Lab Report

The Grassroots Are Growing

Despite Ukraine's countless problems, its civil society is proving remarkably vibrant. The third in our series of Lab Reports on Ukraine.


Ukraine is a country defined by peculiar tensions between democratic and authoritarian impulses. Ever since the leaders of the Ukrainian Cossack state signed away their independence to the Russian tsars in 1654, there has been a question mark over the identity of Ukraine and the Ukrainians. The pull of the centralizing force of the Russian tsars to the east against the lingering gravitational pull toward Europe developed into a legacy of pluralism and lack of regard for authority that persists, in some ways, even today. These simmering tensions have erupted again as Ukraine’s government tries to dictate a "special" path to European integration, with help from Russia, while student-led protests demand that Ukraine should sign the Association Agreement this week as invited by the European Union.

Just ten years ago, the streets of Ukraine’s capital were filled with a million peaceful protesters bedecked in the color orange, demanding justice and the reversal of a falsified vote that would have brought the authoritarian regime’s hand-picked successor to power as president. Ukraine was the only one of the post-Soviet republics that had a viable and vibrant political opposition that conducted real debates in the parliament (not to mention that the leaders of that opposition consistently surpassed the president in polling). Ukraine’s "Orange Revolution" also revealed another force that makes Ukraine somewhat unique in the post-Soviet region: a lively, diverse, and large civil society sector.

This "revolution," where a political opposition joined with civil society to bring people into the streets and bring down a government, along with similar events in Serbia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, sent a clear message to autocrats around the world — namely, that the nongovernmental organizations of civil society could pose a real threat to their power. Ukraine’s civil society showed that the notion of a special path for the "Slavic Brotherhood of nations" — a project advanced with particular fervor by Vladimir Putin, who essentially claims that democracy is unsuitable for Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine — is really just a myth.

The biggest paradox came in 2010, when Ukraine’s civil society secured a presidential election that was deemed free and fair. And yet Viktor Yanukovych, the winner, was the very same candidate whose fraudulent campaign had resulted in the protests that became the Orange Revolution. His victory was soon marred by a rapid turn toward authoritarianism, enabling massive corruption in favor of his family and associates, and the jailing of his opponent Yulia Tymoshenko in an act of what is now referred to euphemistically as "selective justice."

Ukraine’s collection of nongovernmental organizations — what we have come to refer to as "civil society" — is relatively exceptional in the post-Soviet space. The only other countries in the region where similar civic-led uprisings have taken place to protest authoritarian rule are Georgia, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan. Georgia and Moldova, meanwhile, are now in line to initial agreements with the EU. Arguably, Ukraine’s civil society has had a more difficult task in edging the country toward democracy because of its size and special relationship with Russia. And yet civil society in Ukraine possesses particular qualities that provide hope for the future as the country lurches between east and west, between authoritarianism and democracy.

Ukraine’s civil society possesses qualities that add to its vigor and promise. Observers and specialists over the years have noted that it consists primarily of young people. This was very noticeable in the 1990s, especially when compared with Russia. This tradition has continued, and now a second and third generation of youth activists are coming forward — those who have declared a national student’s strike in support of European integration — while the first wave of post-independence activists, now in their 40s, are still working in the civic sector, having turned their youthful activism into a real profession. With many examples of youth activism — from the student hunger strike and mass youth protests of 1990 to the Orange Revolution — there is much to inspire younger Ukrainians, who continue to be dismayed by their governments.

What does Ukraine’s civil society consist of and what role does it play? There are many different types of groups and sectors within Ukraine’s civil society that have been evident and active since before the Orange Revolution. Especially important are the independent media, especially online. Unlike the official, already established print and broadcast media, which has always been under government control either directly or through pro-government oligarchs, these small Internet publications were a perfect vehicle for Ukraine’s emerging civil society. Often established by a mixture of anti-government activists and journalists who were being censored, these publications have tended to focus on information and political analysis that is not to be found in official media.

Ukraine’s premier Internet publication, Ukrainska Pravda, was a pioneer in this field when it was launched in 2000. The initiative of Georgiy Gongadze and other journalists whose work was being censored by official media, Ukrainska Pravda was and continues to be a platform providing news and analysis of the current political situation and of the corrupt dealings and lifestyles of Ukraine’s oligarchs and politicians. Georgiy Gongadze’s grisly murder at the hands of the government in the lead-up to the Orange Revolution is now well known. Ukrainska Pravda has continued to set a high standard and has provided inspiration and guidance for dozens of similar publications that are now found not only in Kiev, the capital city, but also throughout the regions of the country.

The intellectual leadership of Ukraine’s civil society is provided by a large community of analysts and critics. The dividing line between investigative journalists and critical analysts who publish in Internet publications is often indiscernible to outsiders. But the result of their work is a broad and easily accessible body of ongoing information that comments on and critiques government officials’ activities.

While these analytical centers cannot compare with the well-funded partisan think tanks of Europe or the United States, they have emerged as an important source of critical thinking and information used by civil society. Many of them were founded in the early years of Ukraine’s independence often by groups of like-minded critical intellectuals, or in some cases by student activists and they have grown to be an important element of Ukraine’s civil society by providing information and venues for discussion and debate of issues that does not take place anywhere else. They have monitored government policies and followed trends in politics, and have often come up with policies and recommendations that have been taken up by advocacy groups. They have provided experts to challenge government officials and political party leaders and have often been the voice of the mora
l high ground in Ukraine’s polarized political landscape. On occasion, analytical centers provide the launch pad for activists, or bring activist groups together to discuss strategies or form coalitions, as happened before the Orange Revolution.

Ukraine’s analytical centers have the distinction of being more numerous than in other surrounding countries and also of being critical of the government. This is different from Russia, for example, where most analytical centers and think tanks have not emerged from the activism of a civic movement and are often close to the government.

Ukraine’s civil society has produced some innovative forms of organization around the need to monitor elections. One example is the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, which is one of the largest and most influential nongovernmental organizations in the country. Established in 1994 to help train and deploy domestic observers, this group counted over 20,000 members at its peak. It has monitored every election since then. Although its membership has fluctuated and it has now been joined by several other similar organizations, it has drawn its strength and dynamism primarily from the active and civically oriented youth in the country who want to be involved in the political process but who prefer not to join any political party. When the government prohibited domestic observers, these young activists registered as members of the press, using creative methods to circumvent government strictures to enable them to fulfill their mission. The efforts of this group and others, through the years, has prevented some electoral fraud and provided a challenge to all governments trying to falsify election results.

Another noteworthy civic initiative — independent exit polling — was pioneered by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation (now named for its late founder and President, Ilko Kucheriv). The group set up its first exit poll for the parliamentary elections of 1998, and has done so for every election since. There is credible evidence that the results of these independent exit polls, which have generally proven highly accurate and are announced at a press conference at eight in the evening as the polls close on election day, have prevented further fraud by the government. The most notable example took place in the second round of the presidential election in November 2004, when this exit poll was used together with other evidence to demonstrate that the government had stacked the election in favor of its chosen candidate.

Ukraine’s civic groups have also developed skills in monitoring the media in order convey to citizens how news and information, particularly at the time of elections, is being used by the government to manipulate the electorate. Other election-related civic efforts have included get-out-the-vote campaigns and wide-ranging voter education programs. Ukraine’s civic groups have often formed coalitions to work together for free and fair elections, increasing their impact far beyond what they might have had as individual organizations.

Ukraine has been very successful in producing broad-based civic movements and activist groups that have challenged the authoritarian governments. Under President Kuchma there were movements going by names such as "For Truth" (Za Pravdu), "Ukraine without Kuchma," and "I Know" (Znayu), as well as the youth movement Pora that spearheaded the campaign of civil disobedience that led to the mass outpouring of people into the streets for the Orange Revolution. When the government of President Yushchenko came to power in 2005, many civic leaders were drawn into the new government — a phenomenon characteristic of many countries where civic groups are responsible for uprisings that lead to a change in government. In Ukraine, this period did not last long, but it did have the effect of depriving civil society of its sense of purpose for a time, when everyone hoped that Yushchenko would solve the country’s problems. When it turned out that the "Orange" government was not living up to the hopes and expectations of the people, civic movements took up their mission again. Once President Yanukovych came to power, they swung into action, launching activities to hold government accountable and to mobilize citizens to stand up for their rights.

The latest manifestation of the renewed rise of civic activism may be seen in the civic movement Chesno ("Honestly"), which emerged in late 2011 to monitor members of Ukraine’s parliament. One of its first achievements was to put a stop to "piano" voting by the members (a system in which one parliamentarian on the floor of the chamber holds the electronic cards of many of his fellow deputies so that he can vote for them in their absence, a practice most often employed by the deputies in the pro-government party of power).

Statistics show over 85,000 public associations and charitable organizations registered in Ukraine as of last year. Many of them are cultural, sporting, educational, as well as human rights and other types of organization that exists in most other countries of the world. But the segment of civil society represented by politically oriented nongovernmental organizations in Ukraine has had an effect in maintaining pluralism and preventing the wholesale slide into authoritarianism experienced by some of Ukraine’s neighbors. And civil society in Ukraine is evolving: one of the new types of institutions that has emerged in the past few years is the oligarch-funded foundation. Each of the major Ukrainian business oligarchs now has a foundation. To be sure, these are not true "grassroots" organizations. Still, some are doing potentially useful work in areas such as social welfare, economic development, and culture, and to some extent they do reflect a plurality of funding sources, even though much of this is in the end self-serving for the oligarch donor.

In another of the odd paradoxes that can only occur in Ukraine, Yanukovych’s authoritarian government has been responsible for some legislation on nongovernmental groups that will benefit civil society in the long run. Passed in March 2012, the new legislation makes the registration and operation of civic groups and public associations much easier and allows them to conduct some self-financing activities. While this legislation is not in itself a guarantee that the government will not renew the searches and harassment of civic groups that occurred early in Yanukovych’s administration, this should be seen as a big success for the civic groups that worked long and hard on drafting and discussing these laws and lobbying to get them adopted. This development shows even more starkly the differences between Ukraine and Russia, where a full-scale crackdown on the nongovernmental sector is currently in progress, replete with legislation obliging civil society recipients of international donor funds to register as "foreign agents" — basically expecting them to declare themselves as "traitors and spies" as accused by President Putin.

If democracy ever comes to Ukraine, it will be the result of the continuing activism of civil society in acting as watchdogs, holding government accountable, providing policy recommendations, and mobilizing and educating citizens to act in their own best interests. Ukraine has no tradition or experience of government leading pro-reform efforts. And the general lack of understanding of the concept of public service among Ukraine’s public officials suggests that for the foreseeable future all impul
ses toward a democratic future will continue to come from below. In the end, Ukraine’s conundrum remains: Ukrainians’ continuing uneasiness and lack of confidence in state structures is one of the sources of pluralism and the nascent democratic culture that has prevented the country from falling into full-fledged authoritarianism. Yet as long as government continues to work against it, rather than with it, civil society alone cannot fulfill Ukraine’s hopes for a democratic and prosperous future.

Nadia Diuk, a longtime observer of Ukraine, is vice president of programs for Central Europe and Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy.