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When will the civic activity in Ukraine lead to political change?

Euromaidan food
Volunteers serve tea during the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv. Photo: open sources
When will the civic activity in Ukraine lead to political change?
Article by: Susann Worschech

“Where’d all the good people go
I’ve been changin’ channels
I don’t see them on the TV shows
Where’d all the good people go
We got heaps and heaps of what we sow”

(Jack Johnson, “Good People,” from the Album “In Between Dreams”)

The story of civil society and democratic civic movements in Ukraine is impressing. And it is a tragedy.

Only few countries in Europe may look back as proudly as Ukrainians on a long-lasting history of protests, revolutions, and strikes. Only few countries saw intellectuals and reformers, workers and conservatives marching and protesting for their political rights, be it vis-à-vis the totalitarian Soviet system, or against authoritarian kleptocrats’ state capture.

Among all Soviet republics, Ukraine had the largest share of political prisoners, and they were often sentenced much worse than those from other Soviet republics. Protesting for democratization in Ukraine never lost its appeal and hope for a better future – whoever supported the Ukraina Bez Kutchma campaign could not stay silent when Yanukovych beat down students on Maidan in late 2013.

The Euromaidan revolution attracted up to a million protesters daily. Photo: AirPana
At times, up to a million protesters were at the Euromaidan protests in central Kyiv. Photo:

However, the tragic side of the story is that until today, this extraordinarily active civil society never managed to integrate its energy, its visions and its brilliant heads into political structures on a permanent basis. Four years after the Euromaidan protests started, Ukrainian democrats may glorify their democratic moments; but they failed to establish a democratic movement so far.

Hence, the question then is – where did all the good people go?

Although a certain share of former protest leaders entered the Rada and the administration in 2014, the “good people” are barely to be found in the decision-making bodies of Ukraine. But citizens started to re-capture their state from below.

Countless organizations and initiatives were founded in 2014 to support the military where the Ukrainian state didn’t do what is his genuine responsibility. These groups collected money and equipment, produced camouflage or dedicated their small business profits to the army. Correspondingly, volunteering increased remarkably: 13 per cent of the whole population were actively involved in civic actions in 2014. Financial support to charity organizations increased up to 38% in 2014, while in 2013, only 9 per cent of the Ukrainians donated to charity organizations.

Parallel, experienced civil society activists who had to flee themselves from Crimea, Donetsk or Luhansk oblasts founded organizations to support internally displaced persons (IDPs). An impressive network of so called “SOS organizations” emerged, often on the basis of social or human rights organizations that were active in these regions long before 2014.

The originally Luhansk-based Human Rights organization Postup is a stunning example of the transformation of civil society and its adaption to new needs: Postup activists were founders of Vostok SOS and, together with other SOS organizations, driving forces for the establishment of the Kyiv-based refugee support center House of Free People. The fact that even under the recent difficult circumstances, civil society in Ukraine grows even faster and adapts its activities and skills to the new circumstances points at the unbroken spirit of responsibility of Ukrainian civil society.

Crimea SOS has five branches which work in 17 regions of Ukraine. More than 50 employees take part in the projects. Tamila Tasheva (pictured) leads the organization. Photo:
Crimea SOS has five branches which work in 17 regions of Ukraine. More than 50 employees take part in the projects. Tamila Tasheva (pictured) leads the organization. Photo:

Does this increase of activism also imply a boost for democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine?

Regardless of how active citizens are, civil society remains by definition pre-political.

Public alertness is a vital component in any democratizing political structure, but the public sphere must neither be mistaken for politics, nor for democratization.

Democratization itself can be understood as a “net movement towards broader, more equal, protected and mutual binding consultation,” as the American sociologist and historian Charles Tilly put it in his book “Democracy” in 2007. These consultations take place between rulers and those who are ruled, and as far as these consultations become more and more inclusive and reliable, democracy grows and flourishes as well.

Civil society may contribute to this growing political inclusiveness in two ways.

  1. First, civic organizations can be “watchdogs” who alarm the public whenever citizens’ rights and freedoms are at risk of being violated. In defending these rights, civil society may ensure that these consultations are realized and authorities abide by them.
  2. Second, civil society is also a social realm of democratic socialization. Citizens who associate in interest groups, self-help initiatives or even sports clubs learn how to pursue common goals, negotiate and find a compromise, they establish democratic values, societal trust networks and abstract solidarity. Ideally, this “community civil society” links individuals to authorities and integrates citizens into consultations.
A vibrant civil society that is able to influence power structures includes both perspectives – the “watchdog” and the community civil society – by consisting of multifold organizations and initiatives with skilled expertise.

Up to now, Ukraine’s misfit of civil society – state relations was based on a dominance of the “watchdogs” – a phenomenon that results, inter alia, from the prevalent preferences of external funding. Most supporters of Ukrainian civil society favored the “watchdog” function of civil society in their support since Ukraine’s independence.

The Public Integrity Council (PIC) was a civic watchdog created to monitor the creation of Ukraine’s new Supreme Court. However, despite PIC warnings, the judicial authorities appointed dishonorable judges anyway. Activists of the PIC say they wree used to legitimize a dishonest competition. More>>>

However, the “watchdog” civil society needs resonance structures on the state side – the watchdog’s barking is useless if no one listens. Before Euromaidan, authorities tried to ignore or suppress the civil rights defenders’ warnings. After Euromaidan, and with respect to the war in Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s landgrab, the social climate did not make it easier for the watchdog to be heard, as criticizing the authorities is often discredited as “anti-Ukrainian.”

The emerging volunteer movement marks a certain change in the structure of Ukrainian civil society. These groups do perfectly fit into the category of the “community civil society”: They are mainly associations on the local level who try to fix a specific problem. They have to agree on strategies, coordinate with authorities, and integrate a heterogeneity of people and ideas. Quite more than organized interest groups and NGOs, these associations are realms where trust networks, trade-offs and solidarity are practiced. They are the societal humus for political inclusivity.

Therefore, the volunteers are a growing hope for Ukraine.

There are critical aspects about volunteer activism as well, inter alia because by supporting displaced persons and military units, the Ukrainian state may escape responsibility within its very own jurisdictions. But the volunteer movement has to be seen as a first significant step towards society’s re-appropriation of the state.

Demand-driven activism on the local level, the association and cooperation of those who are ready for change and social commitment may have a larger impact on democratization in the long run than a skilled watchdog organization could ever have in a political deaf environment.

The local and problem-centered initiatives have to grow and work continuously to build and entrench political inclusivity in Ukraine.

The main threat to their work is the very likely exhaustion after compensating the huge state failure.

Further, civic networks which were born in a situation of societal and political emergency, are highly emotionally charged and issue-centered. It is not clear whether these networks of army and refugee support may transform their activities towards civilian and less urgent issues. But they also have a unique chance to find ways to infiltrate their political skills, subjects and the public spirit into administrations and power structures.

Ukrainian volunteers. Photo: Oleksandr Lemenov
Ukrainian volunteers. Photo: Oleksandr Lemenov

Local activists could initiate a new translation of citizens’ claims and conduct formulated during Euromaidan, and bundle up their readiness to take politics into their own hands. The “watchdogs” would be needed to accompany that process on site to ensure that local and regional administrations cooperate and become more and more reliable.

There will be no ground zero from where to re-build a state; no break or rupture, but civil society may detect the smaller windows of opportunity on the local level to reinforce democratization.

The good people, underlines Jack Johnson, are not those we may see in the TV shows and in the news. Ukraine’s good people already started to reclaim their state from below by participating, shaping political debates and staying alert to the institutional development. If they continue, Ukraine might undergo more than just another democratic moment.

Dr. Susann Worschech, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder, Germany

This article is an abridged version of the article “New Civic Activism in Ukraine: Building Society from Scratch?” dedicated to the legacy of the Euromaidan Revolution. The article belongs to the Special Issue “Civil Society in Post-Euromaidan Ukraine,” co-edited by Burlyuk O., Shapovalova N., Zarembo K. And published in Kyiv Mohyla Law and Politics Journal, Issue 3, 2017.

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