Bystrytsky Ye. Anticipation of civil society // Zerkalo nedeli. — 2007. — ¹ 42(671). — 11-18 Nov.

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Zerkalo nedeli # 42 (671) 11 — 18 November 2007

Anticipation of civil society

Author: Yevhen BYSTRYTSKY (Executive Director, Vidrodzhennya Foundation)

Amidst the endless bargaining in the political circles, the necessity of argumentative talks on national guidelines is becoming vital for this country. It is urgently necessary to find a new approach to reforms which, as it seems, are unlikely to be launched by the new parliament. There has to be a new fulcrum and it can only be found within society.

Forgotten Civil Society

The euphoria of the Orange Revolution faded away very quickly. The “civil society” issue disappeared from the Ukrainian political agenda even faster. The post-revolution years have almost removed this term from the Ukrainian vocabulary. Instead, we hear “my nation”, “my people”, “justice”, “better life”, etc. There have been feeble attempts to establish interaction between the public and authorities: immediately after his inauguration in February 2005, President Yushchenko decreed that he would form “public collegiums” for “involving the public in consultations on the formulation and implementation of the state policy”, but that initiative remained on paper. The so-called “presidential hearings” – another initiative that was meant to launch a dialog between the broad public and presidential authority – simply drowned in formalities. Moreover, the government passed a resolution that granted top officials the right to form public collegiums at their own discretion, inviting whoever they would choose.

There were also attempts to establish a “Strategic State Policy Council under the President of Ukraine” (2005) and a “Public Council” (2007), but they only discredited the noble idea of public consultative bodies. The new “democratic” leaders who came to power thanks to conscientious voters and pledged to “build a civil society in Ukraine” have not done anything for systemic changes.

Sober-minded Western leaders and experts hailed the peaceful revolution that toppled the corrupt anti-national regime, calling it “a civil society revolution.” Can Ukrainian political leaders explain to them now why they have forgotten this society in word and deed?

NGO Theory

It should be noted that since the Orange Revolution Ukrainian NGOs have become more professional and gained public recognition. The spectrum of their socially significant activities has expanded considerably. It should also be noted, however, that only 2,500 out of 38,000 officially registered NGOs act as “organized centers of civil society” and do not serve their political patrons’ interests. That is too few for a large European country.

According to Thomas Carothers, a well-known theoretician of civil society, since the early 1990s – the period of democratization in post-communist countries – NGOs have been defined as the backbone of a civil society. The most significant and influential NGOs are those engaged in defending human rights and common interests of various societal groups and strata, monitoring elections, protecting the environment, exposing cases of corruption, upholding gender equality, etc. Carothers stresses that NGOs are no panacea for democracy but play a progressive role in democratization processes as an “amplifier” for the dialog between the public and authorities. Now the theory of NGOs’ participation in state management and the concept of the public-authorities dialog are accepted by all, including the authorities. During the dramatic presidential elections in 2004, NGOs made an invaluable contribution to the victory of democracy as voluntary lawyers for voters who protested against election fraud.

NGO leaders still receive letters with invitations to sessions of public committees or requests for returns of analytical surveys (to which high-ranking officials want to refer in their speeches or papers). Some public councils and independent expert associations play a positive role in the dialog between the public and authorities. For example, lawmakers took into consideration several proposals that experts with a media NGO made during a meeting of a public council. As a result, they amended the election law to lessen the pressure on mass media and the risk of their persecution for independent analyses and evaluative statements. Ukrainian human rights activists note very effective activities of the Public Council for Human Rights at the Interior Ministry. Despite numerous organizational, financial, and bureaucratic difficulties, non-governmental organizations do everything they can to build a civil society in Ukraine.

Underestimated Problems

It is wrong to limit the notion of civil society to the circle of non-governmental organizations. In developed democracies, the specific weight of such traditional public associations as trade unions, sports clubs, churches, local communities, condominiums, small and mid-size business associations, credit unions, and university communities is a thousand times greater than the weight of NGOs. Such associations defend and promote the rights of specific groups. Some of them are officially registered. Others emerge for some collective action and last as long as the action does. They are associations of shared interests. A mature civil society is a complex symbiosis of interdependent individual and shared interests which any democratic and public-controlled government has to reckon with. There is one essential factor: the middle class is the main breeding ground and medium for such public activism. There is no civil society without private entrepreneurs and farmers, qualified blue- and white-collar employees, artists and other free-lancers, military servicemen and law enforcers. In this sense Ukraine is starting from scratch: NGOs are early sprouts of the tradition of multipronged social activism. However, the powers that be and those seeking power in Ukraine feel quite comfortable within the narrow limits of the NGO theory. None of the political forces that have entered the parliament has offered clearly formulated objectives for developing a civil society. The election slogan of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc calls for “joint efforts of the government, civil society, and religious confessions against homeless childhood, drug and alcohol addiction, AIDS, prostitution, and crime.” It states the main priorities as “human development and dignity, spirituality and freedom, equality and solidarity, civil society and democracy.” The pro-presidential bloc Our Ukraine – People’s Self-Defense has the same vague slogans and formulates no concrete objectives. The Regions Party formulates only general principles like “protection of democracy, freedom, and human rights.”

Of course, Ukrainian political leaders may just as well be aware of the problem and that is why they do not offer quick solutions. A well-developed civil activity is preconditioned by several factors. The most essential of them is the establishment of a sustainable middle class, which is a systemic problem that demands strategic efforts. Political leaders maintain that representatives of the middle class will eventually uphold their interests and control authorities. They define it as an ultimate goal, while elections as the immediate concern demand different approaches and actions that should be more comprehensible to voters than details of public participation in state management. However, their promises and practical steps show that there are threats to the idea of a civil society in Ukraine.

Three Main Threats to Civil Society

The first threat is political populism, which became especially obtrusive during the election race. Its essence and danger consist in deliberate evasion of the real interests of various social groups. Populists appeal to citizens individually, dividing them into social atoms and promising satisfaction to everyone. It does not take too much effort: just to promise higher living standards for each and every one – higher salaries and pensions, lower tariffs, etc. A populist promises voters that he will do everything for them and in return asks them to delegate a part of their power. A populist never meets with public associations or even NGO networks to ask them about their interests: that would complicate the simple black-and-white picture of the world that he paints for the crowd. He needs a crowd with two poles: individuals with their personal wishes for a better life and he himself as a body of authority. This traditional post-communist (i.e. authoritarian) binary scheme has two poles: state institutions with their political owners and managers and an arithmetical sum of citizens waiting for more rations.

In this scheme the reflex of accountability completely disappears from the hierarchy of authority. The atomized population has no associations of active citizens who could freely initiate reforms and see to their implementation. That is why Ukrainian political leaders of all colors resort to a cynical measure: they pay the supernumeraries for demonstrating mass support. In other words, they simply buy votes. In this sense, any forms and manifestations of populism pose a direct threat to the nascent civil society with its respect for civil dignity.

The second serious threat is political moralization. It may have various forms – from appeals to real values of the national tradition to reliance on mythicized values which a political leader thinks the citizens should adhere to. Moralization about spiritual values is an easy way to conceal professional incapability.

Any society wants to hear words about lofty things like its global destination, to feel and share common spiritual values. In this sense, politicians ought to be a kind of “secular pastors.” The leaders who earnestly believe in their “noble mission” should always remember Aristotle’s words about a good state making good people and not good people making a good state. In relation to Ukraine this means that all is well until moralization replaces law and legal awareness.

The essence of any civil formation and a civil society in general consists of open declaration, protection, and promotion of public interests. This “public application of the mind,” as ancient theoreticians would call it, serves as a basis for democratic decision-making. This is why the Ukrainian civil centers are more inclined to argumentative dialog with authorities rather than to moral guidelines. They demand public hearings, discussions, and debates. Open civil activity increasingly gravitates toward rational substantiations. Mass media disseminate independent expert assessments and the people begin to heed them. It is impossible for an individual to defend his or her personal interests without the rule of law. Subsequently, it is impossible to defend the interests of civil groups without developing an entire system of civil law. It is not accidental that in the European community the rule of law is placed higher than the primacy of ethical norms. It is not accidental that in Ukraine, as well as other post-totalitarian countries, the most active NGO centers are human rights organizations. It is NGOs that initiated the Constitutional Assembly for resolving the permanent conflict of political interests in which each new political force tries to change the Constitution by its own design and to its own ends.

The third and most serious threat lies in the Ukrainian “parasitic” tradition inculcated by seven decades of the communist regime: the people wait for boons from a wise and just leader instead of seeking to earn their own benefits. It is totally different from what has long been accepted as an axiom in the West: an individual does not receive rights from the state – he has a priori rights that nobody can take away from him. The awareness of this axiom makes an individual a citizen.

According to the latest sociological surveys, 52 percent of Ukrainians justify corruption as a way of solving personal problems. What does this have to do with civil dignity and civil society?

Whatever pledges Ukrainian political leaders may make, these threats to the civil society do and will exist until this nation embarks on creating essential prerequisites for developing such a society. The key element of this policy must be unconditional abidance by the letter and spirit of the law. Very regrettably, even the politicians who claim to lead the new “democratic majority” do not demonstrate such abidance.

The Orange Revolution was only a prototype of a civil society in Ukraine, the road to which looks quite long.

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