Ukraine’s Civil Society and Information Resilience Five Years After Maidan

On 5 April 2019, the Office attended a conference “On the road to Toronto – Ukraine’s Civil Society and Information Resilience Five Years after Maidan”, organised by the Mission of Canada to the European Union (a long-term Office partner in organising the Brussels UkraineLab) and European Commission Support Group for Ukraine.

The event was organised as a lead-up to the 3rd Ukraine Reform Conference in Toronto and took a closer look at the remaining challenges, as well as achievements in Ukraine’s reform process.

Opening the conference, H.E. Daniel Costello, Ambassador of Canada to the European Union, welcomed the audience. He underlined that Canada’s co-hosting of the Ukraine Reform Conference is part of its ongoing, multifaceted support for Ukraine and its efforts to endure and consolidate the complex reform process.

Tetyana Kovtun, Deputy State Secretary of the Cabinet of ministers of Ukraine delivered the first keynote speech, in which she presented the scope of undertaken reforms in Ukraine. She pointed out the state of weakness of the institutions right after Maidan and praised the ability of civil society to step in at a needed moment. She stressed the need for these institutions to continue earning the credibility and trust of the citizens. She further emphasised the decentralisation reform and its importance in creating social cohesion and bringing more autonomy to the communities.

“Strong and effective institutions and a resilient civil service are necessary to carry out the reforms”.

Katarína Mathernová, Deputy Director-General for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission highlighted the timing of the Toronto conference as it will be important to reflect on the trajectory of reforms in Ukraine. She emphasised the fact, that Ukraine is the only country in the world outside of the EU that has a separate institutional branding, in the form of a Support Group for Ukraine. The importance lies in Ukraine being able to access EU expertise and sectoral knowledge and vice versa. She concluded with an encouragement for the Ukrainian government and civil society to increase cooperation.

“It is not about governance, but the society as such. The government, should not only perceive civil society as watchdogs but as partners”.

Jill E. Sinclair, Senior Official Ukraine Reform Conference Global Affairs Canada, highlighted the conference as a key platform for a more inclusive debate. She reflected on great achievements in Ukraine’s, reform process highlighting the decentralisation reform in particular, but cautioned that no matter what the incoming government will be, the irreversibility of key reforms is a must.

“We Ukraine, its friends and partners have to make sure hard-won reform is not lost. Those reforms have been fought for and we must draw a hard line under what Ukrainians achieved”.

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, Toronto Principles coordinator, one more highlighted irreversibility as the main theme of the Toronto conference and the main task for the Ukrainian civil society and the private sector, who as he stressed must extend their cooperation to promote accountability and transparency.

“I hope we will have more result-oriented discussions”.

Svitlana Kobzar, Programme Officer at the European Endowment for democracy, and a moderator of the first panel, pointed out that regardless of the outcome of the elections, we should look at the overall long term change. The distrust among the citizens towards the government, in general, has been formed for many generations as a protection mechanism and it will take time and overcome.

“These reforms are a team sport, where you need the support at every level”.

Hanna Hopko, Head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, pointed out the valuable lessons Ukraine has learned over the past five years. She stated, that Russian annexation of Crimea was very unexpected, but even more so the war in the east. She highlighted the EU as a key strategic partner of Ukraine, without whose support it would have been impossible to start the reform process with the ongoing conflict. Therefore, it is crucial to consolidate this relationship and solidarity. Moreover, she encouraged Ukrainian civil society actors to join politics, as this presents another level of responsibility.

“I am happy to see how the country changed especially due to the decentralisation reform. This decentralisation reform will produce a new political elite from grassroots. This is a long-term investment which will produce results. A strategic patient is needed”.

Oksana Pitsyk, Head of the Smidyn amalgamated community in the Volyn region, agreed with the speakers on the success and importance of the decentralisation reform. She saw the Maidan revolution, as a key push for the civil society, which is evolving and organising in a progressive manner. It is perhaps not that large but it is very spread out across the country and active.

“I think we are on the right way, we are fulfilling the reforms, generating important ideas”.

Andriana Susak- Arekhta, former volunteer combatant and civil society activist stressed that the events and trauma of the Maidan, prepared Ukraine for the war, which prior to that was hard to image. She highlighted the achieved visa-free regime with the EU, and the need for the veterans to travel to Europe, and see what they have been fighting for, as some of them have never left Ukraine. She highlighted corruption in the military sector and the unpunished aggression against the civil society actors as key areas to engage in the future.

“What is important, is that we teach our people to learn and realise that this is a lifelong process”.

Vitalii Ustymenko, an AutoMaidan Odesa activist, underlined the expansion of the civil society in Odessa, a city which still has a very big problem of informal criminal groups influencing the government. It is an ongoing struggle between civil society and the criminal past, which represents the pre-revolution period. He thanked the international community for their support without which some new institutions such as the anti-corruption bureau would have not been established.

“The coalitions of NGO’s exercise a certain influence on the local governments, something that was not imaginable a few years ago”.

Oksana Romaniuk, Executive Director of the Institute of Mass Information, highlighted the achievement of establishing the public service broadcaster. Now the main task lies in protecting it. She further outlined three main challenges in the process of forming strong institutions: I) oligarch monopoly in TV space II) Russian narrative disinformation and II) Impunity concerning the attacks against journalists and civil society. She further stressed the importance of media literacy and transparency in the media sector.

“Public service broadcaster is what the real news is, and not the emotions driven and manipulative content, which you see on the channels controlled by the oligarchs”.

Nataliya Gumenyuk, Journalist Head of, highlighted a number of important investigative journalist projects the organisation has done, that the mainstream media controlled by the oligarchs simply can’t ignore. In recent years, she witnessed more and more bright, people engage in debates and conversations regarding the future of Ukraine, which shows the positive trend for civil society. She stressed the importance of upholding high journalistic standards as well as the need of the Ukrainian media, to keep shine light on the political prisoners and maintain their stories in the media cycle.

“When you speak about the political prisoners and maintain the attention on them, it increases their chances of survival”.

Anastasia Shybiko, Director of the Free Radio, Bakhmut (Donetsk region), offered significant insights on how the media and journalism can play a role in the reconciliation and reintegration of the occupied territories. There is a growing demand for honest local news, which adheres to international standards. However, the Russian disinformation campaign still strong and is the key problem in the region. She also made a case, for Ukrainian politicians to visit the occupied territories more often in order to connect with the local people and show them the importance of the reforms.

“We need to clean the informational space with all possible and impossible means”.

Peter M. Wagner, Head of the Support Group for Ukraine, European Commission, stressed that there is no EU resilience without resilient Ukraine. The Toronto conference will be a good chance to reflect on the reform process. The ambition is to provide an unfiltered and authentic picture of what is the reality in Ukraine. He noted that the Ukrainian nation is alive, undergoing vibrant democratic processes with a strong civil society which is committed to the future of the country.

“Ukraine has a civil society which not only holds the authorities accountable for what is happening in the country but also itself”.