Environmental Movements and Global Civil Activism


In this paper I am going to analyze the essential role played by the emerging global civil society in supporting domestic environmental movements, which go on and shape the national civil societies in new democracies. I will argue that environmental movements create conditions for semi-free, semi-oppressed societies to become part of the transnational and trans-boundary activist groups and networks (TEAGs), thus paving way for the emergence of other forms of civil activism and for social dialogue with the state to be constructed. Environmental movements and environmental civil activism feed on transnational support, and in return contribute to politically more sensitive and risky aspects of social activism, such as fight against corruption and crippled justice system. With the support and encouragement of Global Civil Society (GCS) in general and TEAGs in particular, the civil activism on environmental issues is the first step to transform the civil society on a national level. When an environmental movement and a goal is met with success it provides enough motivation and international support for the activists to go further, address more complex issues, sometimes as extreme as government legitimacy, and try to influence other aspects of national policymaking. As a result a strong civil society is born, which becomes an influential non-state actor with the ability to affect the democratization processes within and beyond the state.

As early as 1995 Wapner highlights the role played by transnational environmental activist groups on the formation of GCS, emphasizing the role of transnational NGOs on global policymaking. “Global civil society as such is that slice of associational life which exists above the individual and below the state, but also across national boundaries. When transnational activists direct their efforts beyond the state, they are politicizing global civil society” . Wapner sees the notion, which defines NGOs as important only in so far as they affect the state, as an old and shortsighted one. Going beyond the transnationalist “state vs. NGOs” debate, he proves that NGOs and transnational groups have a substantial influence not only on the state policymaking, but also on global policy formation. He challenges the accepted standard, explores the far-reaching character of such organizations and movements, and questions their scope of influence. He identifies TEAGs as a new form of NGOs that become unique links between civil activism and social groups. TEAGs become instrumental in shaping the GCS, and their “movements identify and manipulate nonstate levers of power, institutions, and modes of action to alter the dynamic of domestic collective life”.

Heller presents the intertwined web that is formed when international groups, movements and organizations join hands with a strong civil society on a local level to pursue common goals. He makes the case for the interconnectedness between the civil society and development, with particular emphasis on democratization. Civil Society builds on and enhances the third pillar of a democratic tradition, that of deliberation, which is defined as the “decision making by discussion among free and equal citizens”. However, the reality in less developed countries, where the development and buildup of a strong civil society is especially desirous to promote and contribute to the democratization process, is not as flawless. Institutional weaknesses of new democracies, as well as the social environment in which civil rights are not being exercised and which renders the idea of citizenship and civil action pointless and impotent in the eyes of its holders, is of importance. Inequalities in developing democracies are high, ineffectiveness and strict state-control over what society does and does not is a reality. In such conditions, associational autonomy and collective action problems come to light, and only social movements which can be seen as harmless by the state, and acceptable by the international community, can garner support and bring citizens together . As a few recent examples from Armenia, Russia, Turkey, Romania and other countries show, environmental issues are the stepping-stones in this regard. A civil society autonomous enough to be effective in its actions will have an enhancing effect on the development and democracy of the state. All social movements usually base their demands on the claim that they have the “right to have rights” which in most cases bestows the flag of legitimacy on them, thus a public opinion is formed that is mostly favorable towards them. Consequently, a state control or crackdown on these movements, particularly environmental ones, generally looks bad on the state itself.

Heller goes further, framing the role of GCS as the structure by which the global democracy in an increasingly globalized world is exercised, and the mode by which global governance and global politics are realigned. The function of social movements on national level as beads forming the pattern of the GCS becomes even more important when the ways in which global civil society influences and affects these movements are analyzed. Bringing the case of the Arab Spring to put the theory into a framework, Heller argues that the success of a social movement is highly dependent on the existing political structure, level of political openness and freedoms enjoyed, as well as on existence of allies on national and global levels that will encourage local actors to form a movement, be it through transnational activist groups, publicity, or financially.

Transnational groups become the vehicles by which new norms are diffused, and by which global civil society affects and shapes opinions and behaviors of states and public actors. Chandhock draws our attention to the fact that not all norms are equally accepted and easily diffused by GCS . The NGOs and Transnational Advocacy organizations are predominantly western, and thus, advance what can be characterized as the westernized ideas and movements. Keck and Sikkink argue, that those issues and norms which are emotive are much more likely to find global resonance. Moreover, they also observe the “boomerang” effect of global support of civil activism through NGOs, characterizing it as follows: “Linkages are important for both sides. For the less powerful Third World actors, networks provide access, leverage and information (and often money) they could not expect to have on their own. For northern groups, they make credible the assertion that they are struggling with, and not only for, their southern partners.” When we apply these ideas to the environmental issues and movements, we can see that besides being the favorite topic in Western societies and circles, environmental movements are also inherently more likable, as they are usually perceived as going against the market system and core profit motive of states and corporations. Thus, global civil society’s support in such cases becomes readily available. It is also important to note that the talk in 1990s about the emergence of “Global Civil Society” as such, arose as a result of the widespread activism on environmental issues by the closely linked transnational groups . The nature of the environmental issues itself is without borders, hence, it is not surprising that domestic movements which target environmental issues garner international support far more easily.
The constantly changing and globalizing international scene of alliances and interests, may clash with and bring national interests to the forefront of public debate, creating a perfect stage for some of these conditions to be met and for a movement to ensue. The gradual build up of a transnational network of civic groups which continuously spread new ideas, the domestic sentiment (sometimes anger and frustration) about the issue at hand, combined with favorable international and domestic politics signaling that the cost of challenging the state on this particular issue will not be too high, is when the civil society feels the global support and takes up the cause.

One should be wary to view GCS as anything more than a patchwork, with sparsely spread interconnected networks, which however, do not exist within any set structure. Nevertheless, the scope of influence that GCS has, which can and does produce tangible results, is undeniable. First, changes in global balance of power partnership and change of the dynamics increased the level of attention given to states; scrutiny of their actions at home by the international community increased. Therefore, the cost of repression became higher for the governments and there was created an opening for democratic traditions to be formed and civil activism to flourish. And finally, Global Civil Society, as a result of globalization in cyber-world as well as on the ground, created the forum for debate and democratic discourse through the rapid exchange of ideas, norms, and information, hence providing local movements with a framework and an objective. “At the centre of these two converging forces is the centrally powerful idea that the people have a right to revolt against injustice, and a commitment to basic norms of representation, accountability and dignity—in sum citizenship.”

A case to the point will be the recent civil awakening in Armenia, where the people started forming into groups and exercise their right of citizenship gradually, first over environmental issues, which afterwards spread to other areas. Through the indirect influence and assistance of social media, widespread, predominantly westernized Diaspora, which provided the global civil society support, as well as the renewed belief in the effectiveness of their actions among the ordinary citizens and activists, made the society more politically active and vocal on more sensitive issues, ranging from presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, to the state’s decision to choose the Russian led Customs Union over an Association Agreement with the EU in 2013.

Norris proposes a non-conventional way of looking at the political participation patterns, arguing that instead of widespread alarm concerning the declining levels of political activism and voter turnout, we should look at the protest culture developing, particularly in new democracies. By investigating the conventional and protest modes of political participation, she finds that these two today are increasingly merged together, with environmental movements using predominantly protest-politics tactics to further their goals, exercise their rights and voice their demands in the framework of representative democracy. Taking Armenia as a case study becomes even more interesting when this shift between different avenues of civil participation is noted. It applies perfectly with the general picture that currently exists in the country marked by high levels of disapproval and disappointment that the citizens have with the conventional modes of participation, such as elections.

Environmental movements in Armenia and their politicization, interestingly, are not new phenomena for this 20-years-old Post-Soviet republic. The liberation of its historical land of Nagorno-Karabagh from the neighboring Azerbaijan after the war in the early 1990s, as well as its very independence, are results of an environmental movement that started in 1980s. Geukjian analyzes the escalation of the Kharabakh movement from an ecological and cultural one into a political one by putting it in the broader context of Gorbachev’s Democratization policy . The environmental movement of 1980s, which saw the ecological abysmal situation of Armenia as an “Ecological Genocide”, was so forceful that it gave a halt not only to the unsafe industries operating in Armenia, but also to the Armenian “Nairi” nuclear power station. Moreover, the wave of uprisings and social movements escalated in no time, sweeping the existing governmental structures and resulting in the declaration of the independence of the country from the USSR. This excitement for environmental activism for the newly formed civil society was dampened by the dire economic conditions that followed as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the war and economic blockade by two of its neighbors which persists till today.

Nevertheless, 20 years into the independence, mid 2000s marked the rebirth of environmental activism. In 2008-2011, a private company got a permission to build a hydropower station at the top of the Trchkan Waterfall, which is the tallest and most abundant waterfall in the country. A quickly formed “Let’s Conserve The Trchkan Waterfall” civil initiative started actively spreading awareness on the issue, with twelve of its participants traveling all the way to this area and putting camps around the waterfall, which forced the company to halt the construction and remove its equipment from the site. This small victory opened the lid of already boiling public discontent over the government’s policies, giving rise to the belief that something, indeed, could be changed if citizens act. The first victory of Armenia’s environmentalists, and until then, almost non-existent civil society, came when the PM and his cabinet granted Trchkan a status of a specially protected natural area .

The movement, which redefined the environmental activism in Armenia, however, was the “Save Teghut” civil initiative, which by now has branches with diasporan supporters in Germany, United States and Russia. The 20-member group was formed in 2007, to protest the mining of copper and molybdenum by The Armenian Copper Program and Vallax Corporation, and went further, welcoming thousands of activists to its ranks, to address other pressing environmental issues facing the country, such as protesting mining in the Qarahunj area . The initiative educated the public on issues facing the country, and uses its international support to call the government and its officials out on unlawful actions, which are many due to corruption at the bureaucratic level when licenses are issued. This group became a headache for the officials, and a considerable force to take into account. Encouraged by some minor successes of “Save Teghut”, another initiative was formed, which united young activists to address other social issues, and was dubbed “We Won’t Stay Silent”, to symbolize the sunrise of the democratic processes in the minds of the depressed public. They were met with success, garnering support from all over the world. The biggest victory for these groups, however, came in 2012-2013.

The issue with the Mashtots Park in central Yerevan was the trigger that united all these activists around one goal: to show the government who was the real “owner” of the country and of the capital city. The Mashtots Park Movement, dubbed “Occupy Mashtots”, started as a sit-in protest against the eradication of the public park in the heart of the city, and its use as a site for construction of different small businesses and kiosks. “The City Belongs to Us” initiative was formed, and the Mashtots Park Movement became the widest known and most intense of the civic initiatives in Armenia, calling into question the unlawfully issued licenses, corruption, oligarchy and ineffective government. The battle between public and private interests was in full force, with discussions and forums held by Diasporan Armenians and transnational groups all over the world, and with the sit in continuing for days in the severe winter cold, when the president of the country Serj Sargisyan, accompanied by the Yerevan City Mayor Taron Hakobyan visited the park, and publicly ordered the Mayor to keep the park intact for public use, and to dismantle the trade kiosks . Many have written on the subject of President’s involvement, pointing out the fact that it was not an issue to be addressed on such a level or in such a fashion, nevertheless, the fact that President himself got involved, points to the importance that was given to this movement and to its wider audience.

The final movement to be discussed was not environmental, but was the direct result of the successes on Trchnak and Mashtots Park issues. Here we see how the environmental activism triggers the participants to move on and effectively address other issues through organized civil activism. When in 2013 Yerevan City Council decided to raise the public transportation fee from 100 AMD to 150 AMD, public was enraged. The protests swept around the city, with people from other states in Armenia traveling all the way to Yerevan to join the protest. Social media became a boiling pot of the “We Won’t Pay 150” initiative, and online lists were made for volunteer drivers to take people for free. Celebrities and famous public figures, passengers and drivers alike, joined the movement, with Diaspora Armenians staging their own min protests denouncing the new law. In no time, the law was reverted and the policy adopted by the city council discarded .

Winning yet another battle, this time within the socioeconomic sphere, which affected directly their day to day livelihood, people who generally were on the sidelines in this case became activists, exercised their basic rights, thus furthering the democratization of the country and laying a strong foundation for the already active civil society. This gave the opportunity for the mass demonstrations to be staged following the presidential election in the winter of 2013, as well as against Armenia’s decision to join a Russian led Customs Union. A few years ago people saw participation and activism as pointless. Today, with the support of the global civil society, the sentiment is 180 degrees different.
With the support of global civil society, environmental movements become first steps in the formation of national civil societies in new democracies, which go further and affect other areas of policymaking. By looking at the level of social awareness on all the newly arising issues that require civil activism, the newfound interest, positivity and hope that exists among the people when it comes to civil activism and policymaking, the rebirth of the civil society in Armenia can and should be attributed to the environmental movements of Trchnak and Teghut. The support of the Diaspora as well as the transnational environmental activists and NGOs, which together can be characterized as representing the GCS, was essential for this activism not to be killed in its bud, but to get tools and encouragement to go further and bring tangible change. The vital role of social media and independent news sources that made all these movements and protests go viral and thus, attract more participants, should not be ignored. The victory of civil society over the governmental ruling on the change of transportation fee was unprecedented, marking the new era of true democracy and development in Armenia, and highlighting the immense pressure that these movements, and particularly their transnational nature, have on the policymakers.
Works Cited
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DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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