What is the state of Ukrainian civil society today – on a national and regional level?

On 7 July 2021, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy and the International Renaissance Foundation organised an online public webinar “What is the state of Ukrainian civil society today – on a national and regional level?”.

The event has reflected on civil society work in the context of recent political developments, with a focus on both national and regional aspects. Panellists have shared findings from recent polls on civil society’s views on its current role and those of the general public as well as noted challenges their organisations face and provided suggestions for how the EU and other stakeholders can help support civil society’s reform efforts.

Olena Carbou, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels opened the event, presented the panellists and framed the discussion’s direction. The panellists were invited to address the self-assessment of civil society and views of people on its role within the society and the issues of its capacity to influence the developments in today’s Ukraine and to present the activists’ vision of their place in the dialogue between the government and the civil society.

Carbou: “For many years the civil society of Ukraine has been considered as a driving force for European integration and reforms of the country. Does it retain this role today?”

Petro Burkovskyy, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, addressed the difficulties faced by civil society organisations in the regions all over Ukraine. He noted that civil society would soon face the new Covid-19 related challenge caused by the recent changes in legislation. Starting this year the civil society organisations have to rent the premises owned by cities and local communities through public bidding and the Prozorro system. This questions the financial capability of regional NGOs to afford the premises, which were previously provided to them with exemptions, and raises the uncertainty in their further operation. Mr Burkovskyy also highlighted the rising difficulties with financing and sponsorship of NGO activities, caused by the pandemic: while the NGOs working with vulnerable groups of the population demonstrate financial stability, the rest of the civil society organisations seek support for upcoming years. Specifically, support from entrepreneurs has decreased, which was not only caused by the pandemic, but also by a lack of belief that think tanks or anti-corruption NGOs were changemakers. According to Mr Burkovskyy, there is a demand among think tanks to change the Ukrainian legislation to distinguish them as a separate type of organisations, as their nature is closer to scientific institutions rather than NGOs.

Burkovskyy: “Due to the coronavirus pandemic the opportunity for entrepreneurs to support even NGOs, which care about vulnerable groups, is sharply reduced.”

Andriy Bychenko, Razumkov Centre, addressed the citizens’ perception of civil society. He noted that the boost of civil society development in Ukraine started with the Revolution of Dignity and Russian aggression in the East of Ukraine when citizens were the driving force in securing the needs of the defence sector and Ukrainian army. As many of the citizens were engaged in volunteering and other financial and nonfinancial support, the level of trust in the civil society outweighed the level of distrust. Mr Bychenko specified that there is a long-term trend of a rising trust and improved perception of civil society organisations and highlighted that volunteer organisations have the highest level of societal trust. NGOs engaged in the promotion of democratic reforms have also a positive image. At the same time, the engagement of activists in politics leads to a considerable decrease of trust as politicians and political parties have a lower level of trust in society. The level of awareness of citizens about civil society was another issue raised by Mr Bychenko. He mentioned the citizens are more aware of the NGOs which make a difference in their lives, but as there are not so many such organisations, the level of awareness is consequently low. Only more than 25% of respondents in the April 2021 research heard about the activities of non-governmental think tanks. In addition, many people do not distinguish between governmental and non-governmental organisations, academic institutions and non-governmental think tanks.

Bychenko: “Society is not ready and does not want public activists to lead the political processes.”

Andriana Susak, Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement, focused on the achievements and the challenges the organisation faced in its work. She noted that the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement now includes more than 250 female veterans and activists who advocate for legislative changes, women empowerment, equal rights in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and democratic changes both at regional and national levels. Ms Susak added that some female veterans have run for local elections and won them, others are members of national sports teams, some are members of the Public Council at the Ministry for Veterans Affairs. She noted that it is important to have a strategy, move forward not in a sprint but a marathon and set the sights on the long-term changes in Ukraine. She stressed that veterans are also a great foundation for building a strong civil society in Ukraine and can make a considerable contribution to democratic development. However, it can be challenging when it comes to skills, knowledge, and experience, so together with reintegration, the organisation is focused on raising of its professionalism and veterans’ competencies. Ms Susak added that another challenge for the Movement was the lack of stable and transparent channels of communication with the authorities and dependence rather on personalities instead of having a structured dialogue. In conclusion, she said that apart from their strategic goals for equal opportunities, reforms in the Armed Forces according to the western standards they are also focusing now on peacebuilding, reintegration of Donbas as it’s important to include and hear the voices of those people who were taking part in combats and liberation of those areas.

Susak: “We are here for the long run.”

Ivan Podolian, Promolod, generalised the challenges of the Ukrainian society and guided the participants through the local community networks that could give a better understanding of the situation on the ground. Mr Podolian also highlighted the achievements they made on the local level such as efficient cooperation between civil society, local businesses and municipalities in crises and recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that after the Revolution of Dignity we witnessed the emergence of politicians sharing democratic values, who were previously civil activists. However, there is still a negative trend when the level of trust in the activists goes down dramatically once they are involved in politics. Mr Podolian also mentioned that the sources of support for the organisations became more diversified, starting with grants and ending with donations on Patreon but so-called “pocket organisations” remained an issue. Among the challenges for the civil society, he emphasised poverty, low financial literacy, a slow integration of western values into the Ukrainian society because of a language barrier, Russian influence on Ukraine’s information space, demography and, finally, the low level of trust between the business and civil society.

Podolian: “Lack of trust within the communities is our historical burden that we are carrying and will carry for a while.”

During the Q&A session, the following issues were discussed: the most prominent civic movements in Ukraine and the issues that mobilise citizens for action; recent initiatives focusing on IDPs and those living in so-called ‘grey zones’; sustainability of the achievements made by civil society organisations on a local level in 2015-2020; young professionals involved in CSOs.