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Eastern Partnership toward Western Perspective – Role of Ukrainian Civil Society

November 11, 2010
By Oleh Rybachuk
By Oleh Rybachuk

Ukraine needs strategic thinking today. 

Ukraine is neither in the European Union nor in NATO. Ukraine is an eastern outpost for the West and a western threshold of Europe for the East. Ukraine has the EU’s main gas artery and the Black Sea Russian fleet. Ukraine has Russia as its main neighbor. That is the summary of where Ukraine stands today in the geopolitical reference system.
In 2005 the democratic forces won the right for Ukraine to follow the pro-European development model and have since lost the possibility of following it. Integration with the European structures and the system of collective safety became hostage to external political conditions and infinite internal political peripeties. Today, it is not worth knocking at the window to Europe that was opened for Ukraine by the Orange Revolution. New windows should be opened. A new concept of Ukraine’s foreign policy should be created that meets present-day global challenges.

Ukraine needs strategic thinking today, and the EU’s Eastern Partnership can help achieve this. This initiative opens to Ukraine the possibilities of integrating into Europe and at the same time lays the potential for regional leadership. It provides far-reaching support for political and economic transformations and processes of modernization, promotes the introduction of EU standards and the subsequent assessment of eastern partners to the EU. 

Are there risks? No doubt. One is if Ukraine would be able to utilize these opportunities. Certainly, responsibility must be taken not only by Ukraine. Success depends on both sides.  

Another danger is that Moscow takes the Eastern Partnership as an opportunity to strengthen its influence in the post-soviet region, which is known as “Russia’s legitimate sphere of interest.” In fact, any steps by Ukraine toward Europe have so far met with strong resistance from Russia. Many Eastern European states have had this same experience – Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and others. Ukraine will succeed in facing this challenge only by following its own state interests. And efficiency, including that of the Eastern Partnership, depends on the ability of Ukrainian leaders to play as one team, have common goals, and actively involve society in fulfilling them. 

The Eastern Partnership deserves some criticism. In particular, this political initiative has not fixed the prospects of membership in the EU for Ukraine and other participants. That is, the EU has not stated its own role in the strategic development of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. However, it does not mean that Ukraine cannot take advantage of the Eastern Partnership format to form far-sighted plans. Civil society can play a key role in this process, too.

Modern policy is not made by government officials only. In the developed countries, the public has a great influence. The third sector criticizes, offers, pushes, helps, supervises, and so forth. It plays an important role in policy democratization. Ukraine is moving in this direction, albeit slowly. The Eastern Partnership opens new opportunities for civil society organizations (CSO) in Ukraine.

First of all, this initiative may ensure civil society dialogue between the European Union and partner countries, based on the model of such dialogues with the candidate countries. It may include, among other things, people-to-people contacts and exchanges involving representatives of civil society organizations, students and academics, journalists, art professionals; the development of contacts and cooperation between local communities; town twinning; and support for the development of civil society on the part of the European Union through the instruments already tested in the candidate countries.

The European Commission has already proposed “to support the further development of civil society organizations and to create Civil Society Forum with the aim to promote contacts between CSOs and to facilitate their dialogue with state authorities.” The forum officially started working in November 2009. In the practical sense, it gives public organizations the chance to join in the development and the implementation of both bilateral (Ukraine-EU), and multilateral (participation by all members of the Eastern Partnership) programs and projects within the limits of this initiative. 

One of the valuable possibilities the Eastern Partnership provides for civil society is the development of human contacts. As an obvious leader, Ukraine can create interesting NGO platforms together with other partners – Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova. Formats of communications can be offered by Ukraine at the level of experts, analysts, youth representatives, and others. Ukraine can initiate the creation of public organization networks. European integration experience of Ukraine in many fields today is a good product for export to neighboring countries. Becoming the leader of such a market, Ukraine can present itself not simply as a neighbor of the European Union, but as strong regional player. The development of this potential in many respects depends upon civil society. Communication and personal links in modern information societies are not less important, than, for example, economic cooperation. 

Another possibility provided by the Eastern Partnership is the development of dialogue between society, public organizations, and power structures, which has to be promoted and developed by CSOs. Today’s Ukrainian society requires effective mechanisms and tools of influence for the governmental structures, as well as experience regarding their use. Elections cannot only be a display of people’s attitudes toward power. Democracy should be expressed in a responsible daily dialogue between the society and the power structure. It is the third sector that has the role of building such a dialogue from the ground up. As a matter of fact, the third sector is in the vanguard of democratic transformations in the country. 

The Eastern Partnership also offers a good chance to provide effective communication with the European institutions at all levels and to allow for public opinion for the development of concrete programs and projects. There have already been some positive experiences in this direction. In 2008 the Public Expert Council under the Ukrainian part of the Committee on Co-operation between Ukraine and the EU developed and submitted proposals concerning development of the Eastern Partnership initiative. They have been taken into consideration both by the Ukrainian and the European governmental structures. 

One European diplomat said me once that, when EU work on the Eastern Partnership began, the Chinese became interested. They believed that this project concerned their region. In effect Ukraine and five other post-Soviet countries turned out to be “eastern partners” for the Europeans. The Eastern Partnership implies the potential of western prospect for Ukraine, and the civil society should embrace this opportunity.

Oleh Rybachuk is head of the board of Souspilnist Foundation.