Ukraine’s Age of Activism

(Media Credit/Associated Press)

By Andriy Kohut, Kyiv-based Political Activist

Coinciding with President Viktor Yanukovych’s election in early 2010, a period of relative social peace has ended, and civic activism has again become popular. The social movements that took place between the Orange Revolution and Yanukovych’s electoral victory were characterized by several trends, among them: many civic leaders shifted into party or official positions, and the recruitment of new, potentially strong activists was weak due mostly to a lack of formal training.

At the same time, many public informal initiatives have grown (from combating illegal construction to tackling local problems), and for a small part of the civic sector – usually the Kyiv-based think tanks, as well as some regional ones – civil society growth has been evident on the professional level.

In total, over five years, there was a greater decline of social activism.

The first event that led to the rise of a more active civil society was a political crisis. The period of 2007 to 2009 saw several attempts to increase civic activity by combining already existing organizations (the most successful example is the Civic Assembly of Ukraine). However, they were more coalitions or informal networks than formal organizations, and the vast majority failed to become popular, nationwide movements. The next stage may be considered the emergence in 2009 of the Public Campaign “New Citizen,” which was timed to coincide with the 2010 presidential elections.

Now, Yanukovych’s policies, as well as the actions of his government and parliament, provoked a new wave of civic activity. Both new and old initiatives have the chance to fight for the endangered rights and freedoms – and democracy in general.

There’s a number of reasons for the growth in activism: the introduction of censorship in the media, closing archives and pressuring academics; pressure on public organizations and attempts to prohibit officials from international foundations from entering Ukraine; attempts to establish a “Russian world” in Ukraine, as well as belittling the Ukrainian language and culture; attempts to pressure the Ukrainian Orthodox Church into fealty to the Russian Orthodox; the economy continuing to operate solely on corruption, including through the implementation of a discriminatory tax code; and the drastic increase of the judiciary’s dependence on the executive.

Simply put, Yanukovych’s consistently anti-democratic decisions provoke more and more street actions. Among the groups at the helm of the new civil society movement are the “New Citizen” public campaign, the “Space of Freedom” movement, the “Do Not Be Indifferent” movement. These and many other earlier initiatives have intensified over the past year and conduct street actions on a regular basis.

Several more local initiatives were created this year – the “Zarvanytsia” initiative, the “Holodnyi Yar” initiatives, the “Dignity” movement) – as well as national ones, including the journalistic movement “Stop Censorship” and the “Ukrainian Alternative” association. The “Vidsich” (“Rebuff”) movement is one of the most active, created by former activists of PORA (Mykhaylo Svystovych, Olha Salo and others). This movement is largely student- and youth-based and conducts actions to protect Ukraine’s democratic values.

The growth of social activism is certainly encouraging. Despite the fact that over the next year new initiatives will continue to pop up, we can confidently predict that a powerful national movement will soon be established. It has the potential to become a barrier that will keep Ukraine from sliding further toward authoritarianism.

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