Before his unexpected victory in Ukraine’s presidential elections, the comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky’s engagement with civil society was almost non-existent. The last two years of former president Petro Poroshenko were marked for civil society organizations (CSO) – in particular those working on human rights, anti-corruption, and media freedom – by numerous obstacles, including physical threats, legal measures, and fake news campaigns. It is not surprising, therefore, that having a new, enigmatic figure in power aroused numerous concerns and anxieties among civil activists. One year after Zelenky’s inauguration, it is time to see if those concerns were justified.
Apparently, the relationship between Zelensky and institutionalized civil society got off to a bad start. A couple of days after the inauguration ceremony, on May 23, 2020, several NGOs sent an open letter to the new president listing the so-called “red lines” regarding the economy, foreign policy, transparent governance, freedom of the press, and language issues that Zelensky was urged not to cross. The letter signaling the clear distrust civic activists had towards the newly elected leader has been by now signed by more than 60 organizations yet has received no response. Appealing to “ordinary Ukrainians,” Zelensky seemed to demonstrate similar distrust for professional civil society activists largely shaped during the Poroshenko years and built on foreign grants. The only meeting he chose to have with civil society representatives was one with just a handful of volunteers working with internally displaced persons and veterans from the military conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.
The snap elections to the Ukrainian parliament in July 2019, though, brought hope and optimism. As Zelensky’s Servant of the People became the first party in Ukraine to secure a majority without forming a coalition, the record number of new faces, volunteers and civil society activists among them, entered Verkhovna Rada reflecting people’s desire for a new type of politician. Both Zelensky and public institution representatives have been continuously confirming their readiness to listen to the people and engage in an open dialogue with civil society and experts in policy-making at the level of parliamentary committees. In fact, however, the need for quick changes, often prioritized over well-balanced and informed decision-making, resulted in a situation where the vast majority of new laws are developed and submitted for voting in parliament by the office of the president without open hearings with the civil society representatives.
At the same time, unprecedentedly, for the first time in the last couple of decades, the institution of the president has a much higher level of public trust than civil society organizations. By the end of 2019, 62% of citizens stated that they fully or mostly trusted Zelensky while the level of trust in CSOs decreased from 24% in 2018 to 9 % in 2019. Moreover, Ukrainians became less keen on donating money to charity or CSOs. By the end of 2019, only some 25% of Ukrainians were supporting civil society and volunteers (compared to 38.5% in 2018 and 41% in 2017), which is similar to the 2013 level of support. One of the reasons for that, according to the experts, can be that now they tend to put their expectations for a better future on the new leader and his government rather than on civil society organizations and volunteers.
As of now, there is no regular or structured communication or cooperation between civil society organizations and the office of the president of the government. Sporadic meetings are taking place, bringing together MPs and civic activists, but so far they have not led to tangible outcomes. On the declaratory level, the issues that interest the government the most are those in the spectrum of justice, fighting corruption, decentralization, and energy efficiency. The integration of internally displaced people (IDPs), the digitalization of education, work with orphans or people with disabilities are also among the welcomed topics. Neither the president nor MPs are ready to express open support for more sensitive issues, such as gender equality and LGBTQ rights, and some activists even referred to the current parliament as more conservative than the previous one. As an illustration, in January 2020, the largest coalition, “Values. Dignity. Family”, was created in Verkhovna Rada, and 300 MPs from all the political parties joined this initiative created for the purpose of “popularizing and promoting a wide spectrum of world conservative ideas with the Ukrainian intellectual community.” In the meantime, the Istanbul Convention against domestic violence has been waiting for ratification since 2014, blocked by the Ukrainian council of churches and right-wing groups and initiatives.
In other words, a year of Zelensky’s presidency did not bring expected significant changes for civil society in Ukraine, either positive or negative. Still mostly dependent on foreign funding, institutionalized Ukrainian CSOs continued serving the same functions of awareness-raising among the general population and watchdogging state institutions as well as providing capacity-building assistance and communication platforms for the issues overlooked by the state. The lack of cooperation with the government and reluctance of the latter to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the activists prevents CSOs from bringing more change into Ukrainian policy-making. At the same time, the absence of a joint agenda shared by all CSOs as well as a lack of substantial popular support that could be turned into funding and mass mobilization does not allow them to turn into real political actors.