In Ukraine, Pact partners make history, usher in democracyCorinne Reilly · November 13, 2015
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.
“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.