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Five years after Maidan: a stronger civil society looks forward despite challenges

Since the Revolution of Dignity, reforms have not been a walk in the park for Ukraine. While the first months brought progress, serious shortfalls remain. But, the revolution did succeed in one important way – there is now an entire generation of activists improving their communities and building a new civic culture. They have not succeeded in politics, but someday they might, and already they have made a positive impact on Ukrainian society.

February 28, 2019 - Chris G. Collison - Articles and Commentary

Activists gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square on February 22, 2014, after Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Photo: Chris G. Collison

As Ukraine marks five years since President Viktor Yanukovych was swept from power following months of street protests, the country’s battle with oligarchy, corruption, and cronyism has been a mixed bag.

Despite a flurry of reform efforts in the first year after the revolution, the government, led by President Petro Poroshenko, has come under fire in more recent years for the slowing pace of political reform, the failure to protect independent journalists and activists, the reinstatement of the head of the State Financial Service after he was jailed for embezzlement, and a number of other problems which are hurting Ukraine and threatening his chance for re-election. With the presidential election campaign in full swing, a disaffected electorate looks on as political factions point fingers for Ukraine’s continued political frustrations.

As drama plays out on the national stage and apathy toward political elites remains widespread, it is easy to dismiss the Revolution of Dignity and its promises of a new path for Ukraine as a failure. Doing so, however, ignores the revolution’s effect on civic engagement among its participants, who have been increasingly visible and active in local politics and small-scale initiatives which are remaking Ukraine’s cities and changing the relationship between citizen and state.

Analyses of the events of the revolution usually look either through the lens of national political reform or through the lens of geopolitics – viewing Ukraine as caught in a tug of war between Russia and the West. While European symbols and promises of closer ties with the European Union are integral to understanding the revolution, they paint an incomplete picture.

Some of those who stood on the Maidan and witnessed the state violence that played out in the winter of 2013-2014 have gone on to fight in the country’s ongoing war in the southeast, while others have returned to their cities and neighborhoods to work on less dangerous – but nonetheless consequential – projects.

From mobilising efforts to save historic buildings threatened by well-connected developers to organizing independent schools that teach smart city planning, journalism, human rights and research skills, activists and civic leaders are using the experience of the revolution to pursue projects outside traditional political structures. These projects do not often make international – or even national – headlines, but they have the potential to pave the way for a more robust and dynamic civil society.

Civil society’s strength is perhaps most visible in Kyiv, with its high concentration of foreign donors and NGOs working on projects to influence Ukraine’s democratic transition, but civic activity is not limited to the capital. From east to west, networks of volunteer organizations and civic groups have sprouted in recent years. An online database called Mistosite, supported by Ukrainian social research organization CEDOS, listed 769 civic initiatives throughout Ukraine in February 2019, up from 213 in February 2017. Those projects focus on a wide range of causes, such as volunteer legal services, smart city planning and the promotion of art.

Natasha Kurdiukova, a journalist who founded the civic-minded Nakipelo news organization in Kharkiv, said the Revolution of Dignity energized citizens in the east, where five years ago some wondered whether Ukraine’s second-largest city would follow the fate of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been under de facto control of Russia for nearly five years.

“The level of discourse in Kharkiv, about issues related to our situation here – what we can do next – is definitely high,” Kurdiukova said. “I go to different cities in Ukraine to work on different projects and see what it’s like. Maybe it’s because the war is nearby, but we in Kharkiv have moved forward with our plans to develop civil society.”

In a city where local media is tightly controlled by business interests friendly to longtime mayor Hennadiy Kernes, Nakipelo stands out as a nonprofit community news source. Launched in 2014 to cover the events unfolding during the Revolution of Dignity, Nakipelo gives a platform to civic activists and hosts events to empower activists and independent journalists.

Kurdiukova said that although the government has not lived up to the promises of the revolution, sustained civic activity offers an alternative.

“People say there are lots of problems that can’t be solved – that the government is slow, that reforms are slow, and so on – but I think Ukraine is growing from the ground up,” Kurdiukova said. “As civil society grows, it will squeeze out the problems at the top. It’s slow, but it’s probably the best way forward.”

Making the jump from the streets to the ballot

This new generation of politically active, well-networked activists could become Ukraine’s leaders of tomorrow. But while these groups have found success mobilising over local issues, it remains uncertain whether they can effectively make the transition from small-scale activism to mainstream politics.

Ivan Spryn co-founded the Center for Public Monitoring and Research in Lviv. Photo: Chris G. Collison

A number of prominent Euromaidan activists entered parliament during the 2014 elections and a handful entered local politics. However, as many civic leaders noted, no “Euromaidan” political party grew out of the Revolution of Dignity. Instead, each of the major political parties included a handful of activists on their lists.

According to Ivan Spryn, who co-founded the Center for Public Monitoring and Research in Lviv and serves as a local representative for Reanimation Package of Reforms, an NGO that was successful in pushing reforms through parliament in the year following the revolution, the barriers to entering politics in Ukraine are too great for many civic leaders, who see working on initiatives as a better use of their time.

“For civic activists like me, it’s a challenge and it’s hard to make the right choice,” Spryn said. “If I want to be a member of parliament, I need to join a good party that has no chance to get into parliament, or I have to join an oligarchic party, but it would be harder to be independent. Looking at future elections, I think that lots of activists understand that the only way to change the country is to be part of the parliament or local councils.”

Spryn added that he worries regional civic projects could come to an end if their leaders enter politics.

“The threat is that if the most active people from this coalition of civic organizations goes into politics, the organization can fall apart and die,” he said. “Some organizations in Ukraine have strong leaders. For example, if I were in elections tomorrow, I don’t know if my organization would work at the same level. That’s the danger of the elections. Still, I believe it’s the natural evolution. Some organization will give a start for young politicians. It will be a step forward.”

Some civic activists have tried to enter local politics, but the barriers to entry can be daunting for those without significant financial resources.

In 2015, Anna Herashchenko became council leader of Chuhuiv, an administrative center for five small villages in Kharkiv Oblast. Herashchenko was an environmental activist in the region before joining the protests in Kyiv. She later defeated the council’s longtime leader in local elections following the revolution.

As council head, Herashchenko receives a salary of about 250 US dollars a month. Her husband works as a programmer in the Netherlands, and without his salary, Herashchenko said she would not be able to feed her children.

“It’s not possible to live on such a salary – it’s only possible if you take bribes,” she said. “I really appreciate that my husband is giving me money, which allows me to be honest here in this work. I don’t understand how other people work, because the system makes them take bribes and be dishonest. They cannot live on an official salary. It’s not possible.”

In Odessa, Gleb Zhavaronkov, a civic activist, ran for city council as part of the Democratic Alliance, a political party with a focus on democratic reform and anti-corruption efforts. The party did not manage to win enough votes to send him to city hall.

According to Zhavaronkov, the party’s focus on grassroots efforts and inability to build a broad-based coalition doomed its campaign.

“I wanted to the party to be more political, but they wanted to stay in this civil organization format,” he said. “I wanted to fundraise and make it more aggressive, but the party didn’t want to change its strategy, so I left it.”

Zhavaronkov added that it is extremely difficult to enter local politics without the backing of a strong political party or financier.

“You should have some money from somewhere,” he said. “It takes a lot of time. I found that I didn’t have enough time to earn money to live. You cannot start from nowhere and become a member of parliament and get a salary. It’s possible to win local elections in Odessa, and we even got some small party into city politics. But you really need to invest an enormous amount of time and you should be really devoted to this process. If you want to live your life, it’s easier to be an activist and just work on some projects.

In a society famously thought to be lacking in social capital, these informal networks of voluntary citizen interaction suggest there is a nascent civil society growing just out of view of the political establishment.

Few of the initiatives address national political issues, and it is unclear when – or if – these activist groups will grow into large-scale political movements. Their wariness of formal political groups is both an asset and a challenge. While their flexibility and fiercely independent nature make them extremely democratic and creative, their distrust of institutions and authorities makes cooperation those in power, even on minor issues, difficult.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for the autumn and local elections expected next year, Ukraine’s civic leaders will have a chance to give it another go at the polls, although it is unclear how many are willing to give up their current projects in favor of working from inside the system.

Distrust of the formal political process presents a challenge to these groups, which are wary of partnering with political parties or joining the political process. According to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, many civic groups see no advantage to being institutionalized as formal organizations and some even fear retaliation.

Although it may take some time, Ukraine’s future political leaders will likely emerge from the Euromaidan generation. For now, small-scale projects will continue to remake the country’s urban landscapes and are helping Ukrainians develop a new civic identity.

Chris G. Collison is on a Fulbright research fellowship in Ukraine to study the impact of the Revolution of Dignity on civil society and civic culture. He has an MA in Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies from the University in Washington and a BA in Political Science.

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