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Democracy at a Crossroads: New Politics and Civil Society in Ukraine

Where is Ukraine heading? What are the new challenges for civil society one year after the Maidan and now at a time of war? These were the questions raised by activists who gathered in Kyiv at the end of April for a major conference, writes Nadia Diuk (far left), Vice President, Programs for Europe, Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Democracy at a Crossroads: New Politics and Civil Society in Ukraine.” Representatives of all the major civic groups in the capital joined almost three hundred civic activists, many from the east of Ukraine, to discuss these questions and to determine new courses of action for their work.

This was one of the first major gatherings of civic groups since the Maidan Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14 and the subsequent year-long war in the east and it was clear from the planning stages of the conference that the turmoil in Ukraine had created new challenges for civil society added scope and importance for its work.

Opening addresses from President Landsbergis of Lithuania and Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, focused on encouraging Ukraine civil society and citizens to rise to the difficult challenges of the current situation, to call things by their real name, and to build on the achievements of the Maidan Revolution.

‘Civil society saved Ukraine’

Several themes recurred throughout the conference.  The first was the understanding that Ukraine’s civil society had played and continues to play an important role in the country far beyond what is normally expected.  “Civil society saved Ukraine” was a phrase heard at a number of sessions.  The role civic groups played during the Maidan is well known but they have since stepped up to provide services and humanitarian assistance where government has lagged all through the military conflict in the east and they continue to work on reform efforts for both local and national government. Another major theme at the conference was the entrance into politics of many civic leaders who had participated in the Maidan.

The first plenary session considered the role of “Ukraine as the Pivotal Nation” at a time when democracy is making halting progress in some parts of the world and when the international community seems distracted from vigorous support.  The speakers highlighted Ukraine’s civil society’s successes and internal dynamism despite uncertain support from the international community for Ukraine’s military and diplomatic challenges.  Ukraine’s new politics was a major theme throughout the conference:  speakers pointed out how Euromaidan had changed the context and how a new kind of civil society had been formed.  The success of efforts such as the Reanimation Package of Reforms shows that Ukraine’s civil society has reached new levels of self-organization.  A major new element has been the entrance of civil society actors into politics.

ukr hopkoJust such a representative of civil society, Member of Parliament and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee Hanna Hopko (right) spoke on a plenary panel “New Politics and Civil Society in Ukraine.”  Having been one of the civic leaders who worked to put together the RPR during and immediately after the Maidan she outlined how many of the reforms being considered now in parliament had been initiated by civic groups and how civil society had given Ukraine a roadmap to follow to achieve reforms and prosperity.  Highlighting the self-organizing character of the Maidan, she also took up a theme articulated elsewhere at the conference that Ukraine and the Ukrainians who died for European values might serve to remind Europe of those values.  Many of the participants from the eastern regions of Ukraine took the opportunity to ply Hopko with questions about the government and parliament’s work on reforms.

Ukraine’s civil society has set a precedent in the region with the large group of civic leaders that have moved into government and parliament to become politicians.  The plenary session that addressed this subject posed the question whether this was a “Chance for Better Politics?” and attracted lively participation.  The challenge of the municipal elections scheduled for the autumn was discussed as well as the problem of lack of meaningful party structures at the local level, leading some commentators to recommend reforming the electoral system to allow civic leaders to run for office without party backing at the municipal level.

ukraine euromaidanThe plenary sessions on the second day of the conference once more took up the theme of “New Challenges for Civil Society in a Time of Conflict:  Governance, Public Engagement and Stability.”  Ukrainian analysts confirmed the view that civil society saved Ukraine through the turmoil of the Maidan Revolution and now at a time of conflict and that the self-organization of civil society is very well developed on a horizontal level but not yet effective influencing the reform process and needs to be channeled into institutional structures.  To help inform the subject, panelists for this topic included Gina Romero, a civic activist from Colombia, who shared some experiences from the background of armed conflict and guerrilla fighting in Colombia over nearly six decades.

Another burning issue for Ukraine is the problem discussed at another plenary devoted to the subject “Russian Propaganda and How to Counter It.”  Speakers from Ukraine’s major media organizations—Ukraine Crisis Media Center, Ukraine Today, StopFake, and Telekritika—presented a comprehensive analysis of the problem with recommendations on what to do.

Over the two days of the conference nine working groups convened to discuss reforms in the administrative system, energy policy, corruption and lustration, reintegration of displaced persons and combatants, as well as elections, bridging the gap between citizens and politicians, and responsible journalism as a way to solve local problems.  Working groups also addressed the topic of a new national identity and on the future and geopolitical consequences of the eastern Partnership of the European Union.

carl g ukraineLeading civic activists from Ukraine were joined by international guests including Carl Gershman (right), National Endowment for Democracy;  Hanna Severinson, former rapporteur on Ukraine for the Council of Europe; Andreas Umland, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation; Krzystof Stanowski, Solidarity Fund Poland; Gina Romero, Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy; Anna Maria Kekesi, International Centre for Democratic Transition Hungary;  Martyna Michalik and Pawel Kazanecki from Poland; Peter Zalmayev, Eurasia Democracy Initiative; Hannah Forster, African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies; and US journalist James Kirchick, among others.