(Andrei Pop from the Civil Society Development Foundation on the Balkan Civil Society Development Network) The article looks into the shapes of a rapidly closing civic space in the Romanian society, especially since 2017, and investigates potential civil society responses, since no common successful strategy has yet surfaced. The government’s increasingly strong identity politics, Euroscepticism and “NGOs as foreign agents” rhetoric are taken as a datum, only to delve more into the causes that made Romanian civil society vulnerable to such evolutions. The small constituencies willing to support NGOs in times of crisis, as well as the insufficient communication, by NGOs themselves, of the value added they bring to the community are discussed. Several solutions for strengthening civil society enabling environment are looked into, although none garners a consensus. Our conclusion rests in the fact that such solutions are the means of educating the public on the intrinsic value of living in a pluralistic society, in which the freedom to be critical should always be defended.
Civil Society is Being Systematically Blasted in Three Dimensions
While Poland and Hungary march peacefully towards installing an EU type of illiberal state, Romania takes important cues from them and strengthens its identity politics and populist political discourse. Civil society, although almost unexpectedly refreshed by massive civic protests against corruption, inevitably sees a gradual, but certain deterioration of its enabling environment. Civil society is being systematically blasted on three dimensions: the freedom to operate, the ability to financially sustain itself, the attacks on its public image.
NGO Legislation is Undergoing Several Attempts of Drastic Review
Since 2017, three distinct attempts have been made to change the essential legislation governing the founding and the functioning of Romanian NGOs, Governmental Ordinance 26/2000. Government MPs proposed the Plesoianu initiative in order to impose harsh reporting obligations on all NGOs. If adopted, organizations risk dissolution unless they publish detailed information about their donors, in the Official Gazette, twice a year,. In addition, due to a vague interdiction to engage in political activities, the public utility NGOs will risk being stripped of their status if they voice criticism towards political parties or candidates in an election. The initiative was already adopted by one chamber of the Romanian Parliament and is expecting debate in the second. In the meantime, it drew very strong criticism from local NGOs, from the Council of Europe Expert Council on NGO Law, the Venice Commission and ODIHR, Civil Society Europe, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, while also noted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.
The second, parallel initiative, originated from the Ministry for Public Consultation and Social Dialogue, also ran by a governing party figure. The Ministry proposed a full replacement of GO 26/2000, maintaining the need for NGOs to report their sources of income (only incomes over 1000 EUR shall be reported to the Ministry of Justice, rather than in the Official Gazette). Moreover, all NGOs had to meet the newly introduced strict criteria in order to be allowed to become part of the consultative structures established by the public authorities. The initiative did not go very far in the approval process, since this ministry was dissolved with the governmental reshuffle, however, due to the fact that the former minister is an MP, he may resurface the initiative in Parliament at any time.
The leaders of the main ruling party refrained from expressing a clear position about which of the two initiatives they support and failed to provide any response to the major criticism by the NGO sector.Various public statements, however, point to the government’s overarching interest to make the civil society sector more transparent and to stop the so-called abuse of public funds by the NGOs. It has never been clarified why the government does not use the already existing various control mechanisms that the NGOs are subject to (just like for-profit enterprises) in order to deter the proliferation of this alleged abuse
In early 2018, the attempt to transpose the European Union Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive became the third threat for the functioning of NGOs. The competent National Agency, assisted by the Ministry of Justice, proposed new amendments to GO26/2000, seriously exceeding however the directive’s requirements. If passed, these amendments would require NGOs to disclose to the Ministry of Justice full information on the identity of their “real beneficiaries”. Such reports are to be made at least once a year, or every time the real beneficiaries change. While it is unclear how NGOs with large numbers of beneficiaries would report all this information, the failure to do so is sanctioned with a 1000 EUR fine or more, , and in case of a non-compliance within a 15 day period since the sanctioning, dissolution will follow.
Traditional NGO Funding Opportunities are Increasingly Scarce
Since 2017, the civil society’s access to funding sources has been seriously impeded. Besides the disappearance or phasing out of major institutional programmes, such as EEA and Norway Grants or the Swiss-Romanian Cooperation programme, NGOs had hardly any access to the EU structural funds in the new programming period, primarily due to poor fund management.
Nevertheless, one of the most explicit government policies discouraging NGO sustainability was directed towards the social service sector. In 2017, all tax incentives for purchasing products from protected units, most of them established by NGOs to employ people with disabilities, were cut off. Several thousands of jobs are now at risk, and so is the general viability of this type of NGO entrepreneurial project.
Affecting the entire civil society sector, the Government also reduced the number of companies that benefit from tax incentives when sponsoring NGOs. The 2% tax redirection mechanism itself (from individuals to NGOs) was seriously questioned during the government 2017 fiscal reform and ended up being applied on a smaller tax base, thus resulting in smaller amounts redirected to NGOs.
Low NGO Constituencies, Affected by the Foreign Agents Rhetoric
Ever since the 2016 election campaign that resulted in the installation of the current government, political statements were associating NGOs with the representation of foreign, anti-Romanian interests. With no particular programmes, actions or statements concerning Romania, George Soros became the politicians’ favorite reference whenever civil society was mentioned. The situation has worsened since 2017, when such references have been even more common and the conspiracy theory has become growingly intricate. Senior public officials failed to produce any real arguments to corroborate such speech. Besides the successful examples with Trump or EU‘s own Viktor Orban, the only credible explanation for this increasingly used rhetoric was, that the government needed to create some noise to cover up for the major criticism coming from the civil society on the controversial judicial reform package initiated in 2017. The noise seems to have worked, since the trust in the civil society organizations declined from 32.6% in spring 2016 to 27.7% by the end of 2017.
Nowadays, the civil society appears very under-equipped to deal with the rising amount of threats, since all NGOs’ appeals to the public officials to end such toxic evolutions have been left without effect. One of the most important underlying reasons for the increasing weakness amongst civil society organizations are the reduced constituencies. One might say Romania enjoys a very active citizen body, with civic protesters flooding the streets in response to governmental policies. However fortunate that is, the recent years’ protests were all related to anti-corruption and to the renewal of the political elites. Utterly spontaneous, the protests were only aided by organized NGOs, in terms of legislative support and policy options. The latter, however, never managed to create a stronger connection between the civic-minded individuals taking part in protests and the older civil society structures, the classic NGOs. For this reason, the protest culture in Romania is very unlikely to manifest itself against the policies which silence NGOs.
It is a fact that constituencies for Romanian organization are low. Although we refer to a constituency as to a much broader pool of supporters rather than to the strict membership, formal membership still remains a clear indicator of this issue. Late 2016 data show that less than 7% percent of Romanian adults are members of an NGO, much lower percentage than the EU average of 20%. To be more specific, the organizations working for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, probably the most vocal in terms of governmental criticism and thus the most exposed to retribution, hold a mere 0.4% membership rate amongst the general population . Such a very low membership, of course, deprives NGOs of an important public support in times when the civil society sector is under threat. Also, NGOs lack the financial stability gained by membership fees, which could be a significant source of income, as it does not depend on the whims of governmental or institutional funders.
In terms of overcoming the frail situation of the NGO sector, no commonly supported successful strategy has surfaced so far.
Which Are the Potential Civil Society Responses?
Firstly, an increased form of self-regulation by the Romanian civil society would better respond to the governmental accusation of a lack of transparency. It would also disclose more information about the “mysterious” nature of NGOs to the general public. Such an evolution would make the government efforts to better control the sector futile or, better yet, it would uncover other likely intentions, such as the need to silence the criticism of the NGOs. The options for self-regulation are countless, but they would all involve a charter of minimal information that any active NGO, before engaging its stakeholders, should make public: board composition and annual reports, financial information about the major donors and salary costs. Previous attempts to make this system a reality were prevented by the absence of an independent arbiter and a clear identification of the sanctions stipulated for the NGOs which do not abide by the rules. New attempts establishing such a code of conduct are underway, but progress is still unclear.
Supporting the New Civic Spirit
Secondly, investing more efforts and resources in the creation and the support of citizen initiative groups would capitalize the recent civic outburst in the Romanian public sphere. Numerous successful examples, in which resource centers managed to convince citizens to start engaging more with their local or central decision-makers, have been noted for the past few years. Not only do they unfold as one-time projects but also they appear to be sustainable ways of changing the face of communities, tapping into an increasing respect from public authorities and politicians for the citizen body. Such initiatives are also perfect occasions for NGOs to appeal to the grassroots, make their work and principles related to human rights and non-discrimination. In other words, they are an ideal means of increasing NGO constituency. Yet, the number of resource centres which commit to such projects does not exceed a dozen, particularly given the reduced funding opportunities for civic projects.
Creating a more inclusive narrative
Thirdly, NGOs should turn their regular narratives into a wider appeal towards apparently unfriendly constituencies. This might be one of the most important means to change the feeble situation of civil society, but probably one of the furthest solutions at this point. The increasing number of threats to the operation of NGOs, as well as the abrupt so-called reforms attempted by the government in the fields of justice, anti-corruption and taxation, have prompted an increasing number of NGO workers to respond quite strongly. While the civil society’s major function is to scrutinize the government whenever necessary, we are navigating stormy seas when this criticism focuses on the citizens who support the current government. Such a trend is unfortunately rising, among the newly risen civic actors also, the informal groups or the NGOs who try to take over messages from the street protesters. Traditional voters for the current governing party, such as the elderly, people living off social benefits, or public workers whose jobs depend on political decision-makers, are more frequently accused of being responsible for the country’s unfortunate policies. Even the people who chose not to vote are treated in similar way.
Such a citizen-oriented criticism amongst NGOs, however, is only resulting in the loss from the potential NGO constituencies of a large section of the citizen body. As a healthier alternative, a few NGOs do realize that these voters are also people discontent with the current Romanian public sphere, but who have not yet understood the power of the theoretical principles NGOs operate with. When more NGOs manage to convince regular citizens how highly important it is to constantly question their mayor about how the public budget is spent, communities will be healthier. Again, that community will be healthier if an NGO convinces the citizens that the government, by restricting minority rights, will turn the citizens against each other sooner than later. In fewer words, when NGOs convince regular citizens that civil society does impact their everyday lives in a meaningful way, no government will be able to significantly threaten the third sector.
Overall, our conclusion is that such solutions for the strengthening of the civic space are nothing but means of educating the public on the intrinsic value of living in a pluralistic society. Only through educational processes that convey the direct connection between a critical, active civil society and improvements in people’s lives will one restore a safe enabling environment for Romanian civil society. In addition, this educational framing of the problem will allow NGOs to effectively exercise their creativity in managing this crisis, while maintaining their traditional services for their hopefully increasing constituencies.
Freatured image via Aljazeera