Civil Society and Environmentalism in Non-democratic State

Civil Society and Environmentalism in Non-democratic State

Article by Hanna Hlynenko


This paper presents a literature review of the phenomenon of self-organized non-profit environmental organizations formed and operating under authoritarian rule. It provides a brief analysis of environmental non-governmental organizations’ (ENGOs) political influences and democratic potential, distinguishing it among other types of non-governmental organizations, due to their political flexibility and considering the role of ENGOs in transitional processes in hybrid regimes.

Keywords: civil society, activism, environment, autocracy, democratic transition

Header image by markusspiske is licensed under

As framed by the liberal democratic view of politics, civil society plays a central role in the process of democratic transition. For a long time, the term “civil society” practically referred to the state or a “political society”, but the decisive innovation in the second half of the eighteenth century broke this equation; defining civil society as a distinct sphere with its own forms and principles (Kumar, 1993). Later, it led to major transformations in the meaning of the concept, which now mostly refers to the self-organizing associational activity outside of the state. In this context, for this paper the main questions are: what is the significance of this phenomenon in states with no tradition or opportunity for self-organized political activity? What place does environmental activism occupy under these circumstances?

Definition of “Civil Society”: Critique and Justification

Still, the breadth of the definition of civil society leads to criticism concerning the usefulness of this notion: it is often difficult to pinpoint what exactly it refers to (Torsello, 2012; Baker, 1998). The modern definition of civil society as a sociological phenomenon suggested by Ernest Gellner (1995) is “the set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and […] prevent the state from dominating and atomizing the rest of society” (p. 5). Resurgence and reinvention of the phenomenon of civil society in Western academia happened after the Fall of Communism in 1989 and the consequent establishment of new post-communist states in Eastern Europe (Kumar, 1993). In the post-Cold War era politically active civil society has come to be seen as a driving force towards liberal democracy and one of the main indicators of the process of democratization (Howard, 2003), which the newly established states would be able to rely upon. Lorenzo Fioramonti (2005) argues that it is important to distinguish between a “civil society” as an ideal-type concept and a factual word of “civil societies” and that “the relationship between civil societies and democratization should therefore be treated as an empirical variable rather than as a theoretical assumption” (p. 82). Moreover, the notion of civil society is critiqued for its inherent ethnocentrism, from which the polarity of “western civil” and “non-western uncivil” societies can be derived (Hann & Dunn, 1996).

Nonetheless, there are certain applications for the concept of civil society regardless of the many difficulties regarding its historical development. By applying the idea to a variety of social, political, and anti-political movements we can establish a common framework for empirical research (Torsello. 2012). This paper addresses any self-organized non-profit association alternative to governmental forms of political power. Within the context of this analysis, the most relevant features of NGOs are their ability to promote participatory values, give citizens experience of building horizontal social networks and provide them with the resources to undermine governmental decisions, such as space, a platform and even financial aid.

Environmental Activism under Conditions of Civil Rights Violation

Environmental agenda is becoming an increasingly influential political force all over the world. In Europe, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) take an active role in policymaking through a variety of means, including public hearings, consultations, and the European Citizens’ Initiative. In Eastern Europe, the political, social, and economic transformations of the 1980s were significantly influenced by environmental NGOs (Lowenkron, 2006). 

However, under non-democratic regimes, any form of civil self-organization can be challenging due to the limitations on the freedom of speech, assembly, and political opposition. Authoritarian states have equipped themselves with a variety of ways to suppress and govern NGOs’ activity, including legal constraints, state surveillance, harassment and the creation of government-organized organizations to prevent the formation of authentic NGOs (Heurlin, 2010). 

What is the justification for our focus on organized environmental activism precisely? Many contemporary theoretical studies of environmental politics refer to Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, according to which control over society and control over nature function inextricably. Relying on the notion of hegemony, we can deduce that any alternative to state power environmental initiative has a deep oppositional subtext. On the practical level, the connection between authoritarianism and environmental politics is extremely complex and traceable in the ways authoritarian regimes tend to exploit the environmental agenda and, on the contrary, the cases of environmental movements being the source of the vision of progressive alternatives to the status quo (McCarthy, 2019). 

The ENGO’s existence varies significantly across different non-democratic states: single-party regimes, monarchies, military regimes, and personalist dictatorships (Böhmelt, 2014). Thus, it is important to note that assessing political influence is subjective and context-dependent. A thorough analysis of each case will require a nuanced comprehension of the activities and interpersonal dynamics of a particular ENGO and the political framework it exists within. However, the aim of this paper is not to suggest an explanation of ENGO’s appearance in a certain state or to describe the context of its operation, but to outline its political potential.

The existence of ENGOs in China, for example, has been a popular topic of academic discussions for a while. The rapid economic growth of two thousandth came at the cost of the serious deterioration of China’s environment. In this context, a variety of ENGOs began to emerge: they ranged from organizations sponsored by international foundations to informal associations of students. Shui-Yan Tang and Xueyong Zhan (2008) argue that “civil society will play a role in affecting the political future of China but it would be wrong to assume that there will be any linear and teleological progression from one stage to another” (p. 443). Over time, Chinese ENGOs have been to various degrees incorporated into the governmental system, thus losing any political independence. However, due to their experience in self-organizational activity and institutional nature, Chinese ENGOs constitute a compelling potential alternative to governmental dominance.

Moving on analyzing the state of civil society in Kazakhstan. In 1999, P. J. Luong, and E. Weinthal assessed the connection between the Kazakhstani state and society as tenuous at best. They concluded that the emergence of various local NGOs and environmental laws and regulations are to be expected but they are hardly to be connected. These days, the rise of civil environmental activity in Kazakhstan, as in many other states in the post-Soviet space, is mostly characterized by urban environmentalism and associated with the spread of the Internet and social media. 

As a response to the series of “colored revolutions” that took place in a number of states in post-Soviet space, in 2005 Russia started a steady strengthening of the state’s control over NGOs. Still, ENGOs continue to take on a significant and legitimate position within Russian environmental governance (Sofronova, Holley, & Nagarajan, 2014). Moreover, Russian environmental activism appears to be a rather organized online entity with a mobilizing power. Analyzing the communicative strategies of online eco-activism, T. L. Kaminskaya, I. A. Pomiguev and N.A. Nazarova (2019) describe the way the discursively framed environmental agenda affects the political one: the expansion of environmental discourse at the expense of politics and vice-versa takes place by accusing the authorities of incompetence and corruption.

Comparing the influence of ENGO in democratic and non-democratic states on international environmental agreements, T. Bernauer, T. Böhmelt and V. Koubi (2013) conducted that “strengthening ENGOs in less democratic countries can help considerably in overriding the generally negative autocracy effect on international cooperation” (p. 104).

Environmentalism also exposes state-centered management of natural resources and confronts one of the main pillars of post-Soviet autocratic legitimacy ‒ exuberant industrialism. Meanwhile, it does not violate the terms of the implicit social contract between the authoritarian government and its citizens, which is often established in this type of resource-rich autocracies: a conditional exchange of political freedoms for social autonomy. On the contrary, the rising popularity of urban environmentalism may be more indicative of increasing civilian concentration on private life rather than on politics. This ambiguity provides self-organized environmental organizations with the political flexibility necessary to operate within legal restrictions and governmental surveillance.


Participation in ENGOs tends to be one of the most common and organized forms of civil activity in non-democratic states. According to the idea of hegemony, any influence on environmental policy is conceptually oppositional to authoritarian governmental domination. At the same time, in unfavorable conditions of civil rights violation, ENGO usually symbolizes an opposition within a system, which itself has its own benefits and foibles, but presents a relatively safe and therefore popular mode of political resistance. Moreover, non-governmental environmental organizations are not only a promising alternative to a top-down approach in environmental governance but also a compelling exercise and an opportunity for civic self-organized activity and institutionalization of social movements in states with little to no freedom of opposition.


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