus the Balkans) has almost completely burned to ashes already. Roasted by three decades of austerity in states where the transition from centrally planned economy to the free market took place, the region has also seen the rise of far-right tendencies within society; fueled by divisions between EU states and non-EU-states, Eurozone countries and non-Eurozone countries, Shengen agreement signatories and non-Shengen area states. The sum of these socio-political dynamics in the East has resulted – among other things – in the political triumph of populist forces in Hungary and Poland, in cementing the dictatorial regime in Belarus, generating political instability in Moldova, and outrighit fighting in Ukraine.

Lukasz2 via Wikimedia Commons

At the same time new progressive movements and political parties in the Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe have emerged as forms of resistance to austerity and the far right. The municipal movements and the Razem political party in Poland, the Demos political party in Romania, the Levica political party in Slovenia, and the Zagreb je NAŠ! municipal political platform in Croatia might be examples of success stories where progressive, citizen-driven forces, inspired by methodologies and approaches born in Southern Europe (after the 2011 Peoples Uprising) and supported by Western political allies are creating a hopeful future for the East.

Against the background of the radicalisation of nationalism, populism, and neoliberalism, there must be an urgency to move quickly towards encouraging progressive forces in the region.

We have to be honest, however. Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans consists of twenty countries inhabited by a population of about one hundred and eighty million people. While the socio-political turmoil of the recent decade in Europe and beyond have resulted in the emergence of new political parties, confluences and platforms in the South and inspired leftists in the West to build new political agendas, electoral successes in the East have been few and far between. In Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans this progressive “wave” has translated into four seats on the Zagreb city council, six in the Slovenian National Assembly (for the United Left platform – the ancestor of Levica) and an extra-parliamentary opposition party in Poland with an electoral performance of only 3.6 % in the most recent election. Even after adding individual cases of progressive city mayors (like Robert Biedroń in Polish Slupsk) or single leftist politicians in some of Eastern European governing bodies, our optimism should not be completely blind. Against the background of the radicalisation of nationalism, populism, and neoliberalism, there must be an urgency to move quickly towards encouraging progressive forces in the region.

The Eastern European chessboard

There’s no doubt we have to continue empowering Eastern progressive political parties, trade unions, and social movements – the traditional actors of the socio-political stage. That’s already taking place. Connections between parties from Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and their allies from the West and South are deepening. Eastern trade unions actively collaborate with their partners from all over Europe to blockade international chains of production and overcome national workers’ weaknesses in the globalised market. The Polish Workers’ Initiative trade union, which I’m a proud member of, contributes not only to black-red networks’ actions, but also to processes like the Transnational Social Strike which gathers different types of workers’ organisations to struggle against precarious working conditions beyond national borders as well as to redefine the methodology of strikes performed by autonomous workers. Eastern, Southern, and Western social movements stand side by side in solidarity against global economic agreements, natural disasters, and attempts to limit reproductive rights in Europe. Both in the West and East, we are also witnessing the renewal of sociological research focused on characterising social classes. Connecting political parties, trade unions and social movements beyond national borders as well as analysing our realities according to social differences are progressive strategies which we should never abandon. It’s our heritage, a matter of political efficiency which has been tested for almost two centuries, but also a matter of our identity and, thus, responsibility towards future generations.

However, traditional methodologies in the East seem to have failed to support the advancement of socially oriented, democratic, progressive political forces. That’s because we have not recognised one significant actor which could both contribute to the progressive agenda building process in the East and transform relations between political forces in the region – civil society organisations or the third sector, if you like. Progressives – especially in the West and South – should recognise the unprecedented role and the historic transformation of NGOs in the East, accept the Eastern third sector as a political partner, and urgently form alliances with progressive parts of civil society in Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

A lesson from Croatia

In March 2017, the eyes of the East focused on Croatia. Zagreb je NAŠ!, a municipal political platform that assembled progressive forces announced that it would run in the May 21st local elections . The decision to stand for elections was made after 2014 and 2015 brought a successful electoral attack from the United Left in Slovenia and a partly successful appearance of urban movements in Polish local elections – as well as the creation a new Polish party, Razem. Now, it was Croatia where organisers hoped the next episode in the progressive Eastern wave would occur. For two months, Zagreb experienced an unprecedented citizen-oriented and grass-roots political campaign appealing right to the city’s principals. With 7.6 % of votes ZjN managed to occupy four seats in the Zagreb City Assembly, twenty-one seats in city districts and forty-one seats in local councils.

MZaplotnik via Wikimedia Commons

Although Zagreb je NAŠ! claimed their political approach and electoral actions were inspired by municipal platforms in Spain, there are significant differences between the city space offensive in Southern Europe and in the Balkans. Electoral success in Croatia did not come after social turmoil, mass mobilisations, or other struggles that had prepared the ground for progressive forces in the Spanish context. Instead, victory was a consequence of the patient development of a leftist milieu in the country since at least 2007. What’s more, it was not a newly-developed type of movement party based upon a confluence of social movements, engaged individuals and political platforms which structured itself into an electoral entity. Zagreb je NAŠ! developed directly out of the local NGO scene.

Victory was a consequence of the patient development of a leftist milieu in the country since at least 2007.

Croatia could be a perfect example for what we recognise as a transition from civil society to political society (or politicised society) in the last fifteen years in Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Croatian civil society organisations launched in the mid-two thousands around issues of culture, public space, the commons, ecology, feminism, LGBT rights, and labour analysis transformed after 2010 into organised social movements introducing direct action campaigns against the privatisation of public spaces, environmentally devastating large scale investments, housing problems, working conditions in different economic sectors, and other progressive agenda issues, until they eventually became an electoral force. A lesson to learn from Croatian experience is that in the East, NGOs are the natural allies for strengthening the left.

Political society – the Polish experience

To precisely track the stages of transition from civil society to political society in the East and further elaborate on its benefits to the progressive agenda, let me discuss the Polish experience. In Poland there are approximately one hundred thousand non-governmental organisations (associations, foundations and social economy actors) which compose the third sector between free market dynamics and the state.

The third sector in Poland – as in all Central-Eastern European countries and the Balkans – was established in the early nineties, with the support of American funds, in a liberal – or even neoliberal, if you like – modus operandi. It was based on the principles of political neutrality- , civic-oriented activities, and social support, including charity. The third sector was stabilised in its liberal realm through the development of state support mechanisms and – after accession to the European Union in 2004  – through financial injections from transnational institutions.

However, NGOs simultaneously became spaces for critical thinking and political action. Almost all social movements of that era – feminist, environmental, or LGBT movements – grew out of the third sector organisations. This phenomenon was related to the lack of progressive political forces in Poland. While the post-communist party drifted towards Anthony Giddens-like “third way” policies, mixing socially sensitive declarations with neo-liberal solutions, civil society was rushing  in the opposite direction – it performed the “reversed third way” so to speak, abandoning the liberal principles upon which it had been constructed and heading towards direct political engagement with the leftist spirit. Some of the organisations launched in the mid-two thousands, with Krytyka Polityczna as the most significant example, from their very beginning claimed political goals and implemented methodologies taken rather from the political than civil society space. After 2010, the politicisation of the third sector found its first electoral expressions. Urban movements which competed with some success in local elections in 2014 originated from the third sector and were – in their majority – organised into civil society type entities.

From the progressive perspective, 2015 brought another crucial development within the civil society milieu. NGOs in Poland became the main arena for workers struggles against precarious conditions they’ve operated in so far. Civil society thus not only recognised itself as a neoliberal machine, but pushed towards abandoning its market-like roots with a large number of the sector’s workers implementing socially oriented development instruments within organisations and in the third sector as a whole. A significant differentiation in civil society’s class composition was manifested in this particular moment. While in the nineties and early two thousands the third sector was occupied rather by middle class actors, since the mid-two thousands and especially after 2010, the precariat has begun to dominate; transforming the sector into a potential class base for progressive politics and inculcating it with the socio-political practices of the leftist repertoire.

2015, however, will be remembered not because of labour movements in civil society, but because of a sudden acceleration of the transition from civil society to political society in Poland. Populists from the Law and Justice party won elections.

A far-right government addressed the necessity to support civil society organisations which popularise conservative values instead of the progressive third sector mainstream. First they attacked the dominant third sector organisations in the public sphere, then they began cutting state funds for “incorrect” NGOs. After 2015, the expression “political society” began to refer to two phenomena – it described a process of politicisation of Polish society as a whole which manifested itself in mass mobilisations against the far-right government, and it related to part of the third sector which openly declared disobedience against the central government.

Having learned from the Hungarian experience where the third sector had been literally smashed by Viktor Orbán’s regime the Polish civil society environment immediately abandoned an apolitical approach and declared itself an opposition force. In 2016, the Citizens Fund was established – an autonomous fund which is supposed to provide sustainability for dissident NGOs. Simultaneously ngo.pl portal – an online platform for information-sharing and knowledge-exchanging purposes within the civil society environment – invited key figures of the sector to express their opinions on necessities for the civil society circuit to exercise political action. Most of them stated clearly: civil society in its apolitical liberal realm is not enough anymore in the urgent situation where a far-right government is attacking fundamental constitutional and human rights.

In 2017, the Polish government established the National Institute for Freedom, which is supposed to regulate civil society by distributing funds towards conservative groups and abandoning dissident organisations. It goes without saying that the politicisation process had already been activated within right-wing civil society. The pro-life movement is the clearest example. The far right is politically benefiting from this fact in Poland, Hungary and everywhere else in Central-Eastern Europe and in the Balkans. Rightist political society has become a fact, while on the centre and the left it’s becoming a reality in front of our eyes. It’s only a matter of time until the majority of the one hundred thousand NGOs in Poland declare their step towards empowering and establishing political platforms, especially since Polish society will soon participate in an electoral marathon: local elections in Autumn 2018, European elections in Spring 2019, parliamentary elections in Autumn 2019 and presidential elections in Spring 2020.

The third sector and the left

Political society is a phenomenon which goes beyond any particular ideology. A nositive consequence of the transition from a civil society to a political one is that people transform themselves from consumers into activists. A society together with its grass-roots organisations becomes a protagonist of political action and change. The negative consequence is that not every part of the dissident third sector in Poland, to stick to this example, will empower progressive forces. Many entities and individuals will contribute to liberal and even neoliberal agendas.

Now is the time for progressive political parties, trade unions, and social movements to intervene in the third sector of the East. We must help to empower progressive tendencies within a mosaic of political actors into which the Eastern civil society environment will soon transform. The third sector in Central-Eastern Europe and in the Balkans is a well organised network of people, groups, and institutions which is moving towards direct political engagement. It is a class base for progressive politics and is already inhabited by leftist practices related to social movements and trade unionism. The Left in the West, in the South, but also in the East should recognise our historic momentum and extend strategic partnerships to progressive parts of civil society. We have to focus immediately on creating an electoral expression for this new pact in the nearest future.

The point of departure for this article was my intervention in the discussion about connecting Eastern and Western European politics during the Summer School organised by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Madrid between 4 and 8 October 2017. I would like to thank the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation for an opportunity to contribute to the discussion and all participants of the School for their inspiring inputs.


This article originally appeared on Political Critique on 25 October 2017. The original article can be found here. It was republished for the first time on 3 November 2017 on Alliance Magazine Blog. We thank Political Critique for the cooperation.

Cover photo: Maciek Grzenkowicz via Flickr