Rasma Kārkliņa (University of Latvia / Professor Emerita,
University of Illinois at Chicago)
Scholars use standard ways to measure political participation and civil society in countries worldwide. This paper argues that standard measures have to be adjusted in cases where informal civic participation prevails, such as in Latvia’s countryside. Due to the legacies of the Soviet communist regime, formal civic participation in postcommunist countries such as Latvia is underdeveloped, as has been shown by the work of Marc M. Howard and others. Yet, their findings are based on a narrow conception of civil society as consisting of organized societal groups engaged in sustained activity. I argue that in the case of societies emerging form repressive regimes, measures of participation need to include a myriad of informal phenomena. My research on informal societal involvement in rural communities of Latvia is based on the „perspective from below,” e.g. in-depth interviews, participant observation, and the analysis of local media accounts. I find that there is more civil society than conventional methods and paradigms allow us to discern. The implication is that “postcommunist” societies are more participatory than meets the eye. Much civic participation, cooperation, and protest in Latvia’s countryside is unorganized and spontaneous. The paper presents a typology of such informal activity and discusses whether it can evolve into more formal participation, for example, if local environmental concerns gather momentum and protests are addressed to public authorities. It also explores the extent to which funding from the EU and other external sources serves to promote a formalization of societal activity.