Archive for January 9th, 2013

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Questions over Christmas – Ukrainian civil society…..again

January 9, 2013

Whilst we here in Ukraine celebrated Christmas, esteemed colleagues, thinkers, policy makers, commentators, advisors, academics, think-tanks et al in western Europe had returned to work revitalised and energised from their own festive season.

So whilst 6th, 7th and 8th have been days of festive excess for me, my email has been steadily collecting questions from a diverse selection of people – from think-tanks in Brussels to PhD students at Surrey University to give you and idea of the spectrum.

From the assorted bag of issues to which my thoughts have been requested to wander and comment, these three questions I will share with you – as well as my initial comments.

1.  “How would you describe the level of activity of civil society in Ukraine?”

2.  “How would you describe the level of engagement with government of civil society in Ukraine?”

3.  “What is your perception of the effectiveness of EU democracy promotion in Ukraine?”

Blimey!

As normal academics ask such simple questions that always involve very long answers – none of which can be black or white, are exceptionally difficult to measure, and almost impossible to judge depending upon what time-frame we are to put on the answer.

So in order to keep this short (and less than academic for the purposes of this blog), I will combine the first two questions.  How would I describe the level of activity of civil society in Ukraine and how would I describe the level of engagement with government of civil society in Ukraine?

Well it is active – and it is vibrant.  It is also mostly ineffective and ignored by government and society alike.

The numbers of civil society entities certainly falls well short of those for most other nations in Europe per capita, if we are to stick to the hard definitions of recognised NGOs, think-tanks, NFPs etc.

It is very, very difficult to think of an instance where civil society has changed any Ukrainian government policy, past or present.  The reasons for this relate not only to the “arbiter/rental society” system that still very much runs through Ukrainian society itself, but also the same ‘rental society” system that covertly runs through civil society – not only in Ukraine.

As far as civil society goes, it needs funding and thus  becomes beholding to those that fund it.  This places it into two broad categories. The first, State funded, and thus assimilated, coerced, cajoled, controlled – anything but independent in the purest sense of the word.

That in turn leads to access to government and possible small victories at the very periphery of the cause the NGO was set up for, in return for defence of, or silence over, government policy that may very well seemingly run quite contrary to the cause of the NGO – but funding is needed for longevity and success requires access to, and a listening government.  Civil society, lest we forget, has become a profession unto itself for many, with access to the elite if you play the game right.

Needless to say, a government funded civil society entity can also be unleashed to pooh-pooh others in the same field who are less government friendly.  In short, and throughout global history, civil society has by and large been treated with hostility by almost all governments of every nation.  The need to now lobby for funds, or “rent seek” for want of a better expression, leads in many cases to complicity for those who receive State funding.

The other group falls into the category of externally funded.  By and large, in Ukraine, these actors in civil society are given nothing more than lip service by the government of the day – at best – and are completely ignored most of the time.

It is not only government that ignores civil society either.  To give two recent examples where civil society was ignored by Ukrainian society at large, the protests that drew more than 10,000 Ukrainians to the streets over the proposed tax code only a few years ago was certainly A-political, was not driven by any NGO, but was simply outrage amongst the populous from every corner of the nation.

Changes were made to the tax code – civil society little more than a witness.

The horrific case of the young girl in Nikoliev last year, raped, burned alive and who eventually died some weeks later, led almost to lynch mobs in the city streets when it became apparent that the well-to-do culprits may well bribe their way out of the repercussions.

Those responsible did receive lengthy prison sentences eventually, but no rule of law entity took that situation by the horns and led the populous either.

Ukrainian society is seemingly suspicious of civil society just as much as any Ukrainian government of the day.  This leaves civil society in its very own bubble, in most cases divorced from a listening ear in government and also divorced from society and the causes within society it claims to champion.

Thus civil society is left to have conversations with itself and any external sponsors it may have, but gets no traction in society or victories from government.

The next tax law amendment to be submitted to the RADA is being done after discussion with PriceWaterhouseCooper – a corporate entity – with almost no civil society input whatsoever – a case in point and an indicator to where influence truly sits and the implications for the future of Ukrainian policy making?

Ukrainian society it seems is prepared to wait for a serious wrong to occur before it will rise up and force government to amend policy – at which point it will return to daily life – with no place/use for civil society whatsoever as the intermediary.

I could go on and on, but now to the 3rd question –  “What is your perception of the effectiveness of EU democracy promotion in Ukraine?”

This is actually quite difficult to assess.  Over what time-frame should it be assessed?  It took the UK 900 years to become a “democracy” as we see it today.  Independent Ukraine is only just over 20 years old.  Not that time is necessarily a justifiable excuse.  Poland managed to progress very well in a very limited time-frame.

That said, Poland had a far more autonomous administrative infrastructure than Ukraine when the USSR and Warsaw Pact dissolved and Poland was left with a real and urgent need to modernise every part of the national psyche when Germany and not Russia became the most important geopolitical entity overnight.  Needs must – and in Ukraine the need thus far has not been a must.

Despite the Euro hundreds of millions pumped into EaP civil society by the EU, it is actually quite unclear how this money is being effectively measured when it comes to “success”.  What is “success” when it comes to Ukrainian civil society?  The longevity of the entities?  The number of entities?  The almost non-existent civil society victories when changing government policy?  The support of society for civil society?  Is it simply a case of getting to a stage where most Ukrainians could name just 5 civil society entities working in Ukraine – let alone their region?

It is difficult to assess the pros and cons of the EU and in particular the EPP headlining Ms Tymoshenko as a democracy issue – almost “the” democracy issue – when scanning the Ukrainian and European press.

Throughout her trial, arrest and on-going imprisonment demonstrations for her release have not numbered more than a few thousand, even if we include those demonstrators paid to demonstrate.  A beacon of democracy she is not in the eyes of the Ukrainian public – no matter how much she may quote or plagiarise Vaclav Havel (and others) from her current accommodation.

The sting in the tail of the final ODIHR report on the Ukrainian 2012 elections seems somewhat muted due to Ukraine taking over the 2013 chair of the very organisation that generated the report.

Internal EU issues with Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, the Roma, the Euro, ad hoc adherence to ECfHR rulings, the structural issues of the supra-structure itself etc also do not go unnoticed.  The EU and its constituent parts are far from walking their own talk and this creates an apathetic atmosphere towards the EU.  An atmosphere frustrated and multiplied by the hassles of getting Visas to enter the EU for many Ukrainians.

Furthermore, the EU, or rather its constituent parts, seem to have no clear and identifiable plan for Ukraine – neither short or long term.  Certainly not one that has been conveyed to the people of Ukraine.  What is the external incentive for the average Ukrainian to move from the rental society model to a model of a supra-structure that has no clear plan for them or their nation, should such a painful social upheaval take place?

What carrot is on offer to them as individuals to force change from the bottom up – particularly when the model on offer has had some very significant flaws pushed into the limelight over the past 5 years, none of which seem to have been dealt with?

“Do as I say, not as I do” will not float here anymore than faith in civil society will come from the masses as an unconditional goodwill gesture.  Perception counts in a nation that has a deeply ingrained cynicism towards “the structure” and those within “the structure”.

For whatever effort the EU is putting into promotion of democracy in Ukraine, it is quite unclear how they are actually promoting it to the people – let alone effectively – as government is listened to with a massive degree of cynicism (regardless of government) and civil society talks only to itself and has yet to work out how to effectively engage with the populous.  Yet there seems to be absolutely no direct communication (or even attempt) by the EU to engage the people of Ukraine, despite these obvious issues.

That said, many a citizen within the EU would state that the EU is exceptionally poor at reaching out to them directly also.

These are naturally my first thoughts in response to the questions asked, and empirical they are in their context.  I may return to this in more depth later in the year!

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