Participation and Civil Society in South-East of Europe

Jan W. van Deth, Professor of Political Science and International Comparative Social Research, Mannheim University

An engaged citizenry and an active civil society are key factors for a vibrant democracy. Yet all over the world shrinking civil societies and stocks of social capital – indicated by declines in membership of associations and clubs as well as by falling voter turnouts and waning partisanship – can be observed. After a brief summary of the arguments stressing the importance of civil society for democracy, some major empirical results on the spread of citizens’ engagement are presented. These findings all show clear differences between various regions, with very high levels in North-West Europe and much lower levels in South-East Europe. Besides, recent developments show no trace of a disappearing gap between these regions.

Most explanations for the relatively modest size of civil society in South-East Europe stress the shared history of these countries, referring both to experiences under communism and to more recent experiences with democracy and Western initiatives. Instead of following the conventional practise of gazing at the differences between North-West and South-East Europe three major problematic aspects of the relationships between state and civil society in South-East Europe are identified:

  1. “uncivil society” seems to be more prominent here than in other regions,
  2. several states try to regulate civil society associations and promote pro-government groups, and
  3. international support for civil society frequently does not reach grass-root organizations.

These aspects can be understood as challenges for civil society to improve its position in South-East Europe in the near future.