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Civil society in Ukraine: A sled dog, not a watchdog

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

March 6, 2017 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

civil society

Many Western observers and policy makers have developed their views of Ukraine based on the theory that as a country, it is either a small southern Russia or another typical Eastern European state, such as Poland. But both views are inadequate. No policy on Ukraine could be successful without first understanding how Ukraine really works.

To answer this question, we need to look to the history of Ukraine, the country which surprised Western policy makers when it reappeared in 1991 and which has remained mostly unexplored until now. Indeed, the best way to learn about the country is to read “The Gates of Europe” by Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhy, which provides a thorough understanding of the country’s history. There was never a strong state on this land. Medieval feudal mosaics, fragile kingdoms and early-modern Cossack republics had nothing in common with European absolutism or Russian authoritarianism. Ukraine was occupied by different empires for centuries and, even between two world wars, it did not enjoy any period of independence like many other Eastern European nations. This is why people used to consider any state in the area primarily as a hostile alien, as an occupier. Within Ukraine, the weak state and strong society create an atypical style of politics. This is a country of balance, not of leadership. Nobody can rule Ukraine like a king.

Western diplomats and policy makers continue to speak with the government, considering it to be the most significant political actor in Ukraine. When the government fails, they speak to the opposition, which also has very little support, such as during EuroMaidan, when 94 per cent of protesters declared themselves to be non-supporters of any political party. Ukrainian political parties remain very weak.

Recent sociological research proved to be unsurprising to everyone in Ukraine, when it showed that there was a deep distrust of all political institutions: the parliament, the government, the president, the opposition, and even the media. Only four institutions enjoy the people’s trust: the churches (which vary in denomination in multi-religious Ukraine), volunteers (this commonplace word refers to all citizen networks helping to supply the army, to accommodate internally displaced persons, etc.), the army and NGOs.

This is why, in reality, Ukrainian political institutions are not only inefficient but they also have a very limited mandate from the people. In this case, who is the most important actor in the Ukrainian game?

It is civil society. But this is not the same as what it traditionally means in the Western world. The usual concept of civil society as a watchdog is virtually inapplicable in Ukraine. Also, it is not relevant to think that civil society refers purely to traditional style NGOs. First and foremost, civil society is a major actor which develops and implements changes when the government is incapable. Civil society is therefore a sled dog of the country, not a watchdog. In addition, it is a multitude of varying and overlapping networks, which go far beyond NGOs and in many cases replace weak political institutions at national and local levels. Without these networks, Ukraine could become a failed state.

This civil society plays a key role in the country’s defence. In the spring of 2014, the Ukrainian army was extensively depleted: decades of corruption, as well as the delusion that the country was surrounded by friends thus not in need of defence, finally resulted in the army becoming insignificant in size, disorganised, poorly armed, and poisoned by Russian propaganda. Army supply chains simply did not exist. When Russia invaded, tens of thousands went to the front line literally in their home shoes and took up guns to protect their families, cities, and country. At the same time, another tens of thousands gathered money donated by millions of people, bought bulletproof vests, first aid kits, thermal imagers, boots, uniforms, and food. These people then delivered this to the front line. These committed groups of people make up the “volunteer movement”, which enjoys the highest level of popular trust in Ukraine.

Civil society also plays a key role in lessening the potential refugee crisis. Volunteers helped 1.7 million displaced persons to get first aid, food and clothes, shelter and, in some cases, even work. This humanitarian challenge could have turned into a humanitarian catastrophe, but due to the efforts of civil society this conclusion was avoided. As a result, the story goes unnoticed by European observers, unlike the refugee crisis in Syria.

Furthermore, Ukrainian civil society also plays a significant role in reforms, developing and implementing necessary laws and government decisions. People often joke that the real pro-reform coalition in Ukraine is not a coalition between political parties, which have won elections, but a coalition between civil society, the EU Delegation and the US Embassy. Considering the manner in which reforms are implemented, we see that this is not just a joke. All significant changes have been developed outside of traditional institutions and adopted only as the result of joint pressure. Even the most successful Ukrainian reform, an award-winning public procurement platform, ProZorro, was initially developed by volunteers (many of them have since joined the Ministry of Economics forming a new Department of Public Procurement).

However, this strange and strong civil society faces a multitude of challenges. Firstly, it is not formed of proper institutions: in many cases we see huge amorphous networks rather than well-structured compact NGOs. Secondly, there is a great deficit of resources: as civil society is much more active than the state, after three years of intensive work its resources are being exhausted. Thirdly, it is not only resources but energy that is becoming exhausted. It is hard to work year after year for free, running every part of a marathon distance as a sprint. Finally, the most painful thing is that this huge social movement cannot manage to create its own political party, enter the political game and win. Reasons for this sad reality are the unfair rules of the game (electoral reform in Ukraine was discussed in the previous piece), a traditional aversion to politics, and the above mentioned long-established mistrust of all political institutions. When volunteers have joined political movements in the past, they usually lose trust simply because of the fact that they have entered this dirty swamp.

Overall, civil society has a vast amount of homework to do. But western policy makers have to understand that they need to speak directly to these specific social groups, even though they may be amorphous and incomprehensible, because only they have the mandate to demand and make changes, and a veto right at the same time. No decision can be made and implemented in Ukraine without permission from certain social groups. Civil society organisations in this country go far beyond their traditional roles, and ignoring this fact could lead to disappointing results in internal and international affairs.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog titled Ukraine: The European frontier.

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