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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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Why “Importing Democracy?”

“Exporting” democracy, whether done militarily or peacefully, doesn’t work. Every locality and country has to develop its own political system, although wide local participation and democratization tend to go together. A narrow, authoritarian government is not a democracy, no matter how it is labeled by its rulers.

Advocates for local democracy, often members of civil society, typically “import” democratic ideas that strengthen their own goals. When combined with local democratic traditions such as village councils, imported ideas can be very powerful. My last book, Importing Democracy, tells the story of how “democratization NGOs” in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina combine imported ideas with local traditions to advance their cause. Since the book’s publication, however, it has become increasingly obvious that democracy is at risk in developed countries. Democratic Ideas imported from developing countries may become increasingly relevant to the survival of democracy in the developed world.

We are all Jews, and, God Help Us, We are all Americans

I was drinking my morning coffee on Saturday, reading the Santa Fe New Mexican, and wondering how this country would get through the bomb attacks and the midterms. And then we were all confronted with the worst anti-Semitic violence on American soil in history.

My first thought was “We are all Jews.” In my own case, this has a double meaning. My first husband, who died young, was Jewish and one of our sons and his wife are raising their two children as Jewish. My other son’s two children are an interesting mix of Jewish, WASP and Mexican American.

But, at a deeper level, I think we must all share in the pain inflicted on any group. A brilliant, irreverent friend of my father’s, confronted with an anti-Semitic remark, simply replied, “I am one. “

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Spring in September

It was September 1961. I had just turned twenty and was high above the Pacific on a Braniff jet enjoying an eight-course meal with white wine, courtesy of a booking error. As a Pomona College junior I was excited about my forthcoming semester abroad in Chile.

Yes, I knew about fall being spring in the southern hemisphere, but nothing could have prepared me for the blossoming cherry trees on the taxi ride into Santiago. Another surprise was the high tea that awaited my arrival. Chileans, I learned from my host family, have an affinity for English customs, as well as pride in the influence of the British on their politics. 

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If Not Now, When do we Start a Brand New Congress?

As a political scientist who has focused on “democratization NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations) in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina, I was intrigued by the recent emergence of similar organizations in my own country.  After the 2016 election, I started volunteering for a new political organization, founded, prophetically, even before Trump was elected, in April of 2016 (brandnewcongress.org) by veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign. It immediately attracted major volunteer and financial support, particularly from idealistic, young millennials, but also from older followers such as myself.  

The founding “post- partisan” principle of BNC was to look for “extraordinary, ordinary” people in all walks of life who had already demonstrated their creativity by improving life in their own communities.  They also had to subscribe to the major principles of the BNC platform, including environmental protection and revamping our energy infrastruture, getting money out of politics, protecting the Bill of Rights, immigration reform, combating stagnant wages, medicare for all, and ending foreign wars plus citizen activism in foreign policy.

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Turning a Political Jungle into a Diverse Rainforest

In my last blog, I wrote that political sanity can emerge from political insanity. The wide, diverse opposition to Donald Trump, evidence of political sanity, has only become more apparent since his inauguration. 

What we are seeing out there is a kind of wild political rainforest, containing a wealth of democratic organizations. While these include the big, endangered species such as the two parties, they also encompass smaller, more adaptable species, especially within the nonprofit sector, that focus on rescuing, preserving and strengthening democracy.

Some of these democratization organizations have been around for a long time, but have been revitalized by their opposition to Trump. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, received millions of dollars in online contributions during its successful legal opposition to Trump’s first Executive Order on immigration. Other well-established organizations that have benefited from the reaction to the election are the Brennan Center for Justice, which combats state-level assaults on voting rights and The League of Women Voters.  The National Popular Vote Compact was reactivated by Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin.  There are also organizations, such as Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, that focus only on their own state.

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Does the Worst News Contain the Best?

In June I attended the International Society for Third Sector Research in Stockholm. Although I chaired an exciting panel on the suppression of civil society and presented awards, the most memorable moment for me was when a Swedish professor described the dramatic growth of civil society in Iraq, despite, or maybe even because of, the violence. When he first began studying Iraq, “you could count the indigenous NGOs on one hand. Now they are everywhere, doing everything- health, microenterprise promotion, women’s rights…

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Fear of Civil Society: Governments, Repression and Zombie NGOs

More than two decades ago, I published a book about indigenous development NGOs in the Third World.  At that time, my overall impression was that governments were largely unaware of the significance and dramatic growth of civil society in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This remained true even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of civil society in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

However, during the 1990s governments began to worry that civil society could threaten politics as usual. One reason for this concern was the increasing support for civil society by “official” foreign assistance. Whereas the major international support for Third World NGOs in the 70s and 80s had been “voluntary foreign assistance” provided by international NGOs, by the 1990s, governmental donors (U.S. and western European) had become more prominent, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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Quartets, Symphonies and the Nobel Peace Prize

On October 9th the Nobel Prize Committee made a remarkable decision. By choosing a quartet of civil society organizations instrumental to Tunisia’s democratic transition, they validated the connections between democratization and peace. While the Arab Spring led to violence, chaos, terrorism, and repression in much of the Middle East, the head of the Nobel Committee described the role of the Dialogue Quartet as leading “an alternative peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”

Shortly after the Nobel announcement, a friend asked me why I hadn’t blogged about the prize. “Its what your book is all about– civil society promoting democracy.” In this case, my procrastination turned out to be a good thing.

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