What’s wrong with civil society

For Foreign Policy, I write about a subject that has been bothering me for ages – the inappropriate and harmful use of the term “civil society” when discussing policy in authoritarian states. I spoke briefly about this at the Registan conference last fall, but EU representative Catherine Ashton’s visit to Uzbekistan made it newly relevant:

When Ashton invokes Uzbekistan’s “civil society,” one cannot help but wonder to whom she refers. Uzbekistan’s government bans any civic organization not under its official sanction, including religious groups, human rights associations, political parties, and independent activists and journalists. After 2005, when the government shot to death hundreds of people attending a protest over the imprisonment of local businessmen, the government expelled nearly all foreign organizations that fund community initiatives. The civil society section of Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report on Uzbekistan is a round-up of all the people arrested for attempting to create civil society. Each year, more and more of them flee the country.

In Uzbekistan, “civil society” is a secret society, working underground and dodging state persecution, unable to achieve almost any of its aims. They are not a bridge between government and the people, as the definition of “civil society” traditionally implies, but a symbol of the implausibility of such a category in an authoritarian state.

So why would Ashton use such a term?

Find out at my first article for Foreign Policy — Stop Talking About Civil Society.

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