Promise (and Threat) of Civil Society in Ukraine and Russia

October 24, 2015
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Promise (and Threat) of Civil Society in Ukraine and Russia

The panel on civil society and the war included presentations by Sofia Tipaldou on the Russian “nationalist-patriotic” opposition and their influence on Russian foreign policy making, especially during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014-2015, and by Rosaria Puglisi on the civil society sector as a security actor in post-Maidan Ukraine.

Sofia Tipaldou’s research focused on extra-parliamentarian opposition as representatives of grass-root nationalist thinking in Russia. Tipaldou was primarily interested in the influence of Russian “nationalist-patriotic” opposition on Russia’s foreign policy, mainly because “nationalists together with liberals are the only remnants of the Russian opposition.” Because these forces are less under the government’s control, they are also less predictable. The research from which the presented data originated comes from interviews with representatives of these forces.

Sofia Tipaldou

Describing the situation around the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Tipaldou sketched the use of the terms such as “Novorossiia” and “Russian spring” that were coined by the Russian nationalist blogger Egor Kholmogorov and later adopted by Ukrainian and Russian media in their analysis of the conflict. Tipaldou also discussed the increase of the efforts by the Russian state in counteracting what was presented as “Russophobia” propagated by the Western media, which in turn motivated the activities of the state-sponsored media (Russia Today and others). Describing the sentiments among the “nationalist-patriotic” forces, Tipaldou outlined an ideological split among those who believe that Putin’s policies are “anti-Russian,” that Ukraine is not a separate nation, that the autonomy of the Donbas region would be better under Kyiv’s government than under Putin’s “anti-Russian” government, and a rejection of both the “vatniks” and what they call “Ukro-Turks” who in their view should fight it out to mutual extermination.

The movements studied in the project include Russian National Unity (RNE), National Bolshevik Party (NBP), Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI, later Russkie), and Russian People’s Movement (ROD). Most of these movements offer combat-training to their members and some of them sent “volunteers” to participate in the military action, including “tourist trips” to the front lines.

Talking about the “volunteers,” Tipaldou described them as usually young men driven by their Romantic beliefs and without any military experience, while actual mercenaries are usually former members of Russian special forces with military experience (often connected to the Russian far-right political leader Aleksandr Barkashov).

Concluding, Tipaldou stressed that the “nationalist-patriotic” forces subscribe to disparate and often contradictory ideological beliefs and the events in Ukraine have increased their divide. The “nationalist-patriotic” scene is divided, and the opponents to “Russian spring” are marginalized. Additionally, in the course of events, the national-patriotic movements changed their focus from public actions of symbolic significance to development of military potential.

Rosaria Puglisi focused in her presentation on the question of what it means to have civil society as a security actor in Ukraine. The civil society is understood here as the intermediate layer between the state and the individual, outside the market and family, mobilizing voluntarily in structured organizations as well as in spontaneous grassroot networks to engage in activities that are considered to correspond to the public good. Puglisi pointed to the relevant distinction between hromads’kyi sektor [civil sector] and hromads’ke suspil’stvo [civil society].

Puglisi described the Ukrainian situation of the failure of the state about 5-6 weeks prior to the Russian incursion in Ukraine that has created the need for the civil society to intervene due to urgency for assistance; this is precisely what opened a window of opportunity for society’s participation. The main role for such participation has been oversight and transparency creation. Civil society groups operated specifically as security actor in the fields of hard security, logistics and procurement, and democratic oversight.

Rosaria Puglisi

Existing models of institutional representation include Ministry of Defense (as the civil “virus” in the ministry – group of volunteers who were prior to this involved in procurement for the army) and Ministry of the Interior (civil society council in the ministry, a kind of advisory board). The main challenges in discussion of the civil society’s participation include the definition of the civil society (which groups are actual representatives), their effectiveness vs. inclusion, state institutions vs. civil society, control vs. oversight.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, Anna Colin Lebedev pointed out that a discussion of the Russian “nationalist-patriotic” opposition by using the term “opposition” does not entirely encompass these movements’ interaction with the state – perhaps it is worth to drop that concept and look at the “fluidity of interaction between the state and these groups,” as they often complement each other, Lebedev suggested. In regards to the military training that these groups provide to their members, Lebedev raised the question whether it can be viewed as a method of socialization in contemporary Russian society.

A number of questions also focused on the possible negative impact that the activities of the grassroot volunteer groups could have on the state institutions. Well-known examples include instance of use of violence by the volunteer groups, as well as their instrumentalization by the oligarchic clans to advance their own political or economic interests (Kolomois’kyi and the situation around Naftohaz, Ukrainian oil and gas monopolist controlled by Kolomois’kyi’s Privat group). In response to this, Puglisi argued that the state needs to find a way to integrate the volunteer movement into state institutions – examples of this are those volunteer activists who have joined political parties and become deputies in the Ukrainian parliament.

Joshua Tucker raised the question of the threat that the militant “volunteers” could pose to Vladimir Putin’s regime once they return home from Eastern Ukraine or the Middle East. Tucker asked about how they are treated by the regime when they go back, especially because of the threat of social destabilization that they potentially pose.

Sofia Tipaldou shared her observation, based on an interview with a former fighter in Ukraine’s East, that those who return home indeed focus their activities increasingly on domestic political goals.

Hilde Haug raised the question of the necessary steps to avoid a marginalization of the civil society, to which Rosaria Puglisi responded that the state’s efforts should be directed at it, because one of the main demands of the Euromaidan revolution was greater participation of the society in running the state.

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