Bystrytsky Yevhen. EUobserver, 2015.


Yevhen Bystrytsky

Ukraine’s New Lease of Civic Life

Brussels, FEB, 24, 2015

A year since the violent peak of Ukraine’s revolution when over one hundred people were killed, Maidan has succeeded where others have failed.

While protest movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring struggled, for different reasons, to capture the energy they created and channel people’s passion in tangible ways, Ukrainian civil society is proving a model of how to do just that.

This success, powered by Ukrainian civil society, hasn’t made headlines but it is something the EU must support.

The devastating conflict in the East has loomed large: over 5,000 people killed; half a million people fled to other countries; nearly one million internally displaced people, refugees in their own country; a breakdown in rule of law in the East with reports of torture, abduction for ransom, and forced labour by armed groups.

In Crimea, minorities like the Tatar community suffer persecution and vulnerable groups like former drug users have had life-saving methadone treatment taken away.

In Kiev, the old Soviet government machinery runs deep and too many of the Yanukovych old guard still remain.

Despite all of this, progress has continued against the odds.

Revolution of Dignity

Now, as in the beginning of the Maidan, civil society and civic activism by ordinary Ukrainians plays a crucial role. When the Maidan began in November 2013, NGOs and think-tanks working on everything from anti-corruption, independent journalism, education reform and patient rights formed the ranks of the early protesters.

They brought clear demands to the Maidan movement that were about more than closer EU relations: it was a rejection of injustice as a way of life. It was why the Maidan was named a "Revolution of Dignity".

Ukrainians took to the streets to denounce the country’s endemic corruption, from the grand corruption practiced by ex-president Yanukovych and his peers, to everyday corruption in business and the judiciary to petty unfairness like bribing a teacher so your children can have better conditions in the classroom, or doctors to get an appointment, or traffic police to avoid unnecessary fines.

While the West listened to stories of fascist gangs on the Maidan, Yanukovych understood the power of civil society all too well; in January 2014 he introduced harsh new laws seriously restricting NGO activities.

There, he took his lead from Ukraine’s neighbors like Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and even Hungary who are successfully smothering dissent in their countries by curbing NGOs. The Maidan movement persisted and eventually, following the brutal killings on 20 and 21 February, Yanukovych was removed from power.

A new lease of life

Maidan has given Ukraine’s civil society a new lease of life.

Today Ukraine is in many ways a model for how civil society can support reforms during a period of dramatic change. Strategic Advisory Groups have been set up and include experts from civil society and local think-tanks who advise the government on how to achieve crucial reforms in areas like anticorruption, decentralisation, the judiciary and law enforcement.

A reform centre staffed by independent experts from civil society operates in the Cabinet of Ministers; here politicians can seek out independent advice on key issues from numerous NGO experts.

The challenge is great but there are promising signs: the Euro-optimists are a group of 25 newly-elected members of parliament who were well known civil society leaders and who, though they hail from different political parties, are part of this common platform for change.

Turning a new chapter for Ukraine also means achieving justice for the past; civil society is working with the International Criminal Court — which has been granted exceptional jurisdiction over the Maidan events of last year — in its investigation.

Volunteer movement

The Maidan brought to the surface an active and capable volunteer movement, as thousands joined the efforts of groups like Euromaidan SOS, a self-organised association of civil society activists, lawyers, journalists, and other professions. This incredible spirit of civic activism continues today.

Volunteer centres provide food and other basic needs for Internally Displaced People (IDPs); HR professionals run non-profit employment agencies to assist IDPs to find jobs or undertake training; media professionals run information centres such as the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre to provide accurate information about events in Ukraine.

These volunteers and activists are the real reform power in the country; they represent the new Ukraine.

Civic activism born on the Maidan is the strongest guarantee that Ukraine can prevail by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

The European Union has floundered in its handling of the conflict in the East; it can at least play to its strengths in better supporting civil society and the reforms it seeks. We have seen revolutions fail both at home and away; this should not be allowed to happen again.

Yevhen Bystrytsky is Director of the International Renaissance Foundation, part of the Open Society Foundations.

The author thanks Eleanor Kelly for her creative edition of this opinion piece.

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