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Civil Society and the Future of Ukraine

A woman at a rally
Belarus opposition activists hold their, white-red-white, and Ukrainian flags during a solidarity action to show support with Ukraine in Minsk. The significance of Russia's absorption of Crimea has not been lost on the fellow Slavic nation of Belarus whose cities of Gomel, Mogilyov and Vitebsk were once part of the republic of Soviet Russia under the USSR. © Sergey Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

What happened on the Maidan earlier this year has fundamentally changed Ukraine. The change came at a high cost; I wish no country would ever pay the price of freedom with the lives of its citizens. The challenge now is to make sure that those who died or were injured did not suffer in vain. People who were once apathetic about politics now believe in themselves and their power to change their country. This is a rare opportunity, and we must seize it now.

I am deputy executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation, the largest foundation supporting the development of a civil society in Ukraine. We’ve been around since the country gained its independence from the former USSR in the early 1990s. Our mission is to lend financial and organizational support to aid the development of a vibrant, open society. We help citizens come together and organize to stand up for their civil rights, and to tackle issues that the state has either been unable or unwilling to address.

In my view, that’s what a civil society is all about—moving beyond the everyday routine of working, going home, and shopping, to think about what kind of community and country we want to live in.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of initiatives that started with our support. Many years ago, a group of human rights activists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers got together to tell stories about human rights in ways that would be interesting to a wider audience. So they started a human rights documentary film festival called Docudays, which is now in its 11th year.

Based in Kyiv, it’s become a big international event, attracting thousands of viewers drawn to stories of people who faced adversity and didn’t give up, who learned to speak out for themselves—powerful visual accounts of the amazing things people can accomplish. It’s also an annual traveling festival that goes all over Ukraine to combine screenings with human rights education and advocacy reaching nearly 150,000 people. It’s become a huge source of inspiration throughout Ukraine and beyond.

The International Renaissance Foundation also supported local groups working to influence public policy. In Ukrainian, as in many other Slavonic languages, the words for “politics” and “policy” are the same. The idea that citizens can engage and influence local decision makers can be a foreign concept here. So we’ve supported groups that help politicians and voters alike to understand how to make good public policy, and how to hold leaders accountable for their decisions.

You saw the fruits of these efforts on the Maidan. A lot of these groups, many of whom are our grantees, had been protesting against government corruption, against the abuse of human rights and censorship, before the uprising. The protest started as a very strong and intentionally nonpartisan action against the decision of Ukraine’s then-leadership to drop the Association Agreement with the EU.

A few days later, that entirely peaceful action was violently dispersed by the police. It was a very dark day indeed on November 30, 2013, when so many Ukranians saw the police using force against their fellow citizens. When it happened, the work of civil society groups helped shape the conversation in the public square. People were emboldened; they would not sit idly by and see their rights taken from them.

The morning of the crackdown, we put out a statement: The International Renaissance Foundation would not engage with a government that could countenance such violent treatment of its citizens. We demanded a thorough investigation. We called for the perpetrators to be punished, and assurances that this sort of thing could never happen again.

A number of other civil society organizations followed our lead. It was inspiring to see hundreds of thousands of protesters on the Maidan. It signaled that citizens no longer feared their government. For a post-Soviet people, that represents a huge attitudinal change.

I see that change in the unprecedented self-organization and solidarity that people showed on the Maidan, from bringing food, warm clothes, and money for the protesters to organizing the Maidan’s kitchens, press centers, legal aid services, and medical support. The Humanitarian Solidarity Initiative is one lasting result of that solidarity.

During the escalation, protesters were forcibly taken by the police from hospitals and denied medical treatment in pretrial detention; many doctors suffered pressure and intimidation not to help the protesters. As an emergency response, medical professionals and activists organized themselves to provide medical aid to protesters parallel to the state system.

To support and enhance this informal system, we convened a group of Ukrainian opinion leaders to launch the Humanitarian Solidarity Initiative on February 3, 2014. After the fall of the regime, hundreds of individuals continue to need follow-up medical treatment and rehabilitation. The initiative has galvanized a number of other charitable initiatives that fundraise to support victims and their families, and help better coordination and collaboration between self-organized humanitarian relief groups.

After the regime collapsed and a new transitional government was installed by the constitutional majority of votes in the parliament at the end of February, the International Renaissance Foundation announced that we would re-engage with the government, and urge all civil society groups to help and push the next administration to deliver on a set of urgently needed reforms. There are some encouraging signs that leaders are listening.

Civil society has mounted a campaign to make public procurement a more transparent process, to prevent bureaucrats and their businesses from siphoning billions of hryvnyas from the national budget. It wasn’t easy, but we persuaded parliament to vote for it. We are now pushing for a fair and open investigation into the human rights abuses on the Maidan. And we’ve got pre-term presidential elections coming in May. What if the country could conduct a campaign without fraud, vote-buying, or intimidation? It would be a most encouraging sign.

Not everybody agrees on these reforms, of course. A lot of Ukrainian citizens have different ideas about the direction the country should go in. But here, too, civil society organizations have a vital role. There is a great need for dialogue, a need to build bridges between those with different views. This is critical if we are going to somehow stitch the country back together again.

And now, groups like ours face yet another challenge: the military aggression from Russia. I myself am a Russian who was born and have lived in Ukraine most of my life, and it is devastating to hear people in Russia supporting President Putin’s actions. But it is important to remember, especially at this critical juncture, that Putin does not speak for all Russians.

Indeed, I heard many of their voices on the Maidan, speaking out in solidarity with the protesters. Those who dissent from Putin will be regarded with suspicion at home; they need our solidarity and understanding. It may take years before relations between the Russian and Ukrainian governments are normalized, so it is all the more important that thinking people in both societies engage with one another, listen to each other, and find ways to work together.

Maybe what has happened in Ukraine can be an inspiration to the people of Russia and other countries. Here, ordinary people chose not to fear their government, but to interact with its leaders, and communicate with them when they aren’t happy with the decisions being made. Civil society here is as strong as it’s ever been in my lifetime. The Maidan showed just how powerful and effective the grass roots could be. Maybe, just maybe, people in other countries faced by oppressive regimes could follow suit.

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