Bystrytsky Ye. What the Strategy Approved by the President of Ukraine Demonstrates

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Yevhen Bystrytsky

Several years ago I spoke on the anticipation of civil society in our country (Anticipation of civil society// Weekly Mirror # 42 (671) 11 — 18 November 2007). Today, one can already say that there is a feeling of certain force and enhancement of the influence of civil society organizations on the development of public and political events in Ukraine. The evidence for that is the Decree of the President of Ukraine on approval of the Strategy of the State Policy for Development of the Civil Society in Ukraine, which was made public right after a constitutional majority of the Verkhovna Rada adopted a progressive law on non-governmental organizations and which is nearing enactment. Let us try to find out what these surprisingly European democratic formulations and statements of the Strategy mean, since they obviously contradict the widespread negative image of the incumbent public authorities.

New reality — structured civic resistance

Yevhen BystrytskyResistance proves the existence better than anything else. Consolidated public resistance to the zealous expansion of the imperious dictate, and the restriction of rights and freedoms of citizens, started with the election of the incumbent President) is the first reason why the Strategy appeared. The record of public resistance leading to it includes the following milestones.

Stop Censorship movement appeared in the spring of 2010, when Ukrainian journalists demanded to stop the pressure on them and not to allow repressions. In the summer of 2010, Ukrainians found out about the public campaign in Kharkiv to protect the Central Park of Culture and Recreation from destruction. In the fall of 2010, the Maydan-2 brought together small and medium business owners, who rejected opposition politicians’ assistance and independently defended their own vision of the country’s tax legislation, forcing the authorities to hamper their zeal and open some dialog with them. Dozens of other local movements emerged in 2010-2011. All those movements were united by a common goal — to defend the citizens’ right to demand to be heard by the monopolist, closed and corrupt authorities. The new movements are essentially different from the earlier Orange opposition actions. They are well structured in terms of organization as separate associations of citizens. Their goal is not only to protect general democratic values, but also to defend private and collective interests of participants of the movements, as we saw in the Maydan-2.

The resistance movements revealed one of the main driving forces of democratic activism: a need for open dialogue with government decision-makers. This became especially acute in the context of declaring the unpopular, yet so much needed, pension, housing, communal services and land reforms (“what they are needed for” and “what these reforms will give the people in the future”).

The protest waves of public resistance, combined with the West’s enhanced attention to upholding values of the freedom of speech in Ukraine helped to force the majority in the Verkhovna Rada to adopt the Law “On Access to Public Information”. Thanks to the public resistance to monopolization of power within the country, its political opposition managed to shape a strongly negative international public opinion about persecutions and arrests of the Orange leaders. Numerous foreign tours by representatives of the Tymoshenko block, aimed at combating the propaganda of the public authorities, would not have succeeded without publicizing human rights organizations’ results of monitoring of violations of the fundamental rights and freedoms.

This was demonstrated by a December meeting of the European Union leaders, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, with the country’s civil society representatives on the occasion of the EU-Ukraine summit and the completion of negotiations on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Therefore, the combined pressure from Ukraine’s civil society, the “severe” EU leaders who expressed the European public opinion on Ukraine’s political situation, and Barack Obama’s remarks in this regard during meetings with the President of Ukraine, are the reasons for the adoption of the above Strategy.

European rants of the Strategy

Those who are still to read the Strategy should pay careful attention to its language. In its general provisions you will find everything without which modern western democracies cannot exist, and which they have already made a part of everyday public life: a need for “a developed civil society”; proper conditions “for freedom of thought a free press”; a state that “creates opportunities for various models of participatory democracy to flourish” which, when combined “with direct and representative democracy, is a condition for modernization and European integration”. Finally, it is important that the Strategy is about “provision of participation... of [the civil society] institutions in the processes of forming and implementation of the state and regional policies”, including “facilitation of the work of public councils”, “creation of conditions for conducting public expert assessments”, “publicity of all stages of preparation and making of decisions [by bodies of the executive authority and local self-government], “development of electronic democracy”, etc. “Forming a culture of gender equality”, which is not characteristic for our leaders on all levels, is also a task defined by the Strategy.

After giving mandatory praise addressed in general to public authorities that actually did take “certain steps towards development” of civil society since our country became independent, you will nonetheless see a list of real problems that hamper the modern public organization of society. The Strategy clearly states that mechanisms of “public participation in forming and implementation of the state policy” are not being implemented and that there is actually no open policy of “state financial support” of the non-governmental sector and no policy to encourage “domestic charity organizations” to provide financial support to the sector.

The Strategy repeats important provisions of the Law of Ukraine “On Non-governmental Organizations” on simplifying legalization (registration) of non-governmental organizations, assuring the rights of foreign citizens and persons without citizenship to freedom of association and to found professional organizations, securing the right of public institutions to conduct activities nationwide and also contains an important provision regarding their right to “directly carry out... economic activity to fulfill their statutory goals”. Overall, the general provisions of the Strategy look rather democratic.

The most devoted representatives of the party in power continue to parrot the President of Ukraine’s large Northern Neighbor that the West and, first and foremost, George Soros have been implicated in launching scenarios of a local revolution “like the ones in North Africa”. The most desperate representatives complain to the General Prosecutor’s Office, accusing international organizations and foundations of violating Ukrainian laws and interfering with the operations of state authorities. What can they do now, after the approval of the Strategy? What can they use for their new verbal attacks on non-governmental organizations? This time they will have to think really hard in order not to disown their political leader’s signature that stands under the Strategy.

From statements to down-to-earth reality

After the approval of the Strategy by presidential decree, non-governmental organizations (and citizens) obtained a pretty good legal instrument, whose pro-European rhetoric is worthy of comprehension and, especially, practical application. The core of this document is recognition of a necessity to have a dialog with the organized public and this is a certain victory for society over the still closed and bureaucratized command-administrative system. At the same time, what is really behind the Strategy’s “good intentions”?

Few people wonder why it is that non-governmental institutions capable of conducting a critical dialog with the public authorities of all levels are financed almost exclusively — with small exceptions — by Western donors. This is what the defenders of “national dignity” from the party in power lament about. Such funds come either from governments of European democracies or from private philanthropists, such as George Soros, the leading such private donor. Our local philanthropists eagerly provide financial support to certain education and cultural initiatives, and they provide assistance to the healthcare sector in order to stop AIDS or tuberculosis epidemic. However, their activity is practically unseen in those areas where the subject matter is about facilitating the public institutions in their transformation into full-fledged participants of intersectoral public dialog. This situation is understandable. Who among local rich businessmen, who created their own charitable organizations, are willing to facilitate independent critics of the executive authority, given that this authority can easily respond to such “threats” by mobilizing administrative resources such as the prosecutor’s office and tax inspection in retribution. Such risk taking by business is not felt to be worthwhile. This is what the ‘white-blue’ patriots keep silent about. Let Soros or Obama’s federal government and Merkel’s federal government, the European Commission or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands pay for democracy, your rights, the equality of laws for everyone, and to fight corruption... Since we cannot help ordinary citizens to fight our corruption and demand to reveal our shadow schemes and, eventually, to stand up against us, the honest defenders of the controlled democracy. I am not even saying that so far Ukrainian taxpayer funds have not been allocated by the Ukrainian government to those high goals of developing an independent civil society, to which the Strategy’s every line lays claim and speaks of. Here’s an example: there were many cases when high-status state institutions demanded that independent analytical centers provide them with free expert analyses and recommendations, making clear they had no funds allocated to pay for such think tank intellectual labor.

These details of the “National Hunt” against the public sector are also expressed in another instance in the document we are considering. The Strategy carefully recognizes that “the trends for non-transparency, closed and bureaucratic nature” of the executive authority and other types of authority in the country “are still underway”. So, it is not so much that these trends are still present, but it has more to do with the ongoing inertia of the unreformed administrative system in general. Can one dare say that the following can at least somehow resemble administrative reform in any normal understanding, namely: administrative cut-back of the number of civil servants in ministries and partial expansion of the latter? A European ministry is, first and foremost, a think tank and an analytical center that develops state policies in different public areas on the basis of a dialog with society and only then administers and enforces compliance with such policies in a tough and uncorrupt manner. How many of our ‘reformed’ ministries can boast of having such quality policies and ‘roadmaps’ for reform? Unpopularity and epic failures among the proposed reforms in terms of public perception are the very evidence of the continuing opaqueness of all and sundry ministries and departments. Under such conditions, never mind the modest recognition of “trends for non-transparency”, there is a great danger that the benign formulations in the Strategy will not be able to overcome “the closed and bureaucratized nature” of the entire vertical of public administration in Ukraine.

If not the explicit statements of the Strategy, then its spirit really implores all levels of public authorities and local self-government bodies to demonstrate the maximum openness and transparency to the public. However, please note that the Strategy does not say anything about independent monitoring of national, regional and local self-government bodies by representatives of non-governmental organizations. This notion was formulated by public experts, members of the Coordination Council, created by the President for the purpose of preparing the Strategy. There is one provision left at the end of the text, which states that the Coordination Council itself has to monitor and assess the fulfillment of provisions of the Strategy and fulfillment of “the plan of top-priority measures and annual plans for their fulfillment”. This is a shy and yet a progressive step forward: let’s hope that representatives of independent NGOs, who proposed and defended progressive statements contained in the Strategy, based on active civil society, will be able to carry out at least an annual independent assessment of the extent to which the Strategy is a viable instrument and not just a sheaf of papers.

Many NGO representatives had and still have doubts as to whether it was a good idea for independent experts to participate in the Coordination Council that prepared the Strategy. My response is straightforward: this is the first time in the history of Ukraine that its President signed a document that officially introduces European-like formulations into broad public circulation — in the past there were no such formulations. Assigned employees of the Presidential Administration worked with public experts (Maxim Latsyba’s constructive input is worthy of particular attention) who agreed to such innovations and contributed to preservation of a significant part of the text in its original version. They deserve a ‘thank-you’ for that. Despite all its many empty statements, the Strategy does open up legal terrain for independent and ongoing demanding public action for the sake of democratic changes in our society. We have to use this window of opportunity to the fullest extent now that it has been opened, even if slightly, thanks to the concerted efforts of Ukrainian civil society.

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