Civil Society and Social Capital in Central and Eastern Europe

Civil society is a key element of the societies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Comprising the European countries formerly under direct or indirect Soviet influence, the region is typically defined and understood by scholars through the lens of its communist and Soviet-influenced past.

Analyses of civil society sector statistics show significant differences in the development of civil society organizations (CSOs) and social capital across the region, with some countries such as the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and the Visegrád countries (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) having significantly more active civil sectors than others (e.g., the Western Balkans, Belarus, Moldova, or Ukraine). At the same time, the extraordinary contributions of Ukrainian civil society to maintaining public services during the war, the rise in ad hoc volunteering in neighboring countries, as well as several mass demonstrations in the region have shown (e.g., in Belarus in 2020/2021) that the informal part of civil society plays an integral role. Its influence stretches far beyond what counts of officially registered CSOs would suggest.

We conclude that perceiving the region merely through the lens of its communist past provides an incomplete picture. While the legacy of Soviet influence and communist governance does help explain certain aspects of the sectors’ structure (e.g., the lower relevance of social service provision as compared to Western countries) and social capital (e.g., the low levels of general trust), our brief review points toward a more nuanced landscape. In it, more recent developments such as the European Union integration process and the role of foreign donors, as well as foreign influences and occupation throughout history also play an important role, influencing the shape and public perception of the very definition of “civil society” itself.

This paper is part of the virtual “International Encyclopedia of Civil Society” and was written by our Academic Director, Peter Vandor together with Michaela Neumayr.

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