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Democratization from Below: Civil Society in Tajikistan


Over a decade ago, Fisher (2013) explored the role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina. Despite continuing global autocratic trends since then, South Africa and Argentina have remained vibrant democracies with strong civil societies. Tajikistan, in contrast, remains autocratic, and civil society has apparently weakened in recent years. However, at the grassroots level, a combination of traditional grassroots organizations and internet organizing provides a more complex picture of the relationships between local participation, ties with other civil society organizations, democratization, and development. The purpose of this paper is to highlight both these relationships and the contrast between local democratization and national autocracy.


From 1973, when the “Carnation Revolution” overthrew the fascist Estado Novo in Portugal, until the early 21st Century, democratization had a good run in much of the world. By the turn of the century, however, political scientists had already begun to write about the “global democratic recession”, a trend that has continued. Between 2005 and 2020 the number of “free” countries declined from 89 to 82 according to Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores), while the number of “part free” countries (58-59) remained stable.

Based on extensive in-country fieldwork between 2005 and 2008, Fisher (2013) charted the emerging trends by investigating the contributions of civil society to democratization in two flawed democracies (South Africa and Argentina) and one autocracy (Tajikistan) on three different continents. She found that in all three countries, both intermediary democratization NGOs and grassroots organizations were strong and often connected with each other. Argentina and South Africa have since continued to benefit from lively civil societies, including continuing development of provincial civil society networks. In the absence of continuing democratization, Tajik civil society survives, albeit with altered contours, as described below.

The primary focus of this paper is participation at the grassroots level in Tajikistan, where traditional grassroots organizations, newer grassroots organizations, and internet organizing co-exist and can impact democratization. The paper also provides a  complex and updated picture of the relationships between local participation and other civil society organizations.  Both local participation and other civil society relationships can impact the relationship between democratization and development. The overarching purpose of the paper is to highlight the continuing contrast between local democratization and national autocracy.

In this paper I use Robert Dahl’s (1972) defining characteristics of democracy, based on: 1) Law-Based Civil Liberties; 2) Political Participation; 3) Loyal Opposition: as well as Fisher’s (2013) addition of 4) Democratic Political Culture. Democratization is thus defined as the long-term process advancing these characteristics.

Civil society is understood here as “markets, associations and a sphere of public debate.” (Perez Diaz, 1993: 56). Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) encompass many kinds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, theaters, religious institutions, some media, and universities, as well as trade unions, professional associations, other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and grassroots organizations (GROs). NGOs, in turn, fall into two categories:

1) International NGOs (INGOs)  based in a foreign country, or network of countries.

2) Intermediary NGOs, including national advocacy and welfare groups and Grassroots Support Organizations (GRSOs) working in communities other than their own. GRSOs may be provincial or national and primarily focused on democratization, development, or both. Fisher (2013) used the term “democratization NGOs” in order to group some national advocacy organizations such as those working on human rights with GRSOs.

Grassroots organizations (GROs) work in their own communities and are also known as CBOs (community-based organizations).

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