“Absurd of Power”: Mobilisation of Ukrainian civil society?
On March 21st 2013, a group of social activists officially inaugurated their activities under the auspices of “Absurd of Power”, setting their sights on tracking the absurdities of the Ukrainian authorities, and hoping to change the rules of the game in the long-term.
Even though it is hard to talk about real social or political power of the initiative, a considerable social capital exists to be used. Having the non-governmental sector impasse in mind, a stimulus is necessary to mobilise society. However, whether Ukrainians will be tempted by the idea and decide to actively join the process of tracking the defects in the state machinery is open to question.
From economic crisis to civil sector impasse
At the outset of the 21st century, the world reached the threshold of a global economic crisis. The consumption-oriented European “narcissistic society” experienced a breakdown of trust in both state institutions and some social groups (such as bankers and financiers). As the crisis is systemic in nature, its consequences are noticeable on all grounds: economic, political, cultural and social. The crisis was not neutral to Eastern Europe. Alarming macroeconomic indexes in Ukraine in 2008 and 2009 did not lead to any radical social change. Potentially “outraged” Ukrainians still wait for encouragement to act, and the lethargic civil sector remains passive.
Civil society organisations in Ukraine have maintained a steady level, with no significant growth in the number of new organisations, and since 2009 has been referred to as being in a state of evolution. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the status quo of the voluntary sector has been stable since 2008 when the evolving trend was halted. There are no signs of a breakthrough – new mechanisms of social change have neither been developed, nor adapted to the crisis circumstances. Therefore, there is still an ongoing demand for a redefinition of the relations between the state, market and social capital. Struggling to preserve solvency, the organisations had to tackle the decline of public opinion ratings. For the time being, even the 2012 Law on Public Associations, which has considerably facilitated the registration and management of organisations, hasn’t prompted any action.
In the case of Ukraine we can speak of a quasi-civil society. The number of registered organisations is rising, but this index has nothing to do with the state of civil society and may even be misleading. The relatively high number of organisations neither translates into their efficiency nor their activity. Out of the 72,000 registered subjects, only 39.2 per cent has shown actual activity. These organisations admittedly intensify their activity in the period prior to elections, but this does not change the fundamental fact that the majority of citizens (53.3 per cent) does not trust CSOs.
Analysing the causes of the impasse in the non-governmental sector in Ukraine, Iryna Bekeshkina points out to three elementary factors: the low evaluation of the sector’s actions by public opinion; solvency problems of organisations; and the so called “identity crisis”. It seems that the above-mentioned elements are nothing more than the symptoms of the crisis of non-governmental organisations in Ukraine, while the key word is trust. Moreover, the organisations frequently become part of a political game, being dragged into a number of the authorities’ absurd and often harmful undertakings.
Absurd of Power
Absurd of Power was designed as an aggregator against the Ukrainian authorities’ absurd decisions, made on various levels. It is a simple, yet innovative tool. The initiative is aimed at the absurd and thoughtlessness in the public sphere. Surprisingly, this is the first such project in the world. The concept is not confined to a certain period of time, because, as the author of the project Alexander Konovalov says: “Absurd decisions and undertakings never end, only the level of their absurdity changes.” As his partner and coordinator of the project Alexander Zolotukhin emphasises: “The conception has been keenly discussed among his friends since 2006, and finally crystallised in 2012.”
Absurd of Power was organised on the “we” (society) – “they” (power) axis of conflict. The conflict, however sharp, seems to be more of a marketing measure, than a potential field of bloodshed. Fuelling of the hidden social conflict plays the role of a catalyst and incentive. The essence of the project rests on the constructive criticism of the authorities and on developing solutions to very specific problems. No doubt, fighting with the authorities’ absurdities is possible only through cooperation with the very authorities. The fundamental question is, to what degree, if at all, the authorities will cooperate.
How to make authorities cooperate?
It remains a secret how Alexander Konovalov and Alexander Zolotukhin intend to persuade the state machinery to cooperate. Even having their extraordinary negotiating and oratory skills, it seems improbable that the authorities will become interested in the initiative. However, the biographies of the leaders make it possible to believe they have some contacts in the administration.Alexander Zolotukhin used to work in the administration of Shevchenko Raion, one of the districts of Kyiv, where he served as senior advisor for Remtal Property. During the following years he assumed the office of the senior counsellor in the development department of the “Alfa Nafta” company, which at that time was expanding its chain of gas stations and oil pipelines in Ukraine.
In all probability, it was during that period (up until 2003) that Zolotukhin built his contact network, thanks to which the so called “big politics” knocked on his door. Before he was offered the office of the Head of the District Election Commission during the last parliamentary elections, however, he established a legal company “Argument”, which he still runs. Functioning in the Kyiv community and having experience in such areas of the economy as real estate and the energy market, he has inevitably made some connections from the borderline between business and politics. In 2005 Alexander Konovalov – a businessman and politician, now a shareholder in Zolotukhin’s company “Argument” – turned to him as a client.
While Zolotukhin operated mainly in the Kyiv community, Konovalov was connected with business in North Eastern and Eastern Ukraine. He started his professional career when he was 19, and three years later became financial manager of the Northeastern Industrial Group. Holding this and other higher offices, Alexander Konovalov gathered enough experience to start executing his own business projects in 2008. It is peculiar that in Ukraine the spheres of politics and business interpenetrate, while it is characteristic of the Ukrainian oligarchy to shape politics through business (and not the other way round). It was a natural consequence of the business activity of Konovalov to engage in politics, as a result of which he was elected deputy of the Sumy Oblast Council.
How to make civil society cooperate?
Ukraine abounds in institutionalised and non-institutionalised forms of civil life organisations of various types and provenance, both virtually active and fictional. Absurd of Power has a huge potential to consolidate the masses under its auspices. Accurate definition of the social conflict axis and making the parties target groups is a very skilful and informed operation, although the success of the project depends, to a large extent, on the leaders themselves, their negotiating skills and their ability to come to a compromise and incorporate the new subjects into the structure of the holdings.
Without undermining the innovative character of the initiative, it should be stated that in the post-Soviet context the “dialogue” between the authorities and any partner is burdened with huge risk. Doubts arise whether cooperation will not be a means to legitimise the state authority or a ladder to a political career by its leaders. From the perspective of the state of civil society, it seems even more important whether the initiative will deepen the crisis of the social trust in non-governmental organisations in the long-term. Social perception, especially among people unfamiliar with the initiative, may vary – even through collaboration. Because of the specificity of the political culture of the post-Soviet area, the project may be viewed as a direct attempt against the authorities.
Absurd of Power has a truly (counter)revolutionary spark to it. Having the state of the Ukrainians’ hearts and minds in mind, the project is ambitious inasmuch as it is wishful. In a society where all activity is rigidly regulated, mostly not in the form of generally binding normative acts, but of “recommendations” of conduct aimed at protecting only some groups of subjects, something like an arrangement/net of hidden factors has formed. As a result of the adaptation process, society has learned to use corruption mechanisms for its own benefit.
The fight with the absurdities of the authorities in Ukraine seems like a losing battle. Obviously, the success scenario cannot be ruled out and remains unsolved even if Absurd of Power can aggregate sufficient level of social trust and support.
Justyna Kucuk is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw and a research fellow in Development Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Hohyla Academy in 2013/2014. Her career activities have included internships in the Caucasus (UNICEF, Azerbaijan 2007), and Central Asia (Soros Foundation, Kyrgyzstan 2009). Most recently she has worked as an international project assistant managing EU educational programmes for Erasmus Mundus and Tempus in Central Asia. She is currently researching EU development cooperation towards Eastern Partnership countries.