Civil society in postsocialist transformation

The case of Serbia

Essay, 2010

11 Pages, Grade: 1



1 Introduction

2 The Concept of Civil Society

3 Civil Society in post-socialist transformation

4 Conclusion

1 Introduction

The concept of civil society has become very popular in the last decades. The end of communistic governments in the communist countries of the Eastern part of Europe has increased the interest and research on if and how much civil society contributed to these events.

Under the light of the constant conflict of “civil society vs. the state” a legitimate question might be to which extent civil societies have any right to exist in liberal, so-called western democracies that have allready fulfilled most of the civil society’s demands and is based largely on “the will of the people.”[8]

Serbian Civil society faced in many aspects a historical development sui generis. Being under Austrian and Ottoman rule for a long time, Serbia and its people, as a (and maybe the most dominant) nation in the Kindom of Yugoslavia in the interwar period were largely occupied with the formation of the state and its complex ethnic composition. Yugoslavia, ruled by an omnipresent communist party, did not leave enough space to develop a functioning and self-confitent society. During the breakdown of Yugoslavia, the ethnic and national questions were the dominant issue, largely abused by the political leaders. Serbia was almost 13 years at war at the end of the 20th century during which the Milosevic administration repressed opposition and civil right movements. The NATO-bombings and the extradition of the former president to the International Criminal Tribunal were other events uniqe to Serbia, which partly blocked the formation of a solid civil society.

As CIVICUS, a Civil Society NGO puts it in its 2007 report:

“Citizen Action in Serbia faces major challenges, according to the CIVICUS Civil Society Index’ report as released by CIVICUS. The report notes a “general lack of political will to recognise the significance of civil society”. With the negative elements of State-Civil Society relations prevailing, today’s civil society in Serbia is still very much affected by the consequences of the people’s revolution that toppled the Milosevic regime. In an environment marked by institutional weaknesses, high levels of crime and overall insecurity, the loss of the common enemy Milosevic ended the trend of growing citizen participation.”[2]

2 The Concept of Civil Society

The idea od “civil society” in its various interpretations can be tracked back to ancient Greek or Roman philosophers.

Civil society in the idea of great thinkers (such as Platon, Cicero or Aristotle) is not separated from the state, it rather represents the citizens’ participation in the state and their efforts in ensuring peace and order among each other. Civil society in this sense shall provide a set of rules in order to avoid people harming each other, civil society is the “good society”, where people dedicate their efforts and actions, at least to some extent, to a common good.

Civil society was until the end of the 18th century understood as the opposite of both, the uncivilised state of nature and an unnatural, despotic system. Civil society represented therefore the state or the growth of and within society so far that the society itself can be characterised as “civilised” [13]

Thomas Hobbes characterizes in his book “Leviathan, The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil” the “state of nature” as a brutal, archaic state without any order. People therefore surrender their power to the state to ensure order. However, he does not only describe the contract between the citizens and the state, he also sees the agreements among the people that ensure their rights and limit their freedoms as soon as it harms the rights of others, the civil society.

Marx and Engels describe in the “Communist Manifest” the “Bügergesellschaft”, a state of society where it has overcome the old, feudal system, however the “Bürgerge­sellschaft” just represents an intermediate stage in the process of transformation to the socialist society.

In recent years, civil society was commonly used as the “society” opposing the “political society” in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. Its role in transforma­tion process should be to partly substitute the shrinking state, increase the people’s attention towards the state’s action and therefore act as an integral component of (economic) development and modernisation.

Reviewing the literature on civil society, looking for a commonly accepted defini­tion, it is hard to find any that is accepted on a wider basis.[16].

Lazic(2005) identifies a minimum consens base on the definition of civil society, that is shared by various authors:

- The general process of constitution of bourgeois society is the root for civil society.
- Its content and forms were determined in a relation to a -counterposed - abso­lutist state.
- The midle class, based on private ownership, was the basis of civil society.
- The backbone of civil society was a strong normative dimension.

The basic manner of civil society can be summarized as the voluntary self-organization of individuals, based on a normative consensus, including the fundamental ideas of equality and solidarity among the civil society’s members[16].

Civil society movements are characterised by an utopian idea in opposition to the current, usually corrupt political order, however within the legal framework of the state and largely materially financed by the economic subsystem[16].

While the political elites are anyway in power and therefore not in need for any civil societal movement, the economic elites are orientated towards the market and the lower classes are tendentiously refused from any form of capital accumulation, Lazic(2005) identifies the educated middle class, the basis of both, formation and reproduction of the civil society.

Understanding the civil society as the “third” self-funding pillar of a society[10] besides the state and the economy allows to analyse its development in the “western” and the “eastern” world of the 20th century.

In the capitalistic, western societies, largely influenced by the anglo-saxon civil- rigths movement the need for protection of the autonomous space, independent from the state was early discovered. “... civil society, as well as the private sphere, must be legally separated from the state by law, and the actors within it must be guaranteed specific personal and group liberties so that they may pursue their broadly conceived interests.”[4] However, another power the people needed to protest themselves against were the powers of the free market economy. [6, 16]

2.1 Civil Society in Socialist Countries

The socialist social order differed in many ways from the liberal, western democracies. The core of communist ideology, especially in its early and most fundamental forms, was the demonisation of all privacy and autonomous space as bourgeois. The idea in the early communist Russia was even to mark marriage as bourgeois and organise the life of the people in hostel- like buildings, men and women separated, with special rooms for their sexual interactions[11]. Another crucial difference was the omnipotent state, that repressed its subordinates in order to follow its predetermined social order. Putting these two characteristics together and thinking about the state not only as the opposite of “the civil society”,but rather stressing the fact, that the state could act as a major actor in creating and supporting civil society[12], the problem of developing civil society in communist countries becomes straightforward. Referring to the commonly agreed points as mentioned above, communist countries lacked the bourgeois society as the source of civil society, and the middle class, economically based on private ownership, as the base of reproduction of civil society. Furthermore the lack of any political participation, the per definition abolishment of any private autonomy and the powerlessness of the citizens towards the repressive actions of the state led in many cases to inner resignation rather than political or civil engagement as shown in Orlando Figes’ (2008) seminel book.

2.2 The Case of Yugoslavia

The development of the basic ideas of civil societies was retarded in Serbia due to various reasons. The efforts of society were rather focused to independence (from the Austrian or Ottoman empires), national unification (following the independence until 1918) and the consolidation of the state, namely the Kingdom of Yugoslavia until WWII.[16]. The Serbian bourgeois society , that focused its energy on the developments above, that were by definition actions “in line” or in order to found and consolidate the state, neglected the development of other social subsystems, and largely incoroporated within the state. After the second world war, the ruling communist party implemented, governed and controlled the social subsystems, that would have been organised autonomous by citizens in liberal democrazies, as youth (Pioners) or sports organisations. Pro-forma labor unions were established to “represent” the workers- in line with the government. “This ensured control over all activities of professional, cultural, humanitarian and all other social organisations.”[16]

“Yugoslavia experienced the transition from a primarily agricultural to a primarily industrial society during the post-World War II period”[19], furthermore an enormous educational expansion[18]prepared the trail for an educated middle class.

Yugoslavia was in many ways, especially after Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, different to the communist societies as described above. The federal system assigned some power to the republic, which meant a weakening of the central power, a relative freedom was granted in arts and science. Economically, the “socialist market economy” was introduced, that guaranteed on the one hand free enterprises to some degree and on the other hand participation of the employees in the “managerial” decision making.[16] Furthermore Yugoslavia was, from the second half of the 1960s onwards, relatively open to the West. People could freely travel or even move to western countries, which allowed a relatively free flow of information, resources and ideology into Yugoslavia.


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Civil society in postsocialist transformation
The case of Serbia
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Serbia, Cicil Society, NGOs, Balkan, Transformation, Vorruption, Corruption
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Manuel Mahler-Hutter (Author), 2010, Civil society in postsocialist transformation , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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