This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.
Four years after the 2013–2014 Euromaidan uprising, a mass mobilization in which approximately 20 percent of Ukraine’s population either protested against the government or supported the protesters, Ukrainian civic activists have still not seen their demands for far-reaching political change met.
Even though volunteer activities have decreased since a spike in 2014, civic activists have not given up. The Euromaidan has had a lasting impact on the culture of civic engagement by institutionalizing the social norms and values spread following the revolutionary moment. Yet, the impact these efforts have had on the state remains debated.
Grassroots Progress Despite a Slowdown
The pace of many reforms has slowed down, and, in some cases, the government is trying to reverse early reform achievements. Ukraine still has one of the highest bribery rates in Europe, as well as among post-Soviet countries, and the failure of the government to tackle corruption causes tension with Ukraine’s Western partners. Old, unreformed law enforcement agencies and political elites attack many of the positive developments since the uprising, such as newly established anti-corruption institutions. The authorities continue to use the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has resulted in at least 10,303 people killed and 24,778 injured, as an excuse for the slow pace of reform and to silence critical voices by labeling them as Russian agents.
A closer investigation of civil society efforts in different sectors, however, shows that the postrevolutionary picture is different this time compared to Ukraine’s previous eruptions of protest. Unlike in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, a mass mobilization against the fraudulent presidential election in 2004, Ukraine’s civic activists did not simply go home after 2014’s protests. They organized to support the army and the displaced population as well as to advocate for reforms and monitor their implementation. They did this through both existing and new civic groups and networks, such as the Reanimation Package of Reforms.1 They combined forces and created coalitions among civic and political actors to promote reforms. Many older civil society organizations transformed themselves by seeking new ways to connect with wider society and learn the culture of compromise and cooperation.
According to the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index, which ranks countries according to their level of charitableness, Ukraine has significantly improved in two categories—helping a stranger and donating to a charity—since the pre-Euromaidan period. The proportion of people donating money in Ukraine more than quadrupled in 2014, and though it recently decreased, the level is still three times higher now than it was in 2013. In 2016, more people in Ukraine reported helping a stranger than in any year before or after the Euromaidan. According to a poll by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the proportion of Ukrainians engaged in volunteering was stable in 2015 and 2016, after increasing to 14 percent from 10 percent in 2010. Volunteer organizations have become the most trusted social institutions according to an opinion poll carried out by the Razumkov Center in October 2017, with more than 66 percent of Ukrainians trusting them. Those levels exceed the level of trust in the two institutions that Ukrainians had previously ranked the highest—the church and the armed forces.
In addition, civic activism after the Euromaidan has grassroots reach, spreading to many cities and towns around the country. To name just a few examples, the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center, which was founded in 2015 by a group of Euromaidan activists from the city of Kharkiv, fights against the fraudulent allocation of land plots. Its tools include investigative journalism, protests, and litigation. Two members of the organization were elected to local councils in autumn 2015. A group of civic activists from Kyiv’s residential area of Obolon turned a wasted tract into the modern Park Natalka in cooperation with local community members, authorities, and private businesses. The group also founded an NGO with the aim of spreading their experiences beyond Kyiv to other municipalities in Ukraine.2 And in the village of Kryva Luka in the Donetsk region, a displaced businesswoman is working to mobilize the local community to develop rural tourism in the region.
The ongoing decentralization reform process, which transfers more powers and resources from the national government to local communities, also offers civic activists and ordinary citizens a window of opportunity for engaging in local politics and policymaking.
These trends in Ukraine’s civic activism challenge the arguments that post-communist civil society has been weak due to a low level of citizen participation in civic associations and that this weakness may hamper democratic consolidation.3 They also challenge the assumption that civil society in post-communist states is made up of little more than professional nongovernmental organizations driven by Western donor money and detached from the society at large.4
Nonetheless, serious concerns about the health and the impact of Ukrainian civil society persist.
To start with, post-Euromaidan civil society in Ukraine cannot be seen exclusively as a boon for democracy. The Euromaidan legacy also includes the use of violence by civil society actors, though only a small share of Euromaidan protesters resorted to violence against police forces. Moreover, the use of violence did not split the protest movement but rather solidified it and produced a new ethos of more radical civic expression.5 Additionally, anti-Maidan activists (a movement against the Euromaidan) resorted to violence in Kyiv and eastern and southern cities in Ukraine. The Euromaidan, followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the hybrid conflict in eastern Ukraine, has consolidated radical nationalist and far-right groups that promote religious and ethnic intolerance. These groups engage in violent acts against those they consider enemies of Ukraine’s traditional values, including leftist groups, feminists, members of the LGBT community, Roma, and refugees. But their political success has been very limited so far.6
Ukraine’s civil society is far from a homogeneous set of organizations fighting for democracy and human rights. There is conflict and competition between different, often polarized, civil society groups and movements. LGBT groups organize peaceful pride festivals in Kyiv and lobby for legislative changes to improve their access to rights, while conservative civic initiatives ranging from pro-family movements to far-right groups that stand to preserve traditional values have become increasingly visible and vocal.7
Similarly, civic groups that work toward seeking dialogue, truth, and reconciliation in the context of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine are blamed by other civic organizations for being unpatriotic and influenced by Russia.8 While many civic activists challenge unlawful decisions of local governments or demand in courts that the state fulfill its human rights obligations, other groups attempt to restore justice in a radical way by storming courtrooms and violently disrupting hearings. As Ukrainians continue to distrust the (unreformed) state institutions, the radicalization of civil society may obstruct Ukraine’s transition to democracy, state building, and nonviolent conflict resolution.
Looking Toward the Future
A strong civil society in Ukraine may also serve to further undermine an already weak state.
Research on volunteer involvement in the Ukrainian defense sector, for example, demonstrates that civil society can strengthen state capacity in the short term, but it can also undermine state capacity in the medium and long terms by acting as a substitute for the state and removing reasons for the state to reform.9 The volunteer movement filled a critical gap for the army in basic provision and procurement when the state was at its weakest. Yet, by providing services more efficiently than the state, volunteer organizations induced the military to rely on them rather than demand that the state change its practices. And the efforts to build the state’s capacity to reform by bringing volunteers into the state structures did not produce lasting results. Volunteers brought to the Ministry of Defense did not hold official positions and were not part of the formal decisionmaking process. Working directly under the minister or his deputy, they were looked at suspiciously by ministerial staff. While the volunteers managed to quickly fill urgent gaps in procurement for the army, they could not enact institutional changes in the procurement system.10 According to another line of argument, civil society groups that took over some of the responsibilities of the state by aiding the army and the displaced neglected a key function of civil society in liberal tradition—to hold the government to account. As a result, they have weakened the reform process.11
Additionally, post-Euromaidan civic energy directed toward reform has pushed the government to fight back by restricting space for civil society and trying to impose measures and rules targeting the most vocal civic groups and activists, especially those involved in the fight against corruption.12 The CIVICUS global monitor of civic space places Ukraine in the middle of its rating scale—giving it the label “obstructed”—due to restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression, and on the right to access information in the context of the ongoing armed conflict.
Natalia Shapovalova is a researcher based in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. She is a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.
Olga Burlyuk is an FWO postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University, Belgium.
This article draws on the Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal’s special 2017 issue on “Civil Society in Ukraine After the Euromaidan,” which is a collection of academic research articles co-edited by the authors together with Kateryna Zarembo. The issue is available online at http://kmlpj.ukma.edu.ua/issue/view/7148.
1 Susann Worschech, “New Civic Activism in Ukraine: Building Society From Scratch?,” Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal 3 (2017), http://kmlpj.ukma.edu.ua/article/view/119984.
2 Olga Ivkina, “A Park for Free People” [in Ukrainian], Civic Society 11, no. 31 (2017): 24–26.
3 Marc Morjé Howard, The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
4 Armine Ishkanian, Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia (London and New York: Routledge, 2008).
5 As the famous Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych put it: while the heroes of the Orange Revolution were lawyers, the heroes of the Euromaidan were combatants. See Kateryna Avramchuk, “Yuri Andrukhovych: This Government Is Strong in Its Stupidity, That’s Why Negotiations Are Not an Effective Way Out” [in Ukrainian], Insider, February 17, 2014, http://www.theinsider.ua/art/yurii-andrukhovich-tsya-vlada-silna-svoyeyu-tupistyu-i-tomu-shlyakh-peregovoriv-ne-diyevii/.
6 In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the far-right Svoboda party did not pass the 5 percent threshold, while the post-Euromaidan election newcomer Right Sectorgained less than 2 percent of the vote, though some members of nationalist and far-right organizations entered the parliament through single mandate constituencies and electoral lists of other parties. See Andreas Umland, “Ukrainian Voluntary Battalions and the ‘Azov’ Regiment” [in Ukrainian], Krytyka 19, nos. 11 and 12 (2016).
7 Maryna Shevtsova, “Learning the Lessons From the Euromaidan: Ups and Downs of LGBT Activism in Ukrainian Public Sphere,” Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal 3 (2017), http://kmlpj.ukma.edu.ua/article/view/120123.
8 Tatiana Kyselova, “Professional Peacemakers in Ukraine: Mediators and Facilitators Before and After 2014,” Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal 3 (2017), http://kmlpj.ukma.edu.ua/article/view/120119.
9 Kateryna Zarembo, “Substituting for the State: The Role of Civil Society in Defence Reform in post-Euromaidan Ukraine,” Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal 3 (2017), http://kmlpj.ukma.edu.ua/article/view/119985.
10 Ibid., and Valentyna Romanova, “A Comparative Analysis of Regional Governors’ Approaches to Fostering Inclusive Political Institutions in Post-Euromaidan Donbas,” Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal 3 (2017), http://kmlpj.ukma.edu.ua/article/view/119986.
11 Laura Cleary, “Half Measures and Incomplete Reforms: The Breeding Ground for a Hybrid Civil Society in Ukraine,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 1 (2016).
12 On March 23, 2017, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko approved an amendment to the law on the prevention of corruption that requires anti-corruption organizations to declare their assets, along with politicians, judges, and civil servants. Facing criticism from civil society, on July 10, 2017, the president submitted two draft laws to the parliament to adjust the prior amendment. The proposed amendments to the Tax Code and other legislative acts, both purportedly aimed at “enhancing the transparency of funding of civic associations and of the use of international technical assistance,” as their titles imply, introduced additional financial disclosure requirements for all kinds of civil society organizations, as well as their staff and donors. (The quote comes from the title of the two legislative acts introducing amendments: Draft Law No. 6674 On Amending Some Legislative Acts for Enhancing the Transparency of Funding of Activities of Civic Associations and the Use of International Technical Assistance, and Draft Law No. 6675 On Amending the Tax Code of Ukraine for Enhancing the Transparency of Funding of Activities of Civic Associations and the Use of International Technical Assistance.) In 2017, criminal investigations were launched into the activities of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, and the Patients of Ukraine charity. They are widely seen as a punishment of NGOs that fight against corruption and for transparency in public procurement.