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The “Sled Dogs” of reform: civil society organisations transforming Ukraine

Civil society organisations are major drivers of democratic reforms in Ukraine. Underestimating the potential of this resourceful sector to impact and co-shape both internal reform and the EU integration agenda would be a strategic mistake for the EU and Kyiv’s other international partners. What can the international community do to maximise the capacities of civil society in Ukraine?

November 10, 2023 - Mykhailo Zhernakov Oksana Huss - Articles and Commentary

A rally in support of women's rights on March 8th 2020 in Kyiv. Photo: Volodymyr Kutsenko / Shutterstock

Despite the ongoing full-scale war perpetrated by Russia, Ukraine has lately received positive feedback from Western regarding its progress on democratic reform. The positive trend in such challenging areas as anti-corruption and judiciary reforms is broadly associated with the significant role played by civil society. Overall, Ukraine represents one of the few unique cases of civil society having a tangible influence on the institutional design and implementation of reforms, while remaining independent and critical towards the authorities.

However, in international rhetoric, this role is often diminished to the function of a mere watchdog, which anti-corruption civil society organisations (CSOs) are assumed to have in western democracies. In fact, the watchdog metaphor fully misses the co-production that Ukrainian NGOs deliver in designing, implementing and monitoring reforms. This misperception can lead to significant policy shortcomings regarding the support of civil society in Ukraine and, as a result, can slow down the speed of reforms.

“Before and after”: the evolution of Ukrainian civil society post-Euromaidan

Civil society in Ukraine developed watchdog functions after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and especially during the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych, which triggered the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013. For a post-Soviet society, this required overcoming the authorities’ traditional methods of intimidation, censorship and pressure. While this helped to prevent authoritarianism and change political personalities at the top, it is clear that civil society barely influenced the rules, procedures and structures of political institutions in this watchdog role. However, with the unique momentum created within society after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, as well as the increased role of the EU’s conditionality mechanism, civil society in Ukraine expanded its role from being a watchdog to what civil society expert Valerii Pekar calls a “sled dog”. CSOs moved from mere control to the actual co-production of public goods with the authorities, all the while mastering this process’s major risks and challenges. This is especially evident in sensitive and difficult areas such as anti-corruption and judiciary reforms. The European Liberal Forum’s recent research study “Designed in Brussels, Made in Ukraine: Future of the EU-Ukraine Relations” offers a detailed explanation of this shift.

To overcome the fragmentation of public interest, in 2014, civil society organisations acted strategically. Firstly, the civic coalition of over 120 NGOs, public activists, experts, journalists and researchers, known as the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), developed a package of legislative initiatives to bring about change. The RPR signed a memorandum in support of the Reform Roadmap with major political parties running for elections in 2014. Secondly, 25 civil society activists became members of the Ukrainian parliament and created an informal coalition called ‘Eurooptimists’. This was done with the strategic aim of pushing reforms within the parliament.

On top of the civil society strategy, the influence of external conditionality was high due to national aspirations for EU membership. Informally, international partners developed the mechanisms to coordinate their activities with Ukrainian civil society and thus to exercise two-sided pressure on those state bodies reluctant to change.

Co-producers of reforms: the case of anti-corruption

As a result of collective actions, the incremental change in the social contract has paved the way for effective reforms in Ukraine. In the sectors where reforms are moving in the right direction (despite immense resistance), such as the judiciary and anti-corruption, CSOs actually do a fair share of the work that in other countries is expected from the government. Alternative modes of governance have been emerging in this new dynamic that challenge common approaches to state-society relations. The state subordinates some tasks to the third sector, sometimes in mutual agreement and sometimes as a reaction to public pressure. In any case, this has positively impacted societal resilience in the war. The accountability focus moves from control to trust-building, which has important policy implications for international support.

One concern regarding too much engagement from non-governmental actors in policymaking is the risk of creating parallel structures. However, this concern is not substantiated in Ukraine. On the contrary, co-production has improved state institutions. The anti-corruption reforms have resulted in the creation of independent and effective state agencies for prevention (National Agency for Corruption Prevention, NACP), investigation (National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, NABU), prosecution (Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, SAPO), and justice (High Anti-Corruption Court, HACC) in corruption cases. For the first time, the NACP was responsible for developing the national Anti-Corruption Strategy, which focuses on 2021 to 2025. In contrast to the previous anti-corruption strategies, driven either by the president or a volatile civil society, this showcases the institutionalisation of the anti-corruption agenda. Other examples include globally recognised best practices for public procurement and privatisation, such as the digital platforms ProZorro and Prozorro.Sale. These were developed by civil society actors and transferred to the state’s ownership to avoid parallel structures.

Support for civil society organisations: strategic investment?

In order to succeed on its EU accession path, Ukraine has to modernise approximately 35 areas of state policymaking (this corresponds with the number of chapters in the EU acquis communautaire). While major and successful reforms almost exclusively happen in the areas where there are at least a couple of competent and devoted CSOs, there are currently only around 20 such organisations that work on national level policies. Yet, to properly modernise, their number needs to be at least four to five times more.

Meanwhile, even the capabilities of these players are currently diminished by their active involvement in the war effort. This has happened either directly (employees serving in the military) or through a new focus on war-related causes such as weapons or humanitarian aid. Furthermore, the third sector in Ukraine faces unfair competition when it comes to international organisations and the business sector, where the salaries can be several times higher and the conditions are often more favourable (including workload, social packages and exemptions from military service). This leads to the “cannibalisation” of the sector, where other players drain the effective CSOs of highly-skilled human resources. This further lowers the potential for change.

At the same time, the war context also brings a silver lining. A general feeling of ownership of the country and trust between the people is on the rise. This makes very fertile ground for the emergence and development of CSOs, should there be an ecosystem that facilitates and supports this process. The international community can help by funding and organising projects that help new actors establish such organisations. This can include training in project management, advocacy and communication, legal and organisational support, networking, etc.

Another strategic task is to create incentives for experts to join the third sector/public service. As Ukraine is a market economy, the drastic disparities in remuneration and working conditions for the same labour must be mitigated as soon as possible. Otherwise, the sector will always face shortages of human and material resources instead of the necessary growth. The same applies to the public service, especially the newly established institutions where the gap is even more drastic.

Channelling efforts in these two directions would allow the sector to develop its potential as a capable and reliable actor in reforming Ukraine.

Mykhailo Zhernakov is a Ukrainian lawyer, co-founder and the Chair of the Board of DEJURE Foundation, a leading NGO in judicial reform in Ukraine.

Dr Oksana Huss is a researcher in the BIT-ACT research project at the University of Bologna, Italy, and a lecturer at the Anti-Corruption Research and Education Centre, Ukraine.

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