Less about “me” and more about “we”

June 10, 2014

Yesterday I ended my somewhat trumpet blowing entry with “Tomorrow, less about “me” and more about “we”” – and so it falls upon me to do just that.  So a few empirical comments about “we” – or “us” – or “the Ukrainian society” of which I am a part.

With the exception of the first few years of independence that were literally dumped into the collective national lap without any real fight, or expectation of it – and thus few plans to deal with it – society has not taken an active role in almost every sphere of Ukrainian life.  Turning out en masse in 2004/5 and 2013/14 not withstanding – the successes of 2004/5 are debatable, 2013/14 remain to be seen.

Until now, the nation has drifted whilst a feckless, corrupt, political and business elite have gorged themselves at the public trough – benefiting from the societal drift seemingly content at squandering its time festering at the base of Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid, instead of demanding a ladder to climb the pyramid.  Certainly some have climbed this pyramid from the mire at its base to the middle class, but they pulled up the ladder behind themselves for the most part, choosing to indulge in their private form over the collective substance – such is the right of any individual of course.

There was and remains, a naive belief being that no matter how much corruption and feckless politics thrived, it would leave a State that functioned and would somehow still do what was right for society, even if only at the most basic, lowest common denominator of policy and economics.

That rampant corruption was accepted and expected throughout every State institution quickly became the norm.  It was not seen to be eroding the very institutions upon which society, at one level or another, depends upon to function.

As a society, all knew it was collectively losing out by taking this path – or at the very least allowing itself to be led down this path passively.  As a society, all also knew that whatever problems there were, could be solved by an illicit payment to somebody.  It was simply a matter of finding out who that somebody was.  It was a system engaged in by both parties, often willingly, regardless of position in society.

That the Ukrainian military are now engaged in fighting with an infiltrated and disloyal command, armed with little more than a rusty spoon and yoyo without string, that the monthly State salary for the lowest police ranks remain less than a prostitute at Odesssa docks will earn in a single night, that the free health service is free except for the outrageously priced drugs purchased by the sick themselves when in the direst of need, that the teachers who educate the Ukrainian future are paid less than they were in the Soviet past – this is not just the fault of the feckless political class – though society may like to distance itself from its share of the blame.

Society en masse was not forced at the barrel of a gun to accept this.  Society allowed this to happen.  “We” allowed this to happen – for 23 years, and counting.

For 23 years, Ukrainian civil society was uncivil, infiltrated and domestically underfunded.  Even today you would be hard pushed to find many Ukrainians who could name 5 active NGOs in the nation, let alone where they live.

Those that are externally funded – with a few notable exceptions – import their management who have become “professional NGO managers”, therefore often disconnected from the grass roots nuances they desperately need to know.  Because “this” worked in Uganda, does not mean “this” will work in Ukraine.

What exactly am I, or anybody else, to learn from spotty a 21 year old that has just graduated from an Ivy League school regurgitating his degree in politics and/or democracy in English, posturing as some form of democracy guru sponsored by the NDI or whomever?

Aside from any language barrier, I know what democracy is, how it works, the roles of the political class, civil society, society, business, religion and other societal actors in the mix.  I know what it is meant to deliver – and just as importantly, what it isn’t.

Everybody in Ukraine has listened to democracy being preached for decades – often in finite detail.   There are thousands of Ukrainians who have been educated in the same Ivy League schools, or Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, or who have been taught the humanities by leading European academics in Ukrainian universities.

Stop sending preaching theorists.  If you are going to send people who will be the slightest use, start sending experienced implementers and monitors capable of assisting in implementing the answers we arrive at.

We as a society allow the same messages that we have already heard innumerable times to simply be repeated time and again – getting us nowhere.  There needs to be a response.  An adult to adult dialogue, not parent to child lecturing.

For the foreign politicians, media and NGOs/civil society, the key is not how Washington or Brussels sees Ukraine and Ukrainian society, but how Ukrainian society sees Washington and Brussels.   “We” may want to be more like you, but “we” may not want to be you – it is a significant difference that can only be understood properly by being here over a protracted period.

What parts of those democratic governance systems within Europe and the US does society want its political class to incorporate, and how it should be implemented to form a nuanced and consolidated Ukrainian democracy?

“One size fits all democracy” works only at its very broadest concepts – rule of law, free press, freedom of expression, fundamental rights etc.   Thereafter there are many ways for these issues to be legislated, defined, implemented, monitored, improved, defended etc – and those processes are not the same in or for every nation.


We as a society need not only educate and assist our own political class and domestic civil society, but also those external actors who wish to assist us in getting from our problematic A, to our desired B – which will probably not be a carbon copy of their B – but it will be a democracy in more than name, regardless of nuanced differences.

We as a society need to project ourselves outwards to be understood – our media and civil society needs to step up to that challenge in symbiotic concert rather than impervious and separate bubbles as before – but we as a society are not excused from this task either.

We as a society can blame homo sovieticus, or the political class, big business, corruption, an uncivil civil society, the media, Domovoy, The Tooth Fairy, The Kremlin, The EU, the USA or Ming The Merciless, as much as we want to in an effort to avoid blaming ourselves for allowing 23 years of retarded development – and it would be unfair to say that has been no progress whatsoever – but to continue to blame others at a point in Ukrainian history when all domestic and international actors have a very wary eye on the power of Ukrainian society would be a far greater failure than the failures we have allowed thus far.

As a society, we must be mindful of our demands on government.  Too much too soon is simply overwhelming.  Too little pressure leads to yet more drift, no different to the previous 23 years.  The answers to our requirements need to be found in solid, good policy, implemented effectively – and we as a society must assist in their implementation when it is so.

We as a society should be nudging those amongst us whom well feel will fight our causes into the ranks of civil society.  Those within civil society we rate, we should be encouraging to enter the political class – supported with our own money, just as we have raised $ millions amongst ourselves for the Ukrainian army over the past few months.

We as a society need to recognise that no president or parliament, and no external actor, can deliver what we as a society want for ourselves.  We have to willingly share the burden in the tasks ahead.

In short, “We”, as a society need now take responsibility for ourselves and stop shunning it or blaming others when matters fail to meet our expectations.  That responsibility is ours to carry, particularly when the State is weak – and the State is weak right now.


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