People were crammed into small living rooms. There was often only standing room, if at all.

There, they listened to lectures given by historians, philosophers, writers, or playwrights.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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This was Prague before 1989 when the Communist regime was ousted from power after weeks of peaceful protests.

The lectures were given by academics who had been thrown out of their jobs after the failed Prague Spring of 1968. Overnight, many, including the late Václav Havel—Czechoslovakia’s last and the Czech Republic’s first president—were either frequently imprisoned or forced to do menial jobs to make a living.

By day, some of them stoked furnaces or cleaned public toilets. By night, they turned to the underground universities, whether in Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, or other cities in Central Europe. This was a special kind of civil society.

The organizers of these private seminars were determined to protect independent thinking. And they were determined to debate history, which the Communist regimes throughout this part of Europe wanted to monopolize in order to sell their own interpretation of the past.

In Russia, Memorial was the thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

Ever since it was founded over thirty years ago, with much credit to the country’s most prominent dissident, Andrei Sakharov, those working with Memorial painstakingly sought to uncover the Stalinist past. They built up an immense and unique archive that shed light on such a very dark period of Russian history.

Memorial was not only crucial for documenting the past. It was the catalyst for individuals to establish other organizations that would complement its work. “The attack on Memorial is a new dimension of the state’s fight against civil society,” Sabine Fischer, Russian expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, told Strategic Europe. “Memorial is a hugely important symbol of Russian civil society.”

For President Vladimir Putin, Memorial’s scrutiny of the past and its appeal to activists represented a challenge. It dented the Kremlin’s own narrative about the Stalinist era and it dented its control over independent activities. Now Memorial and Memorial International, the umbrella for the organization, stand accused of violating Moscow’s “foreign agent” law, which authorities have been using to silence independent voices.

“The state criminalizes the activity of civil organizations. And now criminalizes the memory of victims of the state,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

The crackdown on independent organizations has also taken its toll in Belarus. After peaceful demonstrations against the rigged presidential election back in August 2020 that gave Alexander Lukashenko a fifth consecutive term, he has ruthlessly tried to shut down civil society or any kind of independent activities.

Thousands of people of different ages are in prison. It is estimated there are close to 700 political prisoners. Lukashenko and Putin are in effect doing everything possible to shut down civil society.

That is what the Communist regimes tried to do before 1989. The existence of underground universities, the formation of Poland’s Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) that grew into Solidarity in 1980, the establishment of Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia, showed how individuals, despite the repression, were courageous enough to create and protect a space that the Communist regimes loathed.

Since then, these regimes have either collapsed or transformed into power structures that often regard civil society activists and organizations as threats.

In Moldova, for example, after years of rampant corruption and power dominated by oligarchs, civil society and the citizens have had enough. The country, led by a young, pro-European government finally has a chance to introduce economic and political reforms.

Moldova as well as civil society activists, academics, lawyers, writers, students, and trade unionists in Belarus, Russia, and other countries bordering the EU need as much help as possible from European governments.

The EU has long been supporting civil society organizations in partner countries. Its financial assistance to Ukraine, with Germany playing a major role, is slowly paying off. Ukraine now has a vibrant civil society that is intensely focused on fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and creating an independent judiciary. The task is monumental, no thanks to the oligarchs who have consistently resisted reforms.

On December 14, 2021, the EU adopted the Global Europe Civil Society Organisations program, worth €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion), for the period 2021–2027. “Civil society organisations are vital to the attainment of human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and stability,” the European Commission states.

This is welcome. But what about the jailed activists in Belarus and Russia? What about sacked academics, writers, journalists, and lawyers? How can they be helped?

During the 1980s in Central Europe, universities in Britain and other West European countries did try to support their counterparts in Warsaw or Prague or Budapest by providing books, inviting academics to lecture in the West, and trying to keep them from being isolated.

Today, universities and other academic institutions in Europe are trying to find ways to support civil society actors in Russia and Belarus.

“The German Society for Eastern European Studies wants Germany to build a kind of hub for researchers and academics,” Gabriele Freitag, its director, told Strategic Europe. “Academics in Russia and Belarus are under so much pressure. From the German perspective, proactive policies are not in place.”

“We have to support activists who defend freedom,” said Alexander Libman, Russian expert at the Free University of Berlin. “We must continue inviting them, to keep in contact, to offer scholarships. And do what is possible to support civil society. It’s very difficult because of the foreign agents law,” he explained. “It’s about doing everything possible to prevent individuals from becoming isolated.”

And that is exactly what the underground universities in Prague and Warsaw tried to do over thirty years ago.

* Dear friends, colleagues, and readers,

This is the last Strategic Europe blog of 2021. What another extraordinarily complex and confusing year it has been. The pandemic continued to change many assumptions about geopolitics, strategy, and interests. We wish you all a safe and healthy Christmas and New Year, or however you will be celebrating the holidays. The blog will be back on January 6, 2022. ~ Judy Dempsey