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A change in the laws on volunteering – Bigger than it seems

February 4, 2015

Over the many years this blog has been running, prior to the end of 2013, it was rightly critical of Ukrainian civil society.  Prior to EuroMaidan, Ukrainian civil society existed in a bubble entirely separated from Ukrainian society and the political class alike.

Worse, within that civil society bubble, the actors fought amongst themselves openly whilst continuing to have no impact, in the vast majority of cases, over funding, ideology, methodology and any relationships with the Ukrainian and external political classes.  It was truly ineffective, with most of Ukrainian society having little understanding of what civil society was, or what it was meant to achieve.  Indeed between 1991 and 2012 the percentage of the Ukrainian population actively engaged within civil society was 5%, neither increasing nor decreasing in number throughout that period – the very definition of stagnant and ineffective.  A woeful state of affairs, particularly so when considering the huge sums of European money thrown at what was consistently an under-performing part of any democracy.

However, EuroMaidan came and the chronically corrupt Yanukovych regime either fled, disappeared into the shadows, or lost most of its power.  The politicians that stood in the immediate vacuum of power were very much aware and afraid of what may befall them too.  A previously ineffective civil society, collectively, saw opportunity and a light within what had previously been a very, very dark void.  In-fighting more or less ended with immediate effect (with the exception of a few egos).  The previously existing but ineffectual civil society space, not only retained that space, but power seeped within from that previously exclusively held within the political bubble.  Civil society became energised and for the most part consolidated – and it had power never permitted before, due to the weakness of the political class in the wake of EuroMaidan.  Ukrainian society woke to the possibilities of civil society.  Significant grass roots took hold, rather than imported international NGOs.  Civil society came to look far more like the classical civil society model taught in the political and social sciences.  Large numbers of volunteers emerged (notwithstanding those prepared to fight on the front lines in eastern Ukraine).

Indeed, a once fractious and impotent Ukrainian civil society is now motivated and battle-hardened.  It is an extremely strong player in Ukrainian life – and it has matured swiftly too.  The only real dilemma that faces Ukrainian civil society today is just how hard to push the government (and political class more broadly) whilst it is fighting a war in the east.  A difficult balance with regard to pressure and prioritising issues, for collapsing the government unnecessarily serves nobody – probably not even the Kremlin.  Likewise drowning the current government in a sea of demands, to the point it could not be responsive even if it tried, is counterproductive.

The question for the political class is whether or not Ukrainian civil society and society are prepared to wait for it to catch up with them, or whether the political class will, in effect, be left behind.  A strikingly different situation to 2 years ago.  Indeed, civil society, quite literally, now bypasses government where ever possible.  The clearest example is raising money, buying equipment, and delivering it to the front line in eastern Ukraine for those fighting for Ukraine.  No government bureaucracy or procurement involvement whatsoever.  It is though, by no means the only example, simply one of the most stark and headline grabbing.

Needless to say that the legal framework for such a massive civil society and volunteer effort was not adequate for the circumstances, or commensurate for the societal activities within Ukraine.  Not a question of legislative prohibition, but rather a question of legal recognition and protections.  Thus it therefore fell to the NGOs and civil society to craft amendments to the existing laws to include their activities within the realms of legal recognition, rather than operating in a legal grey zone.  Bill 1408 was born and submitted to the RADA for a vote yesterday.  The main premise of the Bill, to align Ukrainian legislation on volunteering with the relevant UN and EU Resolutions and accepted European normative.

With a requirement of 226 votes necessary to transform Bill 1408 into law, the RADA easily passed the Bill with a total of 294 deputies voting in favour – enjoying support from every political party.  Presidential signature is a formality.

Undoubtedly little attention will be paid to this vote by the MSM – however the importance of this vote exists not only in the legal text amendments to relevant existing laws.  The robustness of the civil society space has been reinforced.  No political party assumed the party line of voting against what is in effect, a further loosening of the political grasp on the Ukrainian democratic space – something that will not be missed by civil society actors and activists within certain, more controlled, neighbouring environments (or their governments).

Disregarding the repealing of previously rights suppressing legislation, this new law is significant in that is was crafted by civil society exclusively to support and expand civil society, and it sailed through the political swamp without resistance.  That said, be mindful that it in no way challenged the vested interests of those within and behind the RADA, so little resistance was expected.

The difficult reforms that will challenge vested interests and/or be necessary but unpopular, all – each and every one – still remain to be tackled, whilst domestic and international patience is now becoming tested.

Perhaps time to remind readers that many times last year, it was written that serious reform had to be well under way by Easter 2015, lest international and/or domestic patience run out.

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