Adam Michnik: Civil society represents the wine and bread of democracy


Civil society organisations from 18 European countries attending the Central and Eastern European Civil Society Forum, sent a powerful signal to European institutions and governments concerning the deterioration of democracy and rule of law in Europe.

The forum was opened by a conversation between two personalities coming from Central and Eastern Europe, Andrei Plesu and Adam Michnik, one of the main leaders of Polish dissent and central figure in the collapse of the communist regime in Poland. “We need civil society to bring the moral dimension to the society” said Adam Michnik during the dialogue with the Romanian philosopher. “There is no historical necessity. Everything is decided by the people”, Michnik added.

During the two-days conference existential problems of the societies from the region were discussed: good governance and corruption, rise of populism and extremism, revival of civic movements and tension between economic recovery and environmental issues. The importance of civil society in the region and the need to defend European democratic values in the context of ”iliberal” tendencies in Europe and Western society were emphasized. For democratic values to remain upright we need a “citizens’ watch”, characteristic to civil society. The main risks to which civil society is exposed at the moment are “the ideologization of the concept of civil society, bureaucracy and the emergence of professional activists”, stated Andrei Plesu.

“We build a democracy based on the respect of the individual citizens in Europe. We do not need to know the whole Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We just need to know the first article which says that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This gives one a compass, and you can ask: what is the situation of citizens in my country? What happens to women? What happens to the Roma people? What happens to LGBT? What happens to migrants? Norway is interested in building democracy and human rights because democratic countries are stable countries“, declared H.E. Astrid Emilie Helle, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Council of Europe.

Mere membership of the European Union does not guarantee the political criteria on which states were initially accepted in this club. Such criteria continued not to be respected even after accession.

”We need to restore the inspiration in values that we take for granted", observed Ognyan Minchev, Executive Director of the Institute for Regional and International Studies in Bulgaria, during a session of the forum. Certainly, there are similarities in the region in terms of how citizens perceive violation of their fundamental rights and respect for the rule of law by the national authorities (i.e. the recent street protests in Romania have their counterpart in neighbouring countries such as Bulgaria or Hungary).

What could change this state of affairs would be a recognition and greater involvement of citizens, either directly or through NGOs. A more careful monitoring of the democratic indicators, accompanied by precise mechanisms of prevention and sanction of deviations is currently explored through the European Commission's initiative to establish a new mechanism to strengthen the rule of law (EU Framework to strengthen the Rule of Law). In order to revitalize democracy, Kuba Wygnanski, Director of the Polish Non-Governmental Organization Klon / Jawor Association, suggested focusing on ”everyday democracy (on community level), which people prefer because it makes them feel actually involved.” On the same note, the Romanian political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi believes that ”democratic change comes from local entrepreneurship that generates cohesion rather than from foreign intervention”.

Civil society remains the most important promoter of democracy in the region and the main message for policy makers was focused on the need to bring back citizens at the forefront of concerns and public agenda. “A democracy that does not produce civil society slips into populism, or leads to indifference“, notes Andrei Plesu.

The event took place in Bucharest, Romania, and was organized by the Civil Society Development Foundation within the framework of the NGO Fund programme in Romania, part of the EEA grants 2009 – 2014.

More details about speakers and agenda can be found here.