Is there a relationship between a strong civil society and the capacity of the state to act and perform its functions? As the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) has shown in its recently published 2015 edition, not necessarily.
New Zealand, Canada, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are all examples of countries in which the state’s performance significantly exceeds its accountability to non-governmental actors involved in policy-making. Meanwhile in Luxembourg, Germany, Iceland, Austria, Belgium or the Czech Republic, a strong civil society does not always go hand in hand with a capacity to act on the part of the state.
The situation in the latter group of countries is also very much the story of Ukraine, although the contrast between state and civil society is possibly much greater. After the events of EuroMaidan in 2014, Ukraine emerged as a state which can be described as dysfunctional in many ways.
Four years of Viktor Yanukovych’s rule and the protracted reforms of the past decades led to a situation in which the state had been ‘captured’ by a small group of individuals who wielded political and economic power to serve their own interests at the expense of society. This situation was further exacerbated by the war in eastern Ukraine and economic crisis.
Maidan, 7 March 2014. streetwrk.com / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
At the same time, today, Ukraine’s civil society appears to be stronger and more vibrant than ever, to the extent that it has come to exercise many functions that are traditionally the responsibility of the state.
This new quality of civil society emerged following the failure of reforms after the Orange Revolution in 2004, the backlash of authoritarianism produced by this failure, and the success of the protest movement, despite the violence, to survive and bring about the transition of power to the anti-Yanukovych opposition.
Civil society and the international donors underlie successful reforms
Since the end of the EuroMaidan, Ukraine has undertaken a number of reforms, including: the launch of public broadcasting; the adoption of anti-corruption measures including the formation of an independent authority (the National Anti-Corruption Bureau) to fight high-level corruption; a reform of the natural gas market aimed at replacing the old non-transparent system with a liberalised domestic market; first steps to improve the business climate to stimulate entrepreneurship; and the replacement of Kiev’s traffic police, infamous for bribery, with a new US-trained police force.
What’s more, the Ukrainian government has begun implementing the Association Agreement, a document in negotiation since 2007, and which now lays the foundations for an overhaul of the entire system of governance.
Many of these reforms have been possible due to pressure from civil society. On the one hand, civil society has kept ambitions high; on the other, it has provided the necessary expertise.
Immediately after the protests ended in February 2014, a platform of civil society experts, the Reanimation Package of Reforms, was launched. This alliance drafted a Reforms Roadmap that was signed by all political parties with a chance of gaining seats in the October 2014 parliamentary elections. It subsequently served as a basis for the parliamentary coalition agreement and the government’s reform plan.
A number of laws promoted by this platform have already been passed, and its members continue to provide expertise and monitor the work of public institutions. In June 2015, several leading think tanks launched the Coalition for Social Index of Reforms, a project designed to monitor the reform process and raise awareness in this regard among citizens and donors.
Limiting the room for maneuver of political elites
The other side of the coin is the involvement of international donors. After the transition of power in Ukraine in 2014, the European Union (EU) and other donors were quick to offer a new support package. The EU, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development offered support totaling €11 billion for the period leading up to 2020, of which up to €1.4 billion consist of bilateral grants, while the remainder is made up of loans.
Moreover, the European Commission created the Support Group for Ukraine, which provides expert assistance for reforms—an unprecedented step for a country outside the EU. The Commission also helped to organise the International Conference on Support for Ukraine in April 2015.
However, assistance from donors and pressure from civil society would not have sufficed if it were not for conditionality, an important tool which donors have made increasing use of in dealing with Ukraine.
Conditionality links the allocation of funds to performance. Especially now, as Ukraine is undergoing an economic crisis and society might not be willing to tolerate hardships for so long, receiving external assistance can almost be equated with political survival. This situation makes the Ukrainian authorities vulnerable to donors’ demands. It is the relationship between the demands of civil society and those of donors that can significantly limit the room for maneuver for political elites.
If donors were disclosing what exactly their conditions are, this pressure would increase even more. Thus far, all that is publicly known is based on information leaked to the media. The donors should make their assistance conditional on the implementation of certain legislation, not only the adoption of laws, in order to ensure the success of reforms.
Whether or not this will result in sustainable political will and a qualitative change that will translate into strengthened capacity on the part of the state remains to be seen. For the time being, it is professionals from the private sector, and not career politicians, that have taken important high-level posts in the government.
Their ambitions are professional rather than political in nature, they possess important management skills, they speak fluent English, and they are free of informal clientele networks. This fact alone is promising, but it is not sufficient.