By Vincent Maresca
Strengthened civil society in the 21st century poses a challenge to the norms of sovereignty. Although not every state targets academia, non-governmental institutions (NGOs) and nonprofit organizations are riddled with controversy. While some NGOs help change the behavior of nation-states for the better, others seem to pursue disruptive tactics such as regime change, traditionally associated with military coup d’états.
Some of the prominent NGOs involved are the Open Society Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. Their activity occurs mostly in countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East where instability and perpetual conflict remain a common occurrence.
In Russia, billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation funded pro-democratic initiatives and caused outcry from the government. According to the Washington Times, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office banned two of Soros’ organizations: the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation after an investigation found them to be a “threat to the foundations of the Russian constitutional system and security of the state.”
In other countries of Eastern Europe, Soros’ NGOs interfered in the domestic policies of Ukraine, Hungary, and Macedonia. The New American reports that Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation funded the Euromaidan protests, which led to the ousting of President Victor Yanukovich.
According to an RT News interview, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporter Sophie Shevardnadze that Soros’ NGOs “helped illegal immigrants to get into Hungary.” He further states that Soros “would like this government to fail … because he doesn’t like our approach, doesn’t like our policies.”
Finally, the Macedonian news website Republika reported that politician Nikola Srbov launched an initiative to investigate the Open Society Foundation. He accuses the organization of monopolizing civil society and stamping out any disagreeing opinions.
Finally, in the Middle East, other NGOs are involved in similar acts of undermining sovereignty. According to the Global Policy Forum, Egyptian prosecutors cracked down on “pro-democracy” NGOs in early 2012, “accusing them of failing to register with the government and financing the April 6 protest movement with illicit funds in a manner that detracts from the sovereignty of the Egyptian state.”
Egypt installed a travel ban on former Transportation Secretary’s son Sam LaHood, a member of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S.-funded NGO. By March of the same year, LaHood and some NGOs left the country.
The article further mentions that “state-sponsored organizations,” not NGOs such as the IRI and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) receive funding from the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) for promoting the growth of political parties, free economies, and free elections. Thus, these organizations, masked as NGOs, meddle in the political and economic process of foreign states.
Having examined these cases, does civil society do anything positive? Certainly, NGOs are very effective in advancing causes while at the same time maintaining a degree of independence from other actors. For instance, the World Youth Alliance (WYA) promotes the dignity of human life in areas such as the U.N. and the European Union.
In addition, many of the countries subject to regime change have functional institutions and still maintain their NGOs who work at the grassroots and domestic level. For instance, Hungary has a variety of groups addressing issues such as health care, political participation, education, and consumerism.
The problem with civil society as it exists is that special interests groups control most of the NGOs, the academia, and other organizations. In such cases, individuals should become the main actors in shaping the policies of civil society.