In Ukraine, Pact partners make history, usher in democracy

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In Ukraine, Pact partners make history, usher in democracy

It’s a cool fall morning in Kiev and Svitlana Zalishchuk is seated at her desk. She answers a few emails, then pulls out a blue highlighter to review one more time a bill she’ll introduce in Ukraine's national parliament in an hour.

She pauses to glance at a photograph on the wall, the biggest one in her office, which she faces when she’s at her computer: In the background, crowds of freezing, huddled protesters. In the foreground, three figures. Surrounded by tear gas, they’re digging bricks from the pavement to arm themselves against Berkut police. The image was captured a year and a half ago on nearby Instytutska Street, where scores of Ukrainians died during the country’s 2013-14 Euromaidan revolution.

“People made a lot of sacrifices,” Zalishchuk says softly.

When Pact began its UNITER program to support pro-reform civil society organizations in Ukraine in 2008, much was different. Zalishchuk, now 33, was a television reporter and budding activist, fed up with government corruption, secrecy, censorship and propaganda. The country’s civil society sector was largely made up of policy analysts and think tanks – a far cry from the galvanized movement of artists, journalists and innovators it would become. The reforms that Ukraine would achieve in the coming years were almost unthinkable – new anti-corruption bodies and government transparency laws, the ouster of a corrupt president and the election of dozens of pro-reform civil society activists to parliament.

Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of Ukraine's national parliament, reviews a bill in her office in Kiev.

“Even a few years ago, it was difficult to imagine many of these things,” says Zalishchuk, who was among the activists elected shortly after the revolution. “Civil society organizations made it possible, and Pact’s assistance to civil society here has been so important.”

A post-Soviet country of about 45 million people, Ukraine has struggled since its independence in 1991 to make democratic gains. Under former president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled during Euromaidan in February 2014, the country grappled with deeply rooted government corruption and significant Russian influence, which was becoming increasingly unpopular in favor of greater alignment with Europe.

Because Ukraine’s executive branch controlled the judiciary, politicians easily meddled in cases, skirted laws, took property and imprisoned rivals. For citizens, the problems were a daily reality. Nearly all government services required the payment of bribes, from enrolling a child into kindergarten to getting a drivers license.

“It was impossible to find justice,” Zalishchuk says. “You couldn’t have a real political competition. As a journalist, you didn’t have the right to say the truth.”

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Pact launched UNITER (Ukraine National Initiative to Enhance Reforms) to strengthen local civil society organizations working to promote democracy, government transparency and accountability, European integration and civic involvement. Slated to last at least to 2016, the program builds organizations’ capacity by providing them financial grants, training, mentorship and other support.

“When UNITER started, the civil society sector here was largely about policy papers and roundtables,” says Roland Kovats, Pact’s Ukraine country director. “What was lacking was vibrancy and connection to creativity – artists, filmmakers, social innovators, journalists – people who were interested in the same kinds of reforms as the policy types but who could actually communicate to other citizens about why they  mattered."

A nonprofit organization launched by Zalishchuk was among the first that Pact decided to support. Called Centre of United Action, or Centre UA (UA is also an abbreviation for Ukraine), the organization’s mission was to promote European-style reforms, freedom of speech and government transparency and accountability. But brand new and comprised of only two people – Zalishchuk and Oleh Rybachuk, an activist who’d held senior government posts under former president Viktor Yushchenko – Centre UA lacked capacity.

“What they had were really good ideas and enthusiasm,” Kovats says.

Building the capacity of local organizations is a Pact signature, based on the principle that local organizations are best positioned to solve local problems – and making them stronger is the best way to create lasting impact. The capacity development model Pact uses around the world begins with a thorough assessment of an organization’s abilities. Pact then provides what’s needed to improve deficiencies – combining technical training, funding for additional staff and operations, and hands-on guidance on developing and implementing programs. Along the way, Pact objectively measures organizations’ capacity growth using an evaluation tool that has been adopted by others in the international development sector.

“We wanted to have an impact on what was going on the country,” Zalishchuk recalls. “But we had no idea how to arrange it in terms of the structure, in terms of the institutions – and this is what Pact helped us to do. They helped us draw the path from what was in our heads to how it could become a reality.” 

Pact provided training on the basics of nonprofit governance and processes and connected Centre UA with political marketing and civic campaigns experts, sometimes bringing consultants from other countries and sometimes sending Centre UA’s founders abroad. Pact also encouraged Centre UA to collaborate with other Ukrainian pro-reform organizations and activists.

“In the beginning,” Kovats says, “it was just a few people meeting at Pact’s office on Thursday nights from 7 p.m. until no one could stay awake anymore.”

The first major outcome was the New Citizen campaign. Created by a coalition of organizations led by Centre UA, New Citizen promoted the idea that all Ukrainians bore responsibility for solving the country’s problems and nothing would improve if left to politicians. New Citizen encouraged Ukrainians to ask questions and point out problems, to refuse to pay or accept bribes, and to demand and create the change they wanted – a major departure from the Soviet-era mentality of the past.

“Our idea was to change the mindset of people,” Rybachuk says, “to create demand for change.”

Working with journalist-activists, Centre UA next launched a campaign called Stop Censorship! that focused on media freedom and government propaganda and secrecy.

Among other organizations Pact supported was Garage Gang, which used Pact’s mentorship and grant funding to create a website and crowdfunding platform called Big Idea, where Ukrainians could find funding and support for their civic and creative projects. Endeavors launched with Big Idea included a program to help prepare teenaged orphans for adulthood, a community gym started by a bodybuilder with cerebral palsy, and a system for digitizing schoolbooks to make them available to more students.

“The idea was that people were really passive and keeping to themselves,” says Iryna Solovey, who heads Garage Gang. “We wanted them to express themselves more actively, get interested in each other and form new relationships to make what we came to call ‘social fabric,’” which helps set the stage for more complicated, courageous ideas.

As part of its Stop Censorship! campaign, Centre UA held an international anti-censorship poster contest. This was one entry. 

Iryna Solovey talks about Garage Gang's work at the organization's office in Kiev. Behind her is an artistic display mapping connections among Ukrainian activists and social innovators.

Other organizations Pact supported included Greencubator, which is helping local innovators launch new technologies to build an alternative energy sector in Ukraine, and the Media Law Institute, which advocates media freedom and drafted critical transparency legislation requiring politicians to disclose their financial interests.

In late 2011, a growing coalition of organizations supported by Pact and led by Centre UA launched what would become one of their most pivotal campaigns. Called Chesno, which translates to “fair” or “honest,” it directly challenged Ukraine’s most corrupt leaders.

One Chesno initiative assessed politicians’ integrity, scoring them on a “Chesnometer” of criteria such as past human rights violations and whether their stated assets and income matched their lifestyle. Another initiative exposed a common practice among members of parliament in which the few who showed up for votes pressed the voting buttons of MPs who were absent; it was dubbed “piano voting” because pressing numerous voting buttons in succession looked similar to playing a piano.

“When we started Chesno, it was very ambitious,” recalls Inna Borzylo, who now heads Centre UA. “Elementary demands – like public income declarations for members of parliament – were closed to society, because the system protected itself.”

Working with investigative journalists and filmmakers, Centre UA also made a documentary about then-President Yanukovych’s luxurious residence, Mezhyhirya, an enormous estate with its own zoo, sports complex, lakes and waterfalls. Yanukovych refused to open the heavily guarded property to journalists or explain how he amassed such wealth as a civil servant. (Mezhyhirya is now open to the public as a museum about Yanukovych’s corruption.) Centre UA took the finished film on a roadshow of public screenings across Ukraine, which the government tried to stop.

“Sometimes police came and said there was a bomb and people needed to evacuate. Other times they turned off the electricity,” Borzylo says. “Pact supported for years our advocacy activities in the regions so we could tour with our initiatives and talk to people, which no one was doing.”

Explains Kovats: “Over time, Ukraine’s civil society sector was becoming more diverse, more connected, more effective and louder, and citizens were becoming more engaged. At the same time, Ukraine’s government was clamping down, in line with what Russia was doing, so a clash became inevitable.”

On Nov. 21, 2013, Pact was hosting a conference in Kiev with its local partners when news broke that the government had decided not to pursue a key agreement with the European Union. Within hours, thousands of people were in Kiev’s central Maidan square, demonstrating in the rain. In the following months, massive protests swept the country, with citizens demanding European integration, democratic reforms and an end to corruption and human rights abuses.

After Yanukovych fled Kiev, a new interim government was created. In late 2014, dozens of pro-reform activists were elected to parliament, including several who were leaders of civil society organizations that Pact supported.

“Ukrainians realized their destiny was in their own hands,” Rybachuk says.

Since the revolution, Pact’s local partners have continued to play an instrumental role in defining the country’s future and implementing the democratic reforms for which Euromaidan was waged.

Centre UA is among the country’s leading civil society organizations, and many of the same organizations that collaborated on New Citizen and Chesno are now taking part in a Pact-supported coalition that is advancing a platform of reforms called the Reanimation Package of Reforms. (The platform’s Ukrainian title can also be translated as the Resuscitation Package of Reforms, or the Revival Package of Reforms.) It is widely considered the most influential civil society coalition in Ukraine.

Earlier this year, the coalition published a guiding document detailing 24 reforms – such as European integration, government decentralization and overhaul of the judiciary – and key steps to achieve each one, developed by committees with subject-area experts.

The committees are now working to make the plans a reality. In addition to drafting legislation and meeting regularly with receptive members of parliament, they are building wider public support for certain reforms with education campaigns. Although many have yet to be achieved, progress so far has included new government transparency requirements, cleanup of the country’s financial sector, economic deregulation, the establishment of national anti-corruption agencies and independent public media, and public procurement reforms. 

“Civil society is now part of Ukraine’s legislative process,” Borzylo says. “With the Reanimation Package of Reforms and other initiatives, we’re creating draft laws, advocating for their adoption and having successes. Step by step, we’re changing Ukraine’s political culture.”

Staff at Pact's Ukraine office in Kiev discuss plans for an upcoming Ucrazyans festival.

Pact also recently launched a series of community “Ucrazyans” festivals that are being held across the country. With food and music, the festivals feature activities and displays by local and national Ukrainian organizations. The aim is to draw even more Ukrainians into civic participation and grow support for European-style changes in regions where they are less popular.

Last year alone, more than 11,000 citizens took part in Pact-supported initiatives that resulted in positive state-society engagement.

"The Pact program changed the landscape for civil society in Ukraine," says Stephanie Molina, with USAID's Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. "Not only did their work build a critical mass of capable civil society organizations that were eventually able to take on decades of corruption and cronyism, but they also laid the foundation for a much-needed shift in democratic culture and values. They have supported a wide range of organizations, and the breadth of their reach has been crucial in the post-Maidan era for supporting reforms and accountability across almost every facet of governance and services."

Had Ukraine’s civil society sector not developed as it did, Zalishchuk says, Euromaidan may not have happened.

“In countries like ours that lack institutions on all levels – including civil society – these institutions and capacities have to be built,” she says. “In the end, it was these independent organizations that became the core of Euromaidan.”

Zalishchuk’s hope for Ukraine’s next generation is that democratic staples such as a free press and government accountability will simply be the norm.

“Maybe my children will take these things for granted – that it’s normal to go to court or a university and not pay a bribe, normal to switch on any TV channel and not see bribed material,” she says.

“For us, it's not granted. We had to fight for it, and we still are fighting for it, with international support.”

 

Videos and photography by Brian J. Clark for Pact.

 

 

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