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The land of free people. How reforms and civil society push Ukrainian democracy forward

On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine in an attempt to overthrow the country’s democratic government and install a puppet regime. Now, Ukrainians are defending their country and values with their blood. Not only does Ukrainian society fight for its own freedom but for democracy at all and the right to build its own future as a European country. 

The EU flag was installed in the Ukrainian parliament after Ukraine’s candidate status to join the EU was approved in late June.
Photo: Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine official webportal

For Ukraine, democracy is not just a word. It is values ​​that have always been important for Ukrainians: we have always fought for these ideals at various levels of society. This text is an attempt to introduce you to our struggle for democracy and the tools that work for Ukraine in times of great challenges.

Ukrainians made their democratic choice and paid for it

Modern Ukrainian democracy started 31 years ago, in 1991, when Ukraine restored its independence. Since that time, seven presidential elections have been held in Ukraine. One of them was considered fraud, and it led to the Orange Revolution in 2004. People protested against falsifications and lies, and a re-vote was done. Apart from that, all presidents and members of the parliament were chosen legally in Ukraine.

People filled the Indepandance Square in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution in 2004.

In 2013, thousands of Ukrainians went to the streets once again: now under EU flags to protest against the refusal of then pro-Russian government to sign the association agreement with the European Union. More than a hundred people gave their lives for this civilized choice. In the following year, Russia occupied Crimea and started the war in Donbas as Ukraine was going forward with its desire to build a truly strong European democracy. 

Amid the full-scale Russian invasion, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, signed an application for membership of Ukraine in the European Union. It was the 4th day of war: Russians were attacking Ukraine from all possible sides, their tanks were kilometers from Kyiv and analysts believed that the invasion would end in a few days with the quick capture of the Ukrainian capital. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy signes an application for membership of Ukraine in the European Union. February 28, 2022.
Photo: Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Despite those, Ukraine is standing strong and striving to the future it has chosen. Both now and for hundreds of years prior, Ukrainians are fighting for freedom, democracy, and dignity because we have no other option: it is the question of existence. 

Developed and self-organized civil society is a key

First and foremost, it’s people. The war showed that Ukrainians formed a well-organized civil society that is ready to contribute to the victory and liberation of Ukraine. A whole country is united in order to fight against the Russian invaders. 

Even prior to the full-scale war, Ukrainian democracy would never be possible without civil society introducing effective solutions to existing problems and threats, advocating for them, and then getting involved in their implementation. As an example, in the summer of 2019, 18 non-governmental organizations formed the Agenda for installing Justice recording proposals for judicial reforms. And, notably, the most crucial laws adopted by the new Parliament during the next three years repeated the proposals introduced by civil society.

Watchdog journalism also plays a great role in fulfilling the will of the people. Plenty of media investigations formed the basis of criminal cases investigated by law enforcement agencies.

People on a protest that grew up to be the Revolution of dignity. The poster says “Europe begins with you”. Kyiv, 2013.
Photo: Getty Images

Ukrainians are also famous for their vibrant protests. If the government does not hear its people, Ukrainians are ready to go to the streets to show their disagreement with certain decisions and events. 

From the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, teams of public activists opened their international front. The main goal has been to advocate for weapons for Ukraine to help win the war, sanctions for Russia, its high officials and oligarchs, punishment of war criminals, and many more.

“Stop promising, start acting!” demonstration in support of Ukraine in Warsaw, Poland. March 25, 2022.
Video: Anticorruption Action Centre

Ukrainians decided to talk about those issues not only with politicians but also with foreigners who brought these politicians to power. Mass actions were organized in Warsaw, Brussels, Washington, and Berlin gathering tens of thousands of people in support of Ukraine. 

Along with democratic society, democratic institutions arose

Ukrainians understood that changes should be implemented qualitatively and quickly – this is a matter of building institutions for the country’s survival. After the Revolution of Dignity, Ukrainians got a historic chance for change and did not miss it. Namely: 

– Starting from 2015, the process of institutional reforms has intensified with the new law on civil service. One of the crucial components of the reform was the improvement of the recruitment system and performance-oriented management. As a result, new personnel with high motivation and new approaches were attracted to the civil service through transparent multi-stage competitions. 

– The decentralization reform made it possible to form effective local governments capable of providing a comfortable and safe environment for people to live throughout Ukraine. The reform helped to increase revenues of the local budgets significantly and build more trust as well as responsibility within the communities, as the decision-making and planning process was shifted to the local level. 

– Promising judicial reform was launched, despite Russia’s full-scale invasion. New members of the High Council of Justice were chosen. Among them – a lawyer and a civil society activist Roman Maselko. He swapped a high-flying corporate career to fight against corruption and find justice for those who lost their lives during the Revolution of Dignity. He is an example of a person with an activism background who now continues his fight for justice in the top judicial body. 

Roman Maselko was appoined as a New members of the High Council of Justice on August 15, 2022.
Photo: Yaroslav Zhelezniak

– A vast number of transparency tools have been introduced. Digitization is of great importance here, as Ukraine is one of the leaders in the world in this field. For example, it is now possible to open and close a business or issue some other documents in a minute without excessive bureaucracy or corruption. Electronic management of criminal proceedings is being introduced as well. 

Іmplemented transparency tools also help journalists and activists in their work. For instance, e-declaration of property and income of officials, electronic reporting about assets and income by political parties, rules for resolving conflicts of interest, disclosure of information on all public expenditures and public procurement, disclosure of information on beneficiaries of legal entities; protection of whistleblowers and ability to report about corruption quickly is guaranteed.

– Anti-corruption infrastructure was built from scratch. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the Specialized Anti-Corruption Infrastructure, the High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC), the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP), and the Agency for Investigation and Asset Management were established. And today they are already working: more than 850 cases are being investigated by the NABU, the HACC has made 81 decisions, and the NACP is carefully reviewing more than a thousand declarations annually.

Exporter of unique experience in building a democracy

With such a wide experience of ups and downs, Ukraine is becoming the leader in the region as other countries are importing unique solutions developed in Ukraine. In particular, Moldova is now implementing judicial reform based on the Ukrainian model, and Armenia established a corruption prevention commission following Ukraine’s experience. 

Building strong and stable democracies in the region is one of the best defenses against Russia and its aggression. That is precisely what Russia, as an authoritarian country, is afraid of. 

Thousands of people gathered to protest their right to choose democracy and European future during the Revolution of Dignity.
Photo: Andrii Kravchenko

Today, Ukraine is a democracy that has clearly defined its path and is fighting for it. But it is also fighting for the future of other democracies and the safety of the world. “The war in Ukraine is a war in general for values: life, democracy, freedom. So this is a war all over the world,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. And not winning this war can be very costly not just for Ukrainians but for the whole world.