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The Shrinking Space of Armenian Civil Society

Wed, July 11, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Room, 14A 33


For a decade, scholars have been examining the shrinking of political space for civil society (Howell et al., 2008) and the coping mechanisms of civil society organisations (CSOs) and social movements in (semi)- authoritarian contexts (Lewis, 2013, Cheskin and March, 2015, Fathollah-Nejad, 2013). In this paper, drawing on original research conducted in Armenia (2011 – present), we examine how CSOs are affected by and are in turn responding to the shrinking space for civil society action. Presently, the space for independent action by CSOs is shrinking due to three recent developments. First, the newly adopted Armenian law on NGOs has extended the State’s ability to exert power and financial control over NGOs, in turn facilitating the rise of government-organised NGOs (GONGOs). Second, under the guise of corporate social responsibility, private companies are providing more funding to CSOs, which has led to the emergence of a cohort of compliant, apolitical BONGOs (business organised NGOs). Finally, Russian funding of CSOs has recently increased, leading to a new type of NGO, which are locally known as a RONGOs (Russian organised NGOs). The increase in the number of GONGOs, BONGOs and RONGOs is beginning to alter the practices and politics of civil society in Armenia and local civil society activists have already expressed concern with the shrinking space for independent action (Human Rights House Yerevan, 2017).
In this paper, focusing on the agency of CSOs, we analyse the responses, coping mechanisms, and strategies of both formal (i.e., professionalised NGOs) and informal/unregistered organisations (i.e., civic initiatives; protest groups) to these inter-connected developments. We draw on interviews with CSOs working in three different fields: domestic violence support services; environmental protection; and human rights. In analysing CSO responses, we consider how this is shaped by different factors including issue, resource dependency, organizational type, etc. We contextualize our analysis of Armenia within wider regional and global developments and trends. Our paper contributes to the literatures which analyse civil society responses to state-led authoritarian and illiberal practices, as well as to the authoritarian practices of neoliberal market systems (Brown 2015; Bruff 2014)

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