Challenges of the civil society, its past, present and future - these are the topics we talked about with Keti Khutsishvili, Executive Director of "Open Society - Georgia" Foundation.
Interviewed by Lali Shalvashvili
Dear Keti, there are different views about "civil society" as a term. How would you interpret it?
Keti Khutsishvili – the term "civil society" emerged back in Ancient Greece. Aristotle referred to polis as "association of associations" and considered it successful if every free citizen was actively involved in its life. As for the modern understanding of the term - it was formed much later, in the treatises of the 18th Century philosophers Adam Ferguson and Thomas Paine and crystallized finally in the works of the 19th Century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. After his travel to the United States of America he wrote the work that became the classics on the topic of democracy and civil society development. Tocqueville was the first to talk in modern context about the significance of free associations between the state and individuals based on the interests, needs, activities, or other principles, which, in his opinion, protect individuals from potential dictatorship or despotism, warrant free development of individuals in the society, and at the same time link the society to the state.
The concept of civil society continued developing in the 20th Century and became of special concern after the start of a new wave of democratization and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, on one hand free states emerged in the Eastern Europe, and on the other hand, the prospect of emergence of free states within the former Soviet Union appeared. During this particular period emphasis was made on the civil society as in these states directly, as well as in the donor countries, as it was easier and more acceptable for the donor states to assist the development of the civil society rather than the political parties or other groups. At the same time, new outlook on civil society emerged in the Eastern Europe, namely that the civil society is more than a link between the state and individual, and that this is what protects individuals from the state and enables them to better protect others' rights.
When discussing the civil society today, we put huge emphasis on the civil society organizations (CSOs) directly, whereas the civil society is much more than the CSOs. The discussion around the term is still relevant, which was especially heated up over last 2-3 years, when the large movement focused on the social or human rights, which united broad public groups, was launched in the Middle East, for instance Egypt. New discussion raised the following issue - whether the term was narrowed down too much and whether the donors have put excessive focus on the assistance of CSOs when less attention was paid to the naturally emerging and other type of movements in the society. Obviously, this discussion will not be over today and tomorrow,, as it requires a lot of time. We have to consider this issue thoroughly as well.
CSOs are a certain tool for the civil society for it to demonstrate and protect its position. What are the other roles that CSOs play in the development of the civil society?
Keti Khutsishvili – CSOs play a crucial role in the development of the society, and especially in the states similar to ours, as organizations are focused on concrete issues, such as social, human rights, rule of law related issues. They try to elaborate on these issues in a concentrated manner, develop policy lines in respective areas, and advocate them. I believe all of these functions and directions are of vast importance. Our society is developing and for this development to be rational, the entire potential accumulated in the CSOs must be utilized. Another role of CSOs is to bring their ideas, concept and policy works to a maximum extent to the uthorities on one hand and to the general public on the other hand. Policy works oriented on reformation and rational resolution of this or that area are, of course not always, but on certain occasions taken into consideration. Yet, when Georgia is of concern, often organizations communicate more with each other, donors, authorities, and in number of cases with due criticism and on principle, ut their ties with the public at large are weak. Often they do not represent any social group or lack direct and close ties with them. Frequently CSOs may be very active or carry out extremely important work, but general public may not be aware enough of this.
What is the reason behind this?
Keti Khutsishvili – as a first priority, wider groups of society should engage in the discussions on the importance and need of civil society, as well as in the activities of CSOs themselves. Often the activities and objectives of CSOs focus on boosting the civil activities, and when this is of concern, more interaction must take place with wider groups of society. Apparently there is no recipe for this.
Let's go in further details. Why is the society unable to be wider engaged in the activities of CSOs?
Keti Khutsishvili – there are various reasons. Firstly, in each particular moment the authorities are neither interested in CSOs finding an easy and direct language with the general public. Secondly, the society is interested more in economic and social issues rather than in human rights, development of democracy, ecology or other issues that CSOs work on. Of course this also means that the needs of each period must be taken into special consideration, and if social and economic issues are the priority for the society, more organizations should work on these topics. Organizations on one hand and donors on the other must pay attention to these relevant topics, as when the Georgian CSOs are concerned, unfortunately they are assisted by the international donors only. It would be ideal to have local donors in the country that would fund the CSO activities. Only under this scenario will the number of welfare and socially oriented projects increase.
What are your observations and views about the achievements of the civil society in Georgia?
Keti Khutsishvili – since 1990s the civil society in Georgia went through several stages of development. Before 2003 it seemed to be extremely developed, but we now realize that this was partly an illusion as its strength only overshadowed the weak state apparatus. This was a certain niche for intellectual individuals, where the talent, intellect and fervor were concentrated. In 2003 the situation changed - part of civil leaders moved to the authorities, part to the opposition, and a bit later to academic circles as well. This in itself is not a dramatic but natural process, which should have occurred. One could say the excessive energy that was accumulated in the civil sector drained out and dispensed. Although many of our colleagues joined the authorities, communicating with the authorities did not prove to be easy. Especially in the first years after the "revolution" the authorities did not accept any criticism and recommendations, and their attitude was "we know everything, we don't need your advice...". Accordingly, the resources available in the civil sector were not utilized. In recent years this situation changed to a certain extent - new leaders have joined the civil society with new ideas and principles.
By the way, no authorities of any state are ready to accept criticism; nevertheless, in recent years the authorities still have to take into account the recommendations of the civil society. Maybe not so often, but they have to enter into dialogue with the civil society and I hope this will become more frequent. In recent years CSOs have managed to bring human rights abuses to the front and protect the rights of individual citizens, reveal the property rights violations and contribute to their restoration, promote more transparency of media ownership, etc. Yet, there is a lot more to do in these and other areas as well.
In addition to the issues you have raised, is there anything that the civil society failed to achieve?
Keti Khutsishvili – we still could not achieve the stable society, which could develop without conflicts and dramatic changes. We still could not manage to change the authorities through elections peacefully and democratically, while the elections and electoral environment are one of the key focus areas of CSOs. The civil society itself exists for the country to develop through peaceful changes and norms set under the Constitution and other laws. The strength of the civil society will prevail whenever such changes are secured; not through politicization of the civil society, which would take on the role of political parties, but through creating the room for each individual to disclose his/her sympathy/apathy on one hand, and to make his/her choice and pursue his/her interests on the other hand.
What kind of impact does time factor have on all of this? Was there sufficient time for this?
Keti Khutsishvili – the theorists of civil society say that the strong civil society in itself does not guarantee the democracy, but the strong civil society can contribute to the country's democratic and peaceful development. Organization like ours cannot change much in essence in our country, but it will contribute to the development of civil society.
If we compare our situation with other states, even with our neighbor states that we show huge respect to, our civil society is more active and CSOs play a much serious role - they can reveal and bring to a public scrutiny a problem and offer ways of solution to the authorities. Saying that CSOs do not play a role would be wrong - maybe the results of their activities are not always ideal, but their role is definitely important.
What should be done in the future for the development of the civil society?
Keti Khutsishvili – I believe a lot. On one hand, donors have their share of responsibility - they should not promote the implementation of projects in view of their concepts and missions, but based on thorough examination of the country's needs and local specifics. We must acknowledge that donors often elaborate their priorities and the CSOs have to adjust to these priorities willy-nilly. Every new strategy or concept must take into account local needs, and therefore the process must be bilateral and interactive - CSOs must be involved. Organizations themselves must expand their relations with the public to a full extent, arouse citizens' interest towards their activities, involve them more and provide them with the possibility to be active. There is a vast potential of volunteerism in Georgia, which was vividly demonstrated during the 2008 war. Almost all families in Tbilisi assisted the IDPs. This potential should be activated so that individuals are able to see the fruits of their activities. In addition, CSOs need more efforts for the coordinated and coalition-type work with each other. When there is a common objective, individual interests and desire to win a grant must not hinder the creation of the coalition. We understand there is a huge competition in the field, but when the needs of the country and society are concerned, personal interests must be put aside. Diversification of the sector, which is already underway, is equally important – organizations work in the social, human rights, and other areas. This process should continue. Many research organizations must be set up, as their importance in the development of the country's future policies and determination of strategic researches is enormous. Most importantly, the society must be open, showing, active and involved in the country's development, and at the same time tolerant towards the minorities. Unfortunately, we experience this problem as well and I could not say it was sufficiently attended to in recent years. Tolerance to different groups – this is what the society needs and CSOs should dedicate more work to these issues, because we as the state will not develop without it. On one hand, the majority must be actively involved in the public life, but at the same time if interests of all minorities are not taken into consideration and embraced, we will not become the country of future. Besides, in each particular moment the society should serve as a tool that solves the conflicts through discussion and peacefully.
What are the three key values that the civil society should hold to and be based on?
Keti Khutsishvili – Civil society should hold to liberal values: rule of law, priority of human rights and free development, and tolerance.