Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Ukraine's mobilized civil society

By Gérard Roland


Friday April 24, I am excited and curious to set foot in the Maidan, or Independence Square in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, a square that has played such a big role in the February 2014 revolution that ousted corrupt Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The first thing I see when entering the square is a small crowd in front of the independence monument in the middle of the Maidan, bearing mostly Ukrainian blue and yellow flags, but also Georgian flags.


It turns out this is a funeral ceremony for Georgian soldier Georgy Djanelidze, 41, who was killed in Eastern Ukraine. Soldiers carry solemnly the open casket. A large scar can be seen on the face of the dead soldier, likely the result of the deadly wound that ended his life. To the left of the independence monument, Institutskaya Street is bordered by a low wall that has become a shrine to the “Nebesna sotnya” or heavenly hundred who were killed by snipers in the last days of the Euromaidan. Pictures of the victims, mostly young men and women, border the wall illuminated by red candles.

The honoring of the memory of the dead on the Maidan (while Russian soldiers killed in the East are buried in secret) shows the continuity between the victims of the snipers from the dreaded Berkut police and the victims of the Russian-backed separatist war in the East. The murderers then and today are the same: those who in Moscow and in Ukraine are opposed to the establishment of democracy and rule of law, those who want the continuation of large-scale corruption. That day, on the Maidan, I realized that by supporting the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk, Putin, far from terrorizing the Ukrainian population into submission, is indirectly mobilizing Ukrainian society to achieve the goals of the Euromaidan.

It is impossible not to notice in Kyiv the high level of mobilization of civil society. On April 23, as I go to the Ukrainian Parliament to meet Hanna Hopko, an MP from the Samopomich party and the head of the Foreign Affairs committee, the Parliament building is blocked by coal miners protesting delays in wages and mine closures. I am told that oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who has powerful economic interests in Eastern Ukraine, has paid many miners to come protest. The next day, a demonstration is organized in front of Akhmetov’s offices to denounce the manipulation and demand an end to the power of the oligarchs.

crowd in Feb. 2014 in Maidan

The regular demonstrations on all sorts of issues in the Ukrainian capital are just the top of the iceberg. Since the Euromaidan, hundreds of associations have been set up by groups of citizens, on all sorts of issues. After the Maidan, groups of volunteers helped keep order in many Ukrainian cities where the police had virtually ceased to exist. Groups of volunteers went fighting in the East.

Numerous non-governmental organizations have been growing like mushrooms in a matter of months. Many of them send legislative proposals to the Parliament. A favorite topic: how to fight corruption? Other NGOs are non-political and embrace local goals. A common perception is that Ukrainians should not wait passively for government to deliver services or respond to their demands. They should instead take the initiative themselves and volunteer to help local communities.

New party Samopomich (self-reliance) is the reflection of the brewing Ukrainian civil society. It is not a party behind a leader, like with Bloc Poroshenko or Yatseniuk’s People’s Front, but a broad coalition of NGOs throughout the country. The party won 11% of the popular vote and came third, after Poroshenko and Yatseniuk’s party, getting 33 seats in the Ukrainian Parliament. I met several of their leaders and was very positively surprised by their total absence of Orwellian “newspeak,” their openness, their intellectual curiosity and eagerness to change things.

Despite the thriving civil society, it is difficult in Ukraine today to make the difference between the truth and the lies. The internet is filled with pro-Putin propaganda and lies fabricated by the Russian and pro-Russian troll factories. Many people in the West fall victim to this.

In Ukraine, this inevitably creates a lot of confusion, especially among people who are little informed. It is therefore no surprise that many online media have emerged, many, if not most of them, based on volunteer work, to inform people about events, to reveal cases of corruption or of dysfunctional government.

One of them is VoxUkraine that has become a powerful voice for reform in Ukraine today. Last weekend, VoxUkraine organized in Kyiv an extremely well-attended and prestigious conference, jointly with the Journal of Comparative Economics, of which I am an editor, debating with ministers, intellectuals, economists, experts and activists the many policy issues facing Ukraine today. The new TV stations like Hromadske TV and influential newspapers like Ukrainskaya Pravda or Novoe Vremia are run on extremely tight budgets with very small teams of full-time staff, helped by armies of volunteers.

Ukraine’s civil society holds the key to success of institutional change in the country. The country’s political and judicial institutions need to be changed thoroughly, the government administration and civil service need to be completely overhauled. This cannot happen without a decisive push from below by Ukrainian civil society.

In my view, the best way to direct all this energy is to prepare a constitutional assembly for Ukraine, where elected politicians, local authorities and active members of civil society deliberate to create a new constitution for their country, a constitution that will make them a truly democratic European country with the capacity to inspire democrats in Russia to do the same one day in their country.