Ukrainian civil society has become something of a paradox over the past year. Following former president Yanukovych’s ouster in February of 2014, civil society organizations successfully guided the country through a difficult transfer of power. From February to April 2014, it was the Maidan self-defense groups that fought back separatist uprisings and a Russian-backed invasion, and maintained order in Ukrainian cities that lacked functional police forces. Since then, however, they have been reluctant to give power back to the governmental institutions that have failed the Ukrainian people for so many years.

Using forms of self-organization created on the Maidan (self-defense, counter-propaganda, advocacy, fund-raising, and other civil society groups), independent actors have taken over some of the state’s responsibilities in responding to war and political crises. In doing so, they saved the Ukrainian state from collapse in the short-term, but also created critical obstacles for the state’s development in the medium-term. Resolution of this paradox is crucial for the fate of Ukraine: moving forward, the government in Kyiv will have to rebalance its relationship with these actors, particularly when it comes to security issues.

In their seminal book, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart describe the state as a set of institutions fulfilling a set of exclusive functions. Two of these functions lie at the state’s core: a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (by the police and the army) and administrative control. When the government fails to preserve its monopoly on these functions, a “sovereignty gap”—a gap between de jure sovereignty the state’s de facto ability to serve its people—emerges. The bigger the gap, the more reason to believe the state has failed.

In reality, states rarely fail completely. More frequently, governments are temporarily unable to fulfill some of their major responsibilities, which may lead to an inability to meet the needs of the people. However, there are also examples of non-state actors stepping in when governmental structures are temporary unable to fulfill these essential tasks.

Ukraine falls into the latter category. Since President Yanukovych’s flight to Russia, post-Maidan civic actors have supported the state’s military response to the war and even helped it assert administrative control over the country. Several groups of civilians led by self-defense activists were the first to organize themselves into “volunteer battalions” who fought against the anti-Maidan separatist groups trying to take over administrative offices in cities in southeastern Ukraine.

In addition, several huge networks were organized to collect money and purchase equipment for those battalions, and later, for the Ukrainian army’s regular detachments. In an attempt to enhance efficiency and gain legitimacy, Ukraine’s transitional cabinet (which was in office from February to November 2014) allowed non-state actors to fulfill five functions:

  1. Defense: Empowering volunteer battalions to fight against Russian intervention and separatist uprisings in the eastern part of the country;
  2. Internal security: Enlisting self-defense groups to police cities and towns nationwide;
  3. Counter-propaganda: Urging civil society groups to battle Russian propaganda about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and promotion of separatism in the Donbas;
  4. Elections: Allowing civil society leaders to create alternative activist networks to ensure open and honest voting; and
  5. Lustration: Allowing activists to push for changes among power elites, mainly in public service (particularly in local administrations and courts). Groups raided offices in Kyiv and in regional centers, and removed (not always justly) officials associated with the Yanukovych regime. Later, they created a group that pressured the president and prime-minister to work with parliament to pass a new law on lustration.

Through their efforts in these five areas, non-state actors fulfilled important functions that the Ukrainian authorities were unable to and arguably saved the state from collapse.

But as a side effect, civil society now plays an outsized role in Ukrainian politics. It buttressed Ukraine’s chances of surviving post-revolutionary fragmentation and war. Civil society advocated the public interest and made public institutions act more efficiently in addressing it. The CHESNO movement continued to oversee parliament’s work day in and day out; a network of civil committees controlled the lustration of public officials in key governmental agencies; and the Reanimation Package of Reforms initiative spearheaded reform efforts.

However, at a certain point in the conflict, civil society transcended the realm of advocacy, and began to act more independently. It began to resolve issues in areas where the government could not, eventually becoming a rival to the state in certain spheres. Non-state actors’ direct action and unprecedented political role gave rise to a paradox: civil society was able to address some of the Ukraine’s immediate challenges, but created new challenges for the nation’s political order.

Activists are increasingly involved in the political, economic and civil sectors, each of which has an important role to play in state-building. Certain public interests—honest elections leading to proper representation in parliament, or responsible and responsive governance, for example—need to be constantly monitored. Effective advocacy of these interests is at the core of civil society organizations’ mandate.

However, trouble begins when civil society organizations attempt to be more than watchdogs; when the “dog” is unleashed and enters politics. This poses a risk not only to the process of democratization, but also to the survival of the Ukrainian polity and the competitiveness of the economy. Civil society organizations’ expanding mandate poses a threat to the most significant political forces in Ukraine: oligarchs and the ruling class in government.

Traditionally, the Ukrainian political class has treated civil society organizations as either “agents of the West” or counter-elites undermining its rule. For their part, civil society leaders and activists trusted neither the government nor politicians. But with the inability of the political class to adequately respond to the situation in Ukraine last year, this mutual enmity has turned into competitive cooperation. Ruling groups and some civil society organizations have established certain forms of cooperation to solve problems critical for collective survival.

Oligarchic groups have long detested the “third sector,” considering it to be a dysfunctional rival in dealing with public issues. After the Orange Revolution, rent-seeking oligarchs created “private philanthropic organizations” that came to compete with major civic NGOs to influence the government, local communities, and international donors.

In 2014, a new phenomenon emerged, which threatens to corrupt civil society’s role in another way. Oligarchic groups recognized the functionality of civil society organizations and attempted to use them—sometimes through coercion—either to increase their rent or to defend their existing power and property. This misuse of civil society organizations by oligarchs to advance their own political or economic agenda has threatened the longer-term stability of Ukraine.

Igor Kolomoisky is the most high-profile oligarch to attempt to use civil society organizations to meet his own ends in recent months. He created a large network of private businesses; entities managing state-owned companies; bureaucrats in control of certain posts in central government and local communities in the south-east; and national and local media figures to promote his personal agenda. During the war, he employed a huge number of volunteer groups (including military battalions), organizations advocating lustration, and other NGOs that helped advance his own interests. They promoted the image of Kolomoisky as a “defender of the independence” of Ukraine, even after his men attempted a hostile takeover of state-owned gas transit company Ukrnafta on March 21, 2015.

Established oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov and Viktor Pinchuk, and up-and-comers like Arsen Avakov and Sergii Pashynsky are beginning to use Kolomoisky’s strategy. This emerging model abuses civil activists and plays on their desire to solve public problems through direct action. Oligarchs employ resources—financial, media and political—to help activists to take action they think is legitimate. But over time, oligarchs are charging a price for their support.

The coercive power of oligarchs is one of the major current threats for the development of civil society in Ukraine. Corruption remains a vexing issue that has impeded Ukraine’s political and economic development, as it has in other post-Soviet countries. It is at the heart of the nexus between politics and business. As seen in Kolomoisky’s network, some parts of civil society are now becoming involved in these corrupt schemes as well. In the end, the nexus between civil society, business, and politics will introduce a new shade of systemic corruption and reduce the resources for the further democratic development of Ukraine.

Mikhail Minakov is associate professor/docent in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and president of the Foundation for Good Politics. A longer version of his research paper (in Russian) can be read here.

  • Mikhail Minakov