Ukraine is rightly considered to be a country with a vibrant civil society and numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) that push various agendas. However, the daunting task of bringing reforms to many domains inevitably raises the questions of prioritising, effectiveness, alliance-building, and competition. Presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019 led to […]

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Ivan Gomza


Ukraine is rightly considered to be a country with a vibrant civil society and numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) that push various agendas. However, the daunting task of bringing reforms to many domains inevitably raises the questions of prioritising, effectiveness, alliance-building, and competition. Presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019 led to significant restructuring within the Ukrainian political class. Only 19.6% of MPs kept their mandates in the new parliament. The executive branch also witnessed a massive arrival of actors with little previous experience in either politics or policymaking. The landslide transformations of 2019 offer new opportunities but also pose new challenges to both reforms and reform-minded civic actors. It is within these structural settings that the role of the civil society in Ukraine should be examined. 


Although NGOs, CSOs, and social movements in general represent one of the preferred instruments that citizens utilise to influence governmental policy, scholars have long debated whether it indeed is as powerful as it is supposed to be. Both national and cross-national studies signal that social movements have at best a moderate effect on state policy. NGOs, however, tend to be much more effective when they ally themselves with a political party or, at least, cooperate with a party that represents the NGO’s claims within institutional settings. In other words, institutionalisation, which is a process when CSOs ‘enter formal politics and engage with authoritative institutions in order to enhance their collective ability to achieve desirable goals’, is a significant component of CSOs’ overall efficacy. 

The year 2019 witnessed a notable progress in CSOs’ thrust towards institutionalisation in Ukraine. The presidential race and, to an even larger extent, the parliamentary election created a set of favourable conditions that contributed to this development.

First, most of the contenders aimed to capitalise on the perennial expectations of Ukrainian voters ‘to see new faces in politics’. Hence, electoral calculations made institutional political actors more receptive towards cooperation with civil society. In particular, political parties were eager to recruit notable individuals from various CSOs to bolster their own chances for success. Two out of five parties that eventually entered the parliament were total novices (the Servant of the People and Voice parties); therefore, they badly needed human resources readily available in NGOs.

In the final account, many notable activists entered politics (e.g. Oleksandra Ustinova and Olha Stefanyshyna with the Voice, Halyna Yanchenko and Anastasiya Krasnosilska with the Servant of the People, Sofiya Fedyna and Yana Zinkevych with the European Solidarity). Being now a part of the legislative, former activists have better chances to influence the law-making in domains of their expertise. In particular, as MPs, they enjoy a more substantial sway over four crucial aspects of advocacy – agenda setting, legislative content, passage, and implementation.

Indeed, due to a keen interest of former activists in promoting reforms in a given sphere (for instance, Ustinova and Krasnosilska push the anti-corruption legislation; Stefanyshyna works to improve health care, whereas Zinkevych advances bills regarding veterans), a somewhat quicker pace in reform delivery is to be expected.     

Second, there is a significant change in the activities by which NGOs aspire to influence policymaking in Ukraine. Prior to 2019, they used to focus on formation and education of ‘emerging leaders’, that is, they sought to raise a new generation of individuals who might one day try to become political operatives. (See, for example, initiatives by the Ukrainian School of Political Studies, Eidos, or Ukrainian Institute for the Future.) The influx of inexperienced MPs to the legislature, combined with significant public demand for better public policy, offered a new venue for institutionalisation – short-term instruction for untried deputies in law-making, parliamentary procedures, relations with the executive branch, and even basic civic education.

Despite all the derision with which the Ukrainian public met the ‘boot camps for MPs’, many CSOs (e.g. the Ukrainian School of Political Studies and Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law) carry out such educational events. In doing this, they, presumably, want to kill three birds with one stone:

  • to promulgate policies of a better quality since knowledgeable MPs are expected to make better choices and propose better laws;
  • to instil MPs with values and convictions partially commensurable with CSOs’ own agendas;
  • to forge a network of useful connections that might be advantageous for furthering NGOs’ goals. The best illustration of the latter outcome is the case of Tymofiy Mylovanov, who had assumed the post of the honorary president of Kyiv School of Economics, a private educational institution, and was first to invite newly elected MPs to a week-long study; this landed him an offer to become the minister of Economic Development.

The third aspect of the ‘institutionalisational turn of civic actors’ is a conscious rejection by NGOs of confrontational style when dealing with authorities. Although contentious politics remains a part of the arsenal of tools used by the civil society, many CSOs shifted towards conciliatory and non-provocative interaction with politicians, political institutions, and governmental agencies. Such NGOs as CenterUA or Eidos develop long-term programmes to advance fruitful cooperation between activists and local authorities. Thus, contrary to earlier studies that demonstrated CSOs’ ‘generally antagonistic relationship towards local and regional authorities’, there is a reversal trend, which might be attributed to new opportunities offered by reshuffling of the political class in 2019.

To summarise, the trend towards institutionalisation became more prominent in Ukraine in 2019. The opinion of Svitlana Matvienko, head of the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, that ‘there is nothing insane if one wants to be an MP, a politician, or an executive at local administration, for this is a path towards personal growth’ captures neatly the new mindset of the activist community. Although it not clear whether (or for how long) the opportunities to enter institutional politics will still be around, it is undeniable that the current state of affairs provides additional advantages for civic actors to promote their agendas.

Reforms: Agendas and Challenges in 2019

Civil society in Ukraine still has many tasks to tend to. In fact, most of the reforms that have already been launched are subject to continuing struggle, because the basic feature of policies in Ukraine is reversibility. No reforms are safeguarded against abrupt governmental volte-faces, pending due to inimical court rulings, paralysis caused by bureaucratic sabotage, etc.

Consequently, the plethora of reform agendas followed by the civil society is seemingly unchanged since 2014: anti-corruption, police, prosecutorial office, healthcare system. Most of these cases can boast only mixed results. The much-celebrated police reform is now viewed with reservation, for many corrupted police officers found their way back into the system despite special examinations. The case of Kateryna Handziuk, whose murder has not been properly investigated, galvanised contentious actions against the minister of Interior and the public prosecutor during 2019. The positive trends in the healthcare system are under threat because of the policies of the new minister of Health and President Zelenskyy’s opposition to them.

Anti-corruption is arguably the preferable domain for many CSOs due to both a pressing need for quenching corruption in Ukraine and generous subventions by public and international donors (e.g. USAID and the EU) who stimulate anti-corruption initiatives by civil society. Some CSOs have developed inspiring initiatives. Transparency International manages a project to assess the accountability of local governances in 100 biggest cities in Ukraine. The Anti-Corruption Action Centre offers citizens a tool to monitor the tax expenditure, combining accomplishments of ProZorro (open-source government e-procurement system) and mandatory publishing of income declarations for all officials. In 2019 alone, the Centre of Policy and Legal Reform organised 43 events to address the challenges of corruption and strategies to fight it.

All resources and efforts notwithstanding, deficiencies of anti-corruption reforms are flagrant. The High Anti-Corruption Court started to work with a two-year delay, handing down its first sentence on October 30, 2019, and civic actors themselves are unsure whether it could provide the expected results. In addition, they signal to unsatisfactory results of the so-called anti-corruption infrastructure: The National Agency for Corruption Prevention proved unable to function efficiently; the specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office wages political warfare and enjoys no public trust; the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine is paralysed.

Finally, according to polls, the public in general has rather contradictory notions of corruption Ukraine: Whereas 93.7% of respondents believe corruption is a pressing issue (thus making it one of top three concerns, with low wages and military action in eastern Ukraine), only 11.5% took any steps to fight it. Moreover, citizens tend to condemn corruption by top officials while simultaneously condoning (and even participating in) everyday corruption. Besides, contrary to scholarly conclusions that ‘punitive measures on their own can only have a limited effect on reducing corruption’, the public believes that severe punishments are the best way to stifle corruption.

Therefore, the plethora of anti-corruption activities by NGOs fails so far to produce tangible results in two crucial aspects: institutional consolidation of anti-corruption measures and public perception of corruption. It is advisable that civic actors focus on the latter in order to lay foundation for anti-corruption culture in Ukrainian society. As to the former, institutionalisation discussed above might be a good solution.

Finally, contrary to appearances, the landscape of reforms is not totally fixed. A good illustration of emerging agendas is the land market reform unexpectedly rose to top priorities in 2019. Paradoxically, initiated in 1992, the land reform is one of the most long-lasting initiatives in Ukraine. Despite persistence and continuing invitation by international agencies to accomplish it, the land reform has always enjoyed lesser priority on the list of civil society concerns. For instance, in a detailed analytical paper by the Reanimation Package of Reforms Coalition in 2017, the land reform was granted only two pages of infographics instead of a full-fledged discussion as in the cases of judicial or public policy reforms.

The deprioritised status, however, changed in 2019. The very same Reanimation Package of Reforms Coalition organised a host of events to promote the lift of the moratorium on agricultural land sale. After the parliamentary election, the issue witnessed cooperation between MPs (e.g. Yulia Klymenko from the Voice, Maryan Zablotskyi from the Servant of the People), CSOs (e.g. the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law), and officials. The hinge factor was institutionalisation again. The new minister of Economic Development, Tymofiy Mylovanov, espoused a vigorous approach to land reform, eventually advancing amendments to the law regulating the land market in Ukraine supported by the president. Civil society participated in discussing, elaborating on, and fine-tuning the land reform, but it would not have been possible without receptiveness by the political class.


Both agenda setting and reform implementation are contingent upon cooperation with officials and authorities. In 2019, a significant restructuring of the political class due to presidential and parliamentary elections provided valuable opportunities for civic actors to enter institutional conventional politics, thus considerably improving their chances to further desirable transformation. However, being a necessary condition for reform success, cooperation with authorities comes with notable strings attached: In case national or local elites consider the reforms to be incongruent with their interests, they can effectively grind those reforms to a halt. Therefore, civil society should invest more effort in creating a vision of reforms in crucial spheres such as corruption or policing as a public good and convincing the elites that attainment of this public good would serve the higher strategic interest of the elites as well as that of the population.

Publication “Ukraine: Great Expectation” is prepared within the project “Ukraine Elections in Focus”, supported by the Black Sea Trust, a Project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust and its partners