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Increasing the power of civil society in Ukraine

How does the civil society drive Ukraine’s Euro-integration? To which extent are the NGO-coalitions powerful on influencing policy- and decision-making? What are some recent examples of civil society’s influence on the implementation of reforms?

December 22, 2019 - Oksana Khomei - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Marco Verch (CC) https://foto.wuestenigel.com/street-art-on-house-in-kyiv/

Since 2014 Ukraine has chosen to pursue a path of European integration in both its domestic and foreign policies. The civil society sector itself has been actively pushing for an ambitious reform agenda, related to the implementation of the commitments envisaged by the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine.

Current trends in civil society’s developments

Although civil society continues to advocate for reforms and government transparency, the Freedom House’s yearly report Nations in Transit 2019 found that Ukraine is still a partly-free democracy. In 2019 the civil liberties metric has shifted from 2.50 in 2017 to four (with a score of 7.00 being the lowest). The score decreased due to a series of purposely planned attacks on civic activists and the state’s failure to find and punish those responsible for it.

On a positive note, Ukrainians trust civil society organisations more than state bodies. Strikingly, 51 per cent of Ukrainians approve of NGO activities (43.4 per cent in 2018) and 70 per cent trust volunteer initiatives (65.2 per cent in 2018). At the same time, 68.5 per cent of people do not trust public servants. Therefore, civil society is regarded as a trustworthy partner for the state and such a high level of trust from citizens makes it difficult for state bodies to adopt decisions without civil society’s legitimising engagement.

However, an increasing public trust in civil society has not led to a sustainable rise in civic participation: only seven per cent of citizens actively participate in the lives of their communities. An important step forward to creating a better enabling environment for the civil society was taken on June 6th 2019, when the Constitutional Court cancelled unconstitutional requirements of anti-corruption activists to submit their asset declarations. This is a milestone achievement of a two-year advocacy campaign led by the Ukrainian civil society, meaning that the discriminatory provisions introduced in 2017 are no longer valid.

What’s more, starting in May 2019, active citizens across Ukraine can register an NGO online free of charge at the Governmental portal. It matches well with the “state in smartphone” concept, pushed forward by the new team of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his parliamentary majority. It is also an important step forward to improving public service delivery and supporting the increase in a number of NGOs in the regions, especially youth-led ones.

High expectations

With significant progress achieved in decentralisation, macroeconomic stabilisation and public procurement transparency, there is an urgent need to speed up reforms in the areas of public administration, law enforcement, the judiciary and healthcare. To be most effective, the new government and parliament should team up with experts from the civil society, since in many areas NGO’s expertise is much needed.

Moreover, most citizens do not yet see progress in the overall reform process which began after the EuroMaidan. Thirty-six per cent of citizens face negative experiences with the reforms’ implementation, 33 per cent fail to acknowledge any substantial progress while only three per cent believe the reforms within the Euro-integration agenda are successful. Impatience of citizens to finally see some concrete results are combined with the enduring conflict in eastern Ukraine. Anti-corruption, healthcare, pension, reform of law enforcement agencies and public administration reforms are mostly anticipated by Ukrainians.

How does the civil society in Ukraine continue to push the Euro-integration agenda forward?

Civil society coalitions have been continuing to be vital in pushing the reforms. On the eve of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, a number of civil society coalitions called for continuation of the Euro-integration reforms. Sixty-eight NGOs within the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) prepared a list of “red lines” for the president in security, foreign and economic policies, and other vital reforms (cancellation of e-declarations for public servants, sabotage of anti-corruption reforms, etc.) The RPR also highlighted the priorities for Ukraine (Toronto Principles) on the eve of the Third Ukraine Reform Conference, signed by over 100 NGOs. The Toronto Principles call for the new president and the parliament to continue healthcare reforms, anti-corruption efforts, elaborate on security and further harmonisation of law with European standards.

An open appeal to the president was signed by over 100 human rights organisations with a request of reviewing and speeding up the judicial reform envisaged by the political part of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Seventeen civil society organisations issued a statement to political parties running for elections to ensure reforms continue in anti-corruption and law enforcement bodies and safeguard procurement of medicines through the international organisations, which has been saving lives for thousands of patients and included in the agreement as well.

The president and new government has adhered to the civil society’s demands and prioritised these reforms while having pledged to continue Euro-integration processes.

Amplifying voice from regional to national level

On a positive note, the civil society coalitions have found more and more common ground for a joint co-operation. In 2019 the all-Ukrainian CSOs-Hubs Network, which unites 15 powerful NGO-leaders from north to south, east to west, and the Legal Development Network, which is a nationwide coalition consisting of 29 CSOs with a focus on human rights protection and provision of legal aid to vulnerable groups, united their advocacy efforts for the first time. As a result of this fruitful co-operation, a joint shadow report on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Ukraine was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Another successful example of cross-regional co-operation is an alternative report on rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), prepared by seven NGOs.With more than 1.4 million IDPs as a result of the conflict in the east, keeping the reforms on track, as envisioned by the Association Agreement, becomes even more challenging. The report on IDP rights and recommendations on how to improve the situation was submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee. Afterwards, active CSOs initiated a dialogue with ministries to address human rights’ issues raised in the report, while pushing the authorities to keep Euro-integration commitments.

Nonetheless, despite an increase in advocacy initiatives at the local level, the influence of civil society is often challenged. As UNDP research conducted in 24 oblasts of Ukraine shows, local authorities tend to hear civil society’s demands and be open to co-operate unless it threatens useful schemes of funding allocation and regional business group’s interests.

What’s next?

These and many more examples of recent developments in Ukraine’s civil society illustrate that not only the national, and mostly Kyiv-based, organisations are active in Ukraine, but also regional civil society organisations are starting to get more active. If united, they could effectively advocate for policy changes and push forward the implementation of Euro-integration commitments.

The challenge here lies in developing a proper level of understanding by the NGOs that only through establishing relationships based on trust, partnership and dialogue, and in co-operation with the state, can solutions to socially-important challenges be tackled. Often the state machine needs prepared solutions, based on research and lessons learnt, since public servants often lack the experience needed, being overloaded by other bureaucratic tasks.

Ultimately, the civil society continues to be a driver of Ukraine’s Euro-integration process. And it has shown signs of better consolidation and maturity, ready to unite and amplify the voice of the key messages for state bodies to be heard. While civil society’s voice is rather an influential one at the national level, the challenge of being adhered to remains an issue at the local level, requiring more unity between diverse NGOs to strengthen the power of their voices, while acting as both “watchdogs” and partners on reform implementation.

Oksana Khomei is a PhD candidate at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the auspices of the President of Ukraine.

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