A Wake-up Call for Ukraine’s Civil Society

Civil Society after Euromaidan: What Went Right?

Ukraine paid a high price to restore its democracy in 2013. The scope of innovation and civic engagement at the 2013 Euromadan was truly unprecedented. There are at least four areas where civil society achieved particularly strong results:

1. Ukraine experienced a remarkable growth of nationwide volunteer groups that provide humanitarian support and social assistance to the victims of the war in Donbas and other populations at risk. Volunteers became the most trusted group in Ukrainian society (replacing the church).[8]

2. Civil society groups influenced the post-Euromaidan reform process. The largest and most visible reform network – the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) – is comprised of 80 NGOs, 22 reform groups and 300 experts, who develop, promote, and in some cases even implement judicial, anticorruption and economic changes.

3. Anticorruption initiatives became much more systemic and institutionalized. NGOs continuously monitored the process of constructing two major anticorruption agencies, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC). Under public pressure, the government launched a publicly available online system for tracking the declared assets of politicians, civil servants, and judges.

4. Euromaidan ushered in a new type of political organization: membership-based political parties detached from oligarchic funding. These civil society-based political forces, like Democratic Alliance, Power of the People, Civic Movement “Khvylya” (the wave), and Mikheil Saakashvili’s The New Forces Movement, engage well-educated Ukrainians and focus on anti-corruption.

What Went Wrong (Again)?

The human toll of the Euromaidan was so high that most find the current cynical restoration of the old system truly incomprehensible. As Novoe Vremya editor Vitaliy Sych wrote: “I thought that after the killing of 100 people on the Maidan, after the deaths of thousands of people in the East, Ukraine would never be the same, and that politicians would understand the level of responsibility and the importance of the moment. But we still witness corruption, schemes, and political deals at the highest level.”[9] However, the incomprehensible is unfolding before our eyes. Ukraine’s political class once again patiently waited for the revolutionary fervor to pass before starting its “sweet counter-revolution”.[10]

The first warning light for Ukraine’s civil society should have been the “business as usual” approach of Ukraine’s NGO community. While volunteers emerged as the most trusted group in Ukraine after the Euromaidan, the NGO leaders continued to prioritize relations with Western donors over engaging with its citizens, even the passionate army of volunteers.

Certain NGOs resumed working with Ukraine’s financial elites. Ihor Kolomoisky, Viktor Pinchuk and other oligarchs started employing financial, media, and political resources to promote various activists and NGOs. The oligarchs predicted, correctly, that their support would buy a certain amount of influence and protection. Social scientist Mikhail Minakov observed, “In 2014…oligarchic groups recognized the functionality of civil society organizations and attempted to use them—sometimes through coercion—either to increase their rents or to defend their existing power and property.”[11]

In many ways the cultural codes of Ukraine’s top NGOs mirror the patron-client nature of the country’s oligarchic power structures: many Kyiv-based NGOs operate in a rather closed network of people who have been friends for a long time, who have a long history of cooperating with one another, and who built clientelistic networks either with government representatives or international donors.

Consider the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) group. Donors rewarded RPR for its effectiveness and success in advocating post-Euromaidan reforms. From 2015-17, it received millions of dollars in support from Ukraine’s key donors: USAID, Pact, the Swedish SIDA, the International Renaissance Foundation (IRF), UNDP, and the EU Delegation to Ukraine. Although RPR is officially comprised of 80 NGOs, all Western funding has been channeled through a select group of NGOs—such as the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law (more than 70 percent of total funding), Centre UA and the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research – all of which were already longtime recipients of foreign aid.[12]

The funding flow not only created conflict between recipient and non-recipient groups—it created something of a “warm bath” effect for the recipients. RPR turned its focus on donor reports and applications, rather then sustaining and growing citizen participation. RPR’s office, opened in 2014 with zero donor funding, looked like a beehive of civic activism. Today, the drive is gone and bureaucracy prevails over innovation. When asked what made him most proud of the network, Artem Mirhorodkyi, chief of RPR’s secretariat, responded he was “particularly glad that RPR’s reform bulletins were received and read by all foreign embassies and foreign organizations.”

Over time, results-oriented activists started leaving the network. As Viktor Griza, a former member of RPR’s group on cultural reform, told me: “RPR grew into a club of beneficiaries [vygodopoluchateli]. Many RPR activists only use the RPR ‘brand’ to boost their personal capital – to meet foreign diplomats, get media opportunities, get invited to international conferences, or win prestigious fellowships in the United States. For some, RPR is a ticket to power corridors, where they can make friends with government officials or politicians and maybe get elected to the Verkhovna Rada during the next election.”

The stagnation in Ukraine’s NGO community was matched only by the ambition of many civic leaders to take advantage of their newfound influence. In 2013 Ukraine’s activists represented a potent and vigorous force. Authorities were forced to reckon with activist power and cooperate with its leaders on reforms. This opened a window of opportunity for Euromaidan leaders to go into politics, and many took advantage of the opportunity to convert their standing into attractive parliamentary or governmental positions. As a consequence, the leaders on the street failed to form a united political force to run for parliament in 2015. Instead, they allowed the country’s old elites to split their ranks and co-opt them into different political projects.