Mott and Open Society Want to Better Understand the “Protest Wave” in Europe. Here’s Why

Two major funders in civil society development have teamed up to study the striking number of mass protests in Europe in recent years. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for Europe, along with Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation), are backing a year-long research project “Lessons of the Protest Wave in Europe.”

Mott just announced an $80,000 grant in support of the project, “to better understand the causes and implications for civil society development of recent citizen protests, demonstrations, and discontent in Europe generally and, in particular, Central and Eastern Europe.”

Five case studies will be the focus: Russia, Turkey, Spain, Ukraine and Bulgaria, which were all the site of occupation-style protests. These protests were unique in their tactics, and in their distrust of all those in power: including elites and the members of government and opposition parties that might seek to co-opt popular movements for their own agendas.

The project is shepherded by the Centre for Liberal Studies, a think-tank headquartered in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Centre has been a past recipient of grants from Mott, including $15,000 back in 2006 to run an international conference on “New Populism.” The chairman of the Centre is a well-connected and established scholar on Eastern Europe, Ivan Krastev.

Krastev is a member of the Open Society Global Board and the Open Society Initiative for Europe. He also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy, which is run by the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

The National Endowment for Democracy, along with the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations and affiliated organizations, are marquee funders of the Centre for Liberal Studies. But they’re just two of a number of big Western partners that have connected to the Centre, with some other notables including Freedom House, RAND Corporation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the World Bank.

There will be three seminars as part of the project, which will take place in Barcelona, Berlin and Sofia. The focus of the seminars will be on “the political logic of the decisions of the civic activists and their unwillingness to come up with viable political alternative,” “the governmental strategists’ view of the nature, weaknesses and strength of the protest wave,” and “how the protests change the perception and the work of the NGOs in these countries and how should they change strategies of the civic players,” respectively. The final product will be a report summarizing the project’s findings.

That foundations like Mott and Open Society—and the centers they fund, like the Centre for Liberal Strategies—are recognizing the power of non-institutional protest isn’t surprising. The movements at Gezi in Turkey, and the Euromaiden in Ukraine particularly grabbed the world’s attention, following in the footsteps of the pan-Arab protests beginning in 2011. 

These movements have complex, with a driving impetus and ideology that's been horizontal, anti-technocratic, and radically participatory, which is why it's imperative that NGOs and established civil society organizations rethink their roles vis-à-vis such movements.

Hopefully with help from organizations like Mott, Open Society, and the various other big democracy promotion groups, a new role can be carved out for NGOs in European democracies that are seeing a Great Awakening of participatory democracy and radically active public demonstration.