Modern Authoritarianism: Civil Society | Freedom House

Chapter 3: Civil Society

The Enemy Within: Civil Society at Bay

Countries in western Asia and northern Africa, Ukraine and Thailand, which have experienced street protests and even armed conflicts, have been led astray to the wrong path of Western-style democracy, that is, ‘street politics.’… The United States and some Western forces have been involved in the street politics in these countries, either on stage or behind the scenes.

– Xinhua, paraphrasing an editorial by Mi Bohua of the People’s Daily

In the modern world, extremism is being used as a geopolitical instrument and for remaking spheres of influence. We see what tragic consequences the wave of so-called color revolutions led to…. We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.

– Vladimir Putin

Among the more surprising developments in 21st-century politics are the reversals experienced by civil society, once regarded as an irresistible force in the global struggle for democracy.

According to Freedom in the World, the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society institutions to function without state restrictions has suffered a pronounced decline over the past decade. The setbacks have been concentrated in authoritarian states like Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran. But civil society has also met with growing problems in democracies—India and Indonesia among them—and in settings where democracy’s prospects are unclear, as with Ecuador, Hungary, and Kenya.

The growing offensive against civil society is in many respects a tribute to the prominent role that NGOs have come to play in the political life of most countries. An active civil society is often seen as a formidable threat to a repressive or illiberal status quo. Civil society was the linchpin in the successful popular revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia. In fact, civil society organizations frequently pose a greater threat to autocracy than do traditional opposition parties, which have proven relatively easy for determined strongmen to sideline, neutralize, or co-opt. Civil society movements, by contrast, are generally composed of younger activists, committed to a cause, more resilient, more agile, and less prone to corruption.

To be sure, even some authoritarian states can boast of an active and growing civil society sector consisting of humanitarian organizations, religious entities, conservation groups, associations focused on public health or development, and so forth. It is with the NGOs that pursue politically sensitive objectives—human rights advocacy, democratic reform, or anticorruption measures—that oppressive leaders have serious differences. Especially in countries where elections have been rendered meaningless, civil society groups can become surrogates for a democratic opposition, and are therefore regarded with deep suspicion by the leadership.

The specter of ‘color revolution’

The term “color revolution” emerged in 2003–05 to describe a phenomenon whereby an existing political leadership is overthrown by a popular movement using tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Successful nonviolent democratic revolutions are not new. Perhaps the first color revolution took place in 1974, when a dictatorship in Portugal was overthrown by military officers who drew on the support of civilian democracy advocates. Later peaceful revolutions overcame authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, South Korea, Chile, and Poland.

In the 21st century, however, the definitive events behind the new label took place in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004–5). Both countries were governed by politicians with close ties to Moscow who were either personally corrupt or tolerated high levels of graft. In the Ukrainian elections of 2004, there was strong evidence of rigging to ensure the victory of Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate of the pro-Russian old guard. Confronted by mass demonstrations, the authorities ordered a rerun. The candidate of the reformist Orange coalition won that election, which was widely seen as free and honest.

The Orange Revolution was to have far-reaching repercussions. While democracies celebrated the outcome, repressive regimes reacted with alarm. The concerns expressed by Russian officials were soon echoed in China, Iran, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and other authoritarian countries. Vladimir Putin spoke of the color revolution as the latest form of American interventionism, and began a process of restricting Russian NGOs that was to reach a climax a decade later.

Yanukovych eventually won the presidency in a 2010 comeback, but a second protest-driven revolution in Ukraine, the Maidan uprising of 2013–14, forced him to flee to Russia after a bloody crackdown failed to disperse the demonstrators. Among other things, the episode shattered the old political establishment, which had been more or less equally divided between parties that were friendly to Russia and parties that favored independence from the Kremlin and an orientation toward Europe. For the foreseeable future, pro-Russian parties were unlikely to play a major role in Ukrainian political life.

Russia responded by seizing and illegally annexing Crimea and fomenting a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the Kremlin also stepped up its campaign to demonize color revolutions more broadly as America’s favored instrument of regime change, though no serious evidence of U.S. involvement in the Maidan revolution was put forward. The color revolution threat became a major theme of Russian domestic propaganda and political discourse. It even became a focus of the country’s military planning.

When speaking of color revolutions, Russian officials and commentators have struck several common themes:

  1. Color revolutions are a U.S. strategy to break Russia’s influence over its neighbors.1 Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a longtime director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), has described color revolutions as an American scheme to bring down governments through the financing of opposition groups and economic sanctions “under the pretext of human rights protection and the necessity to form civil society institutions.”2 Russian officials in 2015 warned that Electric Yerevan, an Armenian protest movement against electricity price hikes, could be a provocation by the West dedicated to toppling a Moscow-friendly administration.3
  2. The threat of military action is an integral part of the strategy. While color revolutions by definition employ nonviolent tactics, Russian strategists claim that the military dimension can be indirect, embedded in democratic governments’ warnings not to use force against protesters. In other words, according to the Kremlin, the United States and its allies stoke uprisings and then threaten to intervene if the authorities defend themselves. Russia’s own response to the Maidan revolution was a reflection of this distorted image: It orchestrated separatist revolts in parts of Ukraine and then used its military to defend them.4
  3. Color revolutions pose a danger to Russia’s allies around the world. To communicate its concerns on this front, the Kremlin has invited military delegations from China, Iran, Egypt, and other authoritarian regimes for meetings at which countering color revolutions is an important theme.5 Russian propaganda encourages governments to do what is necessary to put down civil society challenges, and praises incumbents who succeed.
  4. Russia itself is under threat. “The aim is obvious,” Putin said of protests and social media activity in 2015, “to provoke civil conflict and strike a blow at our country’s constitutional foundations, and ultimately even at our sovereignty.”6
  5. Incumbents are ‘legitimate’ rulers. Russian officials have stressed the legal and constitutional legitimacy of authoritarian leaders facing major protests, regardless of their crimes and blatant abuses of human rights and democratic norms. Moscow insisted that Yanukovych remained the “legitimate” president even after he had abandoned his post to escape punishment for his role in the crackdown on demonstrators.
  6. Russia reserves the right to intervene in defense of ethnic Russians. By asserting this right, the Kremlin is effectively saying that any color revolutions in neighboring states—many of which have Russian-speaking minorities—could trigger a Russian invasion, as in Ukraine. It could also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the governments of neighboring countries come to mistrust and mistreat their ethnic Russian citizens, providing the Kremlin with an excuse to get involved.7

The Russian leadership’s reaction to the color revolutions, with its paranoid obsession with sinister outside forces, is a clear indication of the lack of self-confidence that is shared by all authoritarian powers. Whether the state is led by a strongman, a politburo, or a supreme religious leader, the world’s most repressive regimes understand that their systems offer few regular outlets for public frustration with government performance.

Fear of color revolutions has intensified since the 2014 events in Ukraine, with a particular focus on the alleged role of the United States as puppet master. Yet neither the Kremlin nor likeminded regimes have advanced credible evidence that the various civic movements were inauthentic. The American role in the Orange Revolution of 2004–5, for example, was limited to funding for voter training, upgrading of election technology, and other measures designed to assist authorities in ensuring fair balloting. There is no evidence of direct American government help to the Orange forces. If the United States influenced the eventual outcome, it did so by making it more difficult for the Ukrainian authorities to rig the election results.8

Authoritarians on Color Revolutions

“In my opinion, everything that happened in Ukraine shook Russia.… Young people began to discuss and think about Russia’s direction.”
—Ivan Mostovich, press secretary of the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi, April 2005


“We’re only afraid these changes will be chaotic.… It’ll be a banana republic where the one who shouts loudest is the one who wins.”
—Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, September 2005


“We have sympathy with [Arab governments] because they did not read warnings that they should have read. That things were changing because of the wishes of their people, and because of machinations of the imperialists.”
—Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, June 2011


“It is hardly likely that the US will admit to manipulating [Hong Kong’s] ‘Occupy Central’ movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces. It sees such activities as justified by ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘human rights’ and other values.”
—People’s Daily commentary, October 2014


“Hostile forces have always attempted to make Hong Kong the bridgehead for subverting and infiltrating mainland China…. The illegal Occupy Central activities in 2014 came as minority radical groups in Hong Kong, under the instigation and support of external forces … orchestrated a Hong Kong version of a color revolution.”
—Gen. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff, People’s Liberation Army, March 2015


“Various human rights organizations, think tanks, and simple NGOs of the U.S. and its allies in Europe, concealing their true goals, have established a huge network of affiliates around the world.… It is they who act as the ‘fifth column.’”
—Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of presidential administration, Azerbaijan, December 2014


“The sides noted that Russia and China had a common approach to the key problems of regional and international security and expressed readiness to counteract ‘color revolutions.’… Russia and China suffered the biggest losses during WWII and should be resolutely opposed to any attempts to revive fascism and falsify the results of the bloodiest conflict in human history.”
—Russian Security Council, statement on security consultations with China, May 2015

Strangled by law

Over the past decade there has been a steady stream of laws that restrict the funding and operations of NGOs. While more than 50 countries have passed such legislation, the most aggressive campaign to bring civil society to heel through legal constraints has been carried out by the Russian authorities.

There are 11 laws on the books in Russia that deal solely with civil society organizations and another 35 that mention NGOs. Yet nowhere are NGOs defined. This vagueness is deliberate. It gives officials the discretion to decide which civil society organizations should be prosecuted and harassed and which should be left alone or encouraged. It enables them to penalize, for example, a foundation that supports scientific research due to alleged foreign funding, while ignoring foreign funding for a quasi-political charity sponsored by the Orthodox Church.9

In fact, most of these laws are unnecessary. In a state like Russia, China, or Iran, the authorities already have ample latitude to deregister and ban any organization, and to prevent foreign organizations from doing business with domestic partners. A legal system that is flexible enough to serve the evolving needs of the regime and target virtually any adversary is a hallmark of modern authoritarianism. But the NGO measures give an added veneer of legality to what is essentially arbitrary rule.

The repeated adoption of new laws also gives the leadership the opportunity to showcase emotional propaganda that stresses the subversive nature of foreign or independent domestic civil society organizations, reinforcing the idea that the motherland is threatened by hostile encirclement and political infiltration.10

Tightening the Screws: The Kremlin’s Legal Campaign against Civil Society

January 2006: “Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation”

This law gave authorities the power to deny registration to organizations that “threaten” Russia, bar foreigners from opening organizations, subject foreign funding to more scrutiny, and make the founding and operation of organizations excessively burdensome, including by imposing frequent audits and reporting requirements.

July 2012: “Amendments to the Law on Noncommercial Organizations, the Criminal Code, the Law on Public Associations, and the Law on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism”

This package of measures, which included the provision known as the “foreign agents law,” required nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding and carry out broadly defined “political activity” to register with the Justice Ministry and meet onerous requirements, including filing quarterly financial reports, submitting to annual and unscheduled audits, subjecting foreign donations to monitoring, and marking all publications and events with the “foreign agent” label. Penalties for noncompliance include fines, suspension of funds, and imprisonment of personnel. Other amendments penalized creating and participating in “illegitimate” groups and groups that urge citizens to shirk their civic duties or perform other illegal acts.

February 2014: “Amendments to the Law on Noncommercial Organizations”

This change greatly expanded the list of reasons for unannounced audits of NGOs.

June 2014: “Amendments to the Law on Noncommercial Organizations”

Enacted to strengthen enforcement of the foreign agents law, this legislation authorized the Justice Ministry to register NGOs as foreign agents without their consent and without a court order, and shifted the burden of proof to NGOs, compelling them to go to court to fight the label.

May 2015: “Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation”

Known as the “undesirable organizations law,” this package of changes empowered the prosecutor general to shut down or restrict the activities of NGOs that are deemed “undesirable,” vaguely defined as groups that pose “a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country, or the security of the state.” The amendments bar such organizations from opening delegate offices, carrying out programs, and promoting their activities in Russia, and subject collaborators with these NGOs to possible fines and imprisonment.

June 2016: “Amendments to the Law on Public Associations and the Law on Noncommercial Organizations”

This legislation revised the loose definition of “political activity” under the foreign agents law, but rather than narrowing the meaning of the term, it applied the law’s restrictions to any activity aimed at influencing the government or public opinion. That could include opinion surveys, monitoring of government agencies’ performance, analysis of laws or policies, and petitions or other communications aimed at government officials.

Foreign agents

In 2012, Russia adopted the so-called foreign agents law. It requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in what the authorities define as political work to register as “foreign agents,” a term that, in Russian, is synonymous with foreign spy. Subsequent amendments allow the Justice Ministry to register groups as foreign agents without their consent. As with many other Russian laws, the standards for enforcement are entirely political. The designation is applied principally to NGOs that seek political reforms or criticize the Kremlin’s antidemocratic direction, though the authorities’ reasoning in many cases is difficult to fathom. State-friendly organizations have generally been left alone.

Memorial, the human rights organization founded to carry forward the ideals associated with Andrey Sakharov, was one of the first groups to be unilaterally registered as a foreign agent by the Justice Ministry in 2014. In 2015, the ministry accused Memorial of “undermining the foundations of constitutional order” by describing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as aggression and by asserting, correctly, that active duty Russian troops were taking part in the conflict.11

As in most countries, including some democracies, civil society organizations in authoritarian climates are largely funded by governmental or foreign entities. There is little tradition of private philanthropic funding for NGOs, and even if there were, few wealthy Russians or Iranians would risk reprisal from the authorities by donating to regime critics. Consequently, organizations that lose access to foreign funding typically have no domestic alternative and must curtail their operations or give up their political independence.

In Russia, even NGOs with politically anodyne missions have been targeted as foreign agents, as the regime seeks to deter any civil society activity that could challenge official policies or foster international ties without state approval. One such organization was the Northern Nature Coalition, which protects old-growth forests and had protested certain development projects. Another was Young Karelia, which sponsors puppet shows for children in Karelian—a language closely related to that spoken in neighboring Finland. The latter group was declared a foreign agent in part because of a $10,000 grant from the United Nations.12

The undesirables

Once it was the CIA that dictatorships reflexively blamed when under pressure. More recently, the target of attack is a group of prodemocracy foundations, mostly American, that encourage political reform through nonviolent methods. According to the denunciations of officials from Russia, China, Venezuela, and other repressive states, the National Endowment for Democracy and the organizations associated with philanthropist George Soros present a danger to the status quo that rivals NATO or Western intelligence agencies.13

In 2015, Putin signed a law that allowed the prosecutor general to declare foreign organizations “undesirable” if they are deemed to pose a threat to the country’s security, defense capability, or public order. The measure empowered the authorities to shut such entities’ offices in Russia, ban Russian groups from working with them, and freeze their assets.

While the law has been used to expel foreign prodemocracy organizations, the real targets are Russian citizens. This is made clear by a section of the law that calls for heavy fines and jail terms of up to six years for Russians who collaborate with organizations on the undesirable list. Conceivably, a Russia human rights advocate who attends a seminar in Poland or Germany sponsored by the International Republican Institute—one of the groups added to the list in 2016—could be prosecuted once back in Russia.14

Sharing worst practices

During the 1990s there was much discussion in the major democracies regarding the export of “best practices,” meaning the institutions, policies, and ways of doing things that had strengthened democratic governance in some of the more successful post-authoritarian societies, especially in Central Europe. More recently, modern authoritarian regimes have turned this concept on its head by sharing their own experiences with laws and tactics that have the effect of retarding democratic development.

Laws restricting the autonomy and funding of NGOs have been widely copied around the world. Many of the affected countries tolerated civil society activism in the period after the Cold War, only to move in a more repressive direction after the most prominent color revolutions alerted incumbent leaders to potential threat posed by civic activism. Once Russia had demonstrated a willingness to adopt legislation and then enforce it, other countries followed suit, first in Eurasia but subsequently in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Governments that adopt such laws seldom if ever shut down the civil society sector entirely. Instead, they deal with NGOs selectively, tolerating those that present no threat to the status quo, monitoring others, and repressing those that the leadership regards as a potential focus of opposition activity. Even some democracies, such as India, Indonesia, and Kenya, have enacted laws to strengthen state control over NGOs. But the most serious restrictions have been imposed by authoritarian regimes.15

According to a 2013 report, 12 countries had prohibited foreign funding for NGOs outright while another 49 placed restrictions on foreign donations.16 For authoritarian leaders, the imposition of foreign funding restrictions is a convenient tactic in that it makes it difficult for the organization to function effectively but falls short of an outright ban, which could attract sharper criticism. Furthermore, governments can justify their action on grounds of protecting sovereignty against foreign interference—a potent argument in an era when nationalist ideas have garnered greater public support. Thus in rejecting an appeal to government policies that restrict NGO work, the Venezuelan Supreme Court spoke of foreign assistance as “a typical manifestation of the interventionist policies of a foreign power to influence the internal affairs of the Venezuelan state.”17

China piles on

In early 2016, joining its authoritarian colleagues, China adopted its first formal law meant to regulate the country’s rapidly expanding NGO sector. Previously, foreign NGOs registered as commercial enterprises and conducted their advocacy work “off the books.” Under the new law, foreign NGOs are subject to a series of additional bureaucratic hurdles, some of which could seriously impinge on their work.

For example, foreign NGOs are now required to join in partnership with a Chinese organization. In practice, this could make it difficult for NGOs that work on sensitive issues like the rule of law to function, as Chinese organizations would be hesitant to join a foreign entity in pursuing such a politically explosive mission.

Moreover, foreign NGOs will be compelled to register with the police rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as had been the case.18 The law gives the police sweeping powers to detain staff, restrict activities or events, or regulate an NGO’s ability to open an office.19 An NGO’s registration can be revoked under a vague clause that forbids spreading rumors, engaging in defamation, or publishing “other harmful information that endangers state security or damages the national interest.”20

The new law was passed in the context of intensified repression, an economic slowdown, and a drive by the Xi Jinping leadership to suppress discussion of “Western ideas” in the media and at universities. Even as the country’s leadership boasted of China’s role as a world power, the country’s education minister, Yuan Guiren, felt compelled in 2015 to warn against the use of “textbooks promoting Western values” in Chinese classrooms.

Indeed, the authorities had carried out a series of arrests, focusing on precisely the sort of independent-minded activists with whom reform-oriented international NGOs would expect to collaborate: human rights lawyers, advocates for minority rights and religious freedom, and women’s rights campaigners.21 Around the time of the law’s adoption, the government took the unusual step of showcasing a televised confession by a Swedish citizen who had worked with legal reform groups in China. Xinhua claimed that the activist, Peter Dahlin, had served a human rights organization that “hired and trained others to gather, fabricate, and distort information about China.”22

The adoption of formal restrictions on NGOs is one sign among many that China is rolling up the welcome mat for the outside world. The leadership’s exertion of pressure on reform-minded foreigners parallels its increasingly skeptical attitude toward the international press, certain foreign technology firms, Christian churches, and especially “Western” ideas like democracy, the rule of law, and press freedom. The hostility to NGOs is particularly troubling, however, given the total absence of national elections and opposition political parties in China. The NGO sector was one of the few outlets available to Chinese citizens who seek political change. The Xi Jinping leadership, in adopting the new law, is communicating its determination to shut off all possible avenues for independent political action.


1 Roger McDermott, “Protecting the Motherland: Russia’s Counter–Color Revolution Military Doctrine,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 14, 2014,

2 Leon Aron, “Drivers of Putin’s Foreign Policy,” American Enterprise Institute, June 14, 2016,; Dennis Lynch, “Russian Security Council Warns US Seeks ‘Color Revolution’ against Kremlin,” International Business Times, March 25, 2015,

3 Howard Amos, “Russian Officials See ‘Color Revolution’ in Armenia,” Moscow Times, June 24, 2015,

4 Alexander Golts, “Are Color Revolutions a New Form of War?” Moscow Times, June 2, 2014,

5 Dmitry Gorenburg, “Countering Color Revolutions: Russia’s New Security Strategy and Its Implications for U.S. Policy,” Ponars Eurasia, September 2014,

6 Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, “Putin Sounds the Alarm over Budding ‘Color Revolutions’ in Russia,” Moscow Times, March 4, 2015,

7 Dmitry Gorenburg, “Countering Color Revolutions: Russia’s New Security Strategy and Its Implications for U.S. Policy.”

8 Anders Aslund and Michael McFaul, eds., Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine’s Democratic Breakthrough (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).


10 Tanya Lokshina, “Russia Civil Society Deemed ‘Undesirable,’” Open Democracy, May 20, 2015,

11 Heather McGill, “Russian NGOs Cynically Treated Like Enemies of the State,” Amnesty International, November 13, 2015,

12 Thomas Grove, “Russia Squeezes Critics at Home by Declaring Them ‘Foreign Agents,’” Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2015,

13 Fred Weir, “Russia Moves to Silence Civil Society and Its ‘Undesirable’ Contacts,” Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2015,

14 “Russia Deems Two U.S.-Based NGOs ‘Undesirable,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 18, 2016,

15 Thomas Carothers, “Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 20, 2014,


17 Carothers, “Closing Space.”

18 Josh Chin, “China Gives Police Broad Powers over Foreign Nonprofits,” Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2016,

19 Charlie Campbell, “China’s New Foreign NGO Law Is Threatening Vital Advocacy Work,” Time, April 26, 2016,

20 Stanley Lubman, “China’s New Law on International NGOs—And Questions about Legal Reform,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2016,

21 “China’s Strange Fear of a Colour Revolution,” Financial Times, February 9, 2015,

22 Tom Phillips, “Swedish Activist Peter Dahlin Paraded on China State TV for ‘Scripted Confession,’” Guardian, January 19, 2016,