Why does Democracy Lab publish something like this without a context of debate?A story like "Stop Talking About Civil Society" should come as a round table with a variety of point of views, and frankly, from the regions under discussion -- and not from just this one strange perspective. What were they thinking?
As we've seen with all her past essays -- here, here, and here -- and her long piece this year sponsored by Soros and New America Foundation -- Sarah Kendzior does not like human rights, dissidents, civil society, democracy, protests, revolutions, comparisons to the Arab Spring -- well, pretty much anything that challenges the status quo in the Central Asia and specifically Uzbekistan. In article after article, in post after post, she maximizes the authoritarian states, minimizes their challenges, exagerates state oppression, dimisses opposition, and generally seeks to keep the status quo in these dictatorships.
You know, it's as if Sarah Kendzior is in training to be something like S. Frederick Starr only for the modern cyber era -- friendly and cooperative with authoritarian states, tending to dismiss dissenters as not representative of anything, discounting human rights, democracy, and free media, and ensuring herself a place at every policy table or conference not as the actual contrarian anymore, but in fact the establishment. That hideous program that seems to be the norm now in every IR department on every campus these days -- questioning all the touchstones of the post-War establishment of promoting democracy and human rights -- and cynically and nihilistically accepting ruthless, violent states pragmatically at face value. I don't get why we need to accept this in order to, um, embrace modernity...or something.
Here's my answer at FP:
Sarah Kendzior has been working overtime with all her papers in recent years to create a theory of authoritarian society that doesn't even posit incremental changes and never really disturbs the authoritarians whom she curiously never wants to challenge. It's really the most uncanny stuff. I don't know why she so eagerly seeks to do the authoritarians' work for them.
In all her works before this as well, Kendzior has been all about amplifying the oppression in these countries and scarifying with it, and minimizing the brave people who counter the repression every day. Basically, she is opting for a quietism and even defeatist approach which ultimately only serves these regimes. It's not just that Kendzior doesn't have a theory of regime change -- in these countries, regime change hasn't worked and when it is tried, fails because of Russian backing and insufficient American will and attention -- and then there's China.
It's that she can't conceive of any kind of plan, short-range or long-range, to work at persuading these countries through a combination of quiet diplomacy and public rhetoric in naming and shaming. In Sarah Kendzior's monoverse, there is no accounting for Uzbek taxi strikes and irate gas customers who stage demonstrations and parents who keep their kids from picking cotton in the fields. The human spirit never triumphs because there's no theory for it -- because the authoritarians have to win in this static statist world.
The Soviet Union was like this once, and it took a very long time to change. Solidarity to the people inside the country changing it was crucial, and assistance at the right time. Kendzior is willing to throw up her hands and let them rot, to prove a point. And you don't even have to conceive of things in terms of regimes and the opposition to understand that there are all kinds of ways people make a civic space, whether its taxi drivers who refuse to register or students who manage to travel abroad to study or religious believers studying in their homes hoping to avoid arrest. All of this life proceeds, without Kendzior's approval and without fitting into her theories.
And then this silly minimizing of terrorism and extremism, and claiming Hizb-ut-Tahir can even "ostensibly" be "civil society". Look, it's simple: a group that wants to establish a caliphate over the entire region, which would involve subduing many people who don't want one, can't really be described as "civic". We don't have to get goofy about NGOs overrated by the West to understand that in fact the capable state will eventually be made up of civil society and engagement in civil society; we have seen this come about in Eastern Europe and even Russia and it's not impossible to bring about in Central Asia. The tiny embattled group of people still publicly defending human rights in Uzbekistan *is* society. They represent more than their small numbers, starting with the people they help, and continuing among the people who admire them and tacitly support them. One doesn't have to exaggerate this phenomenon to validate it. There's no "abomination" in even a few people willing to make sacrifices for others and for principles. Rather than sneering, Kendzior should respect such people. One has the impression she hasn't travelled to the country recently.
Deal with authoritarian states on their own terms? Why? Says who? The tyrants themselves? But they don't last. We are not required to legitimize them, and if we can do nothing else, we can do at least this much: not confer legitimacy on them by accepting this strange and dysfunctional theory promoted by Kendzior.
It doesn't matter if civil society is imperfect, if it is immature or extreme or Western dependent or Russian dependent or whatever it is she wants to say to knock it, and therefore inevitably carry water for the regimes. The point is that there are various forms that civic life takes, and people do carve out a space separate from the state, and always have in these countries, even in their darkest hours. We can help to expand it, and it need not be the discredited, corrupt thing Kendzior implies.
Here's a creepy concerted effort by Kendzior and the other contributors to Registan.net now to disavow and discredit and undermine any democracy program abroad. This is strange. Yeah, we get it that these programs are flawed and have their stupidities sometimes. But they are part of what does provide alternatives to the authoritarian regimes, and deserve to be improved, not scuttled.