Society shouldn’t wait for politicians, not because they are bad people, but because they have their own priorities. And if you don’t get into their priorities, they won’t do very much for you.
Ieva Raubisko of Radio Free Europe talks to Norbert Reich, Rector of
Riga Graduate School of Law
The Latvian public doesn’t yet have a full grasp of the tasks civil society should perform. How would you define civil society in Western Europe?
On the one hand, it’s a new concept [of civil society]; on the other hand, it’s an old concept. The new concept insofar as, in recent years, we have had a very intense discussion about civil society meaning something in between the state, political parties, social partners and individual citizens. The old, traditional concept is that society should organize itself and fight for its rights, not wait for the state.
In the years of occupation, people got used to being in opposition to the government. That might be the reason why the cooperation between the society and government authorities is now so difficult. How would you comment on these problems?
Fortunately, you don’t need to be in opposition any more. But even if you have a democratic society and a pluralist system of political parties, not all views and interests can possibly be heard in this concert of voices. Some people do not feel represented by the existing political parties and think that their voices are lost in the government. They are not in opposition to the state and against the system of political parties, but they have some of their own interests, whom they don’t find represented by the existing organizations. Civil society is something more than just the traditional structures of state, government authorities, political parties, labour unions, churches and so on. We have a more complex, multi-faceted structure of civil society. What probably makes things so difficult in Latvia is that you can’t really predict what these representatives of civil society will do, how they will be formed and what the outcome [of their operation] will be. Civil society initiatives are sometimes very spontaneous and do not last a long time. Still, they are necessary at the given moment.
What impression does the Latvian civil society leave if compared to the society in Western Europe?
I would say from my rather superficial impression that non-governmental organizations here are still very weak. They are not taken as what they really are – an expression of society that is becoming more and more differentiated. The more democratic society becomes, it also transforms to be more differentiated and less hierarchical. That’s exactly where the role of these initiatives lies. I think it’s a process that Latvia, like any other democratic country, is in, but, obviously, you haven’t had enough time to develop these complex and differentiated [societal] structures. I don’t want to say that all initiatives must only be regarded as a positive contribution. They can sometimes be very obstructive, sometimes – critical. But they are a part of a social dialogue, the outcome of which you can’t predict.
Maybe many people in Latvia are no yet ready to get involved in public work? They just passively criticize what they see.
Yes, but people will soon realize that if you just criticize, you don’t change things. That’s very naïve, but if you want to change things, you have to do something. That is to say, you have to look for allies, you have to cooperate with the media, and you have to use different communication techniques. It’s a learning process. It may start as a local initiative, but you will soon find out – and that’s what happened in Western Europe – that there are groups with similar goals in other countries. They have the same problems, they are frustrated, and they start to work together – they shape agendas, try to influence the media and create a network of their own.
I think there is a fundamental problem in Latvia: since people still need so much time to earn money to survive, there is not very much time left for other activities. Once people have more income, they will turn more to these [social] issues.
Do you think Latvian government takes the civil society initiatives seriously enough? What could be the way to improve cooperation between NGOs and the government?
I would not rely so much on the state and political parties because they only take seriously what gives them votes. But here it’s not a question of votes; it’s a question of agenda setting, of issues that are brought to attention. You have to use the media more. If the media take up certain things, politicians will become interested. They won’t become interested because you are a nice person; they will become interested once the public awareness is raised and they know they have to do something in order not to lose votes.
Society shouldn’t wait for politicians, not because they are bad people, but because they have their own priorities. And if you don’t get into their priorities, they won’t do very much for you. The attitude that some party or state should take care of you comes from socialism. That should be the other way round – you should force the politicians to take care of you.
Concerning the European Union, are NGOs there capable of having any impact on the decision-making process in the EU?
NGOs have a little influence because, in such a complex structure as the EU, it is very very hard to know who are the decision-makers and what to focus on. The most important thing is to find allies, and that is not easy because you have different traditions and different languages.
There is certainly no European [civil] society. You can always find even certain nationalism in civil societies [of different countries] because people, of course, are more concerned about what is happening at home than about what is happening in other countries. Sometimes relations between NGOs of different countries can get rather hostile. But people realize very quickly that if they don’t network and don’t work across borders, they will not be able to achieve very much. In an open society and open market, you can’t only stick just to your national interests. We are talking a lot about globalisation and Europenisation – it means that civil society activities cannot only be organized locally or nationally. On the other hand, you always need the local feedback, you need to get people involved, and you can only do that locally [when people are interested in the issues that also have a local meaning].
In your opinion, what have been the most successful cases of NGO cooperation in the European Union in recent years?
I think during the BSE crisis in the EU in, you could certainly see that it was the civil society, that is, NGOs in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom that set the agenda. Governments certainly didn’t want it; they wanted to market products without much deference. Also the farmers’ organizations didn’t really want to focus on the issue. But consumer and environmental associations were pointing out the risks of certain types of animal food and certain types of food product marketing. Of course, there was also a public outcry that forced the politicians to do something – to change the habits of breeding cattle and the ways of food-product marketing.
I’ll give you another example. When the euro was introduced, the organizations of blind people did a very active lobbying in Europe. I, too, participated a little in this work. The organizations involved made sure that the money could be recognized by the blind people. That is one good example of civil society being involved in a very fundamental change.
What kind of experience do you have in non-governmental work?
I have been involved mostly in consumer and environmental organizations, both in Germany and the EU. Since I’m a lawyer, I’m interested in improving the possibilities of people to defend their rights in legal proceedings where consumer and environment-related issues are involved. As far as the environmental issues are concerned, the decisions on [land] planning and zoning are frequently taken without the participation of those concerned. Even if they are heard by planning authorities, they may not have a right to attack these decisions at the courts of law. As far as I know, the same is happening here in Latvia, so you have to develop a mechanism to help people to defend their rights in legal proceedings. Another area I’ve been involved in is consumer protection – for example, when banks have had unfair terms making consumers pay more than they should have paid for certain transactions. We have not been very successful in this area in Germany because our legal system doesn’t really protect this sort of interests.
Whom would you believe more in Latvia – civil society organizations or the government?
(Laughs.) That’s a delicate question. I think if government is responsive, it should listen to civil society, it should not try to engage in manipulations. But it doesn’t mean these two sides have to be identical. So I would try to listen to both – to the government within a critical distance, and to civil society, which I would encourage, especially in this part of the enterprise where the NGOs are still very weak. But I would not want to identify with them; I would just like to see the outcome of the discussion. I would be very concerned if the government were very dismissive of civil society, if it said, “We don’t believe in civil society; it doesn’t exist; it shouldn’t exist; we don’t care.” Government should be open and democratic, and civil society is part of democracy.
Do you think the Latvian government is open enough?
I wouldn’t like to comment on the Latvian government; I have enough to criticize in my own German government. I only hope that they [government] also undergo a learning process. Maybe they aren’t willing to do that today but hopefully, they will be doing that tomorrow.