There has been an observable shift in the EU’s approach to civil society in its neighbourhood over the last few years towards taking it more seriously and considering its representatives increasingly as important partners in attempted reform processes and democratization, thereby incremental boosting EU’s support for and engagement with the civil society in the Eastern neighbourhood. There are not too many of those, however, who know about the corresponding developmental processes, reasons for this shift, and thus, hardship experienced by devoted civil society communities in the Eastern partner countries for the sake of it.
Based primarily on findings from interviews with two members of the Ukrainian National Platform for the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (CSF) conducted independently of one another in March 2012 in Kyiv – Ihor Kohut, Chairman of the Board of the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, at that time a CSF country facilitator for Ukraine (2nd term) and a member of the CSF Steering Committee; and Svyatoslav Pavlyuk, then a Deputy Executive Director of the PAUCI Foundation (Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation), 1st country facilitator on behalf of Ukraine (2009-2010), the article offers a closer look at the development and functioning of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, especially into a significant role played by the civil society itself in it.
Plus if you have gotten lost in plenty of critique of the Eastern Partnership lamenting the absence of its tangible results, you have got another reason to read the following lines – if anybody has achieved anything in practice by means of the Eastern Partnership, it is just the civil society in the EU’s Eastern vicinity.
Origins of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum
With the launch of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and as a significant part of it, the European Commission (EC) suggested creation of the EaP Civil Society Forum as one of the multilateral institutions of the Partnership meant to serve, broadly speaking, to promote contacts among civil society organizations (including NGOs, trade unions, professional associations, employers’ organizations and other interested civil society actors) from the six East European and South Caucasus countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine), and to facilitate dialogue between them on the one hand and their public authorities as well as NGOs from the EU on the other hand.
The inaugural meeting of more than 200 civil society organizations (CSOs) from the EU member states and Eastern partner countries took place in Brussels on 16-17 November 2009. The Commission has encouraged the Forum to take on responsibility for its work gradually and to become a self-organizing structure. Attendees of the first meeting elected the Steering Committee, being re-elected for a one-year term at annual CSF plenary sessions since then and gathering four times a year. It is composed of six country facilitators (one on behalf every Eastern neighbourhood country), three delegates of CSOs based in the EU and co-ordinators (leader and a deputy of the CSF thematic working groups – representatives both from the EaP countries as well as from the EU, chosen by members of a particular WG). The Steering Committee has elaborated a procedure for selection of members of the CSF: following an invitation to submit expressions of interest issued by the Steering Committee and the European Commission/ EEAS prior to every CSF annual plenary meeting, interested parties apply for the participation in it and, at the same time, indicate their choice of a working group they want to get involved in. The Committee also prepares proposals of agenda and aims of these assemblies; and is in charge of an overall management of activities of the Forum throughout the year.
Asked how he has become a country facilitator on behalf of Ukraine within the EaP CSF in 2010, Ihor Kohut guessed that because of his previous experience with regional activities. (Actually, first, he replied smilingly: “Nobody wanted to take it.”). In the first CSF meeting, no election procedures were in place and the Forum’s leaders took their positions more or less randomly, without being aware of what to expect, what a new role brings to them, their CSOs or to a wider community of CSOs in their homeland.
Situation in the second plenary session in 2010 was pretty similar, a lot of confusion persisted, everything was being created. In this respect, it is important to recall as well how the Steering Committee he has been a member of had come to existence. At the time of the Prague Summit of May 2009 launching the Eastern Partnership, there was just a rough draft of a design of the Civil Society Forum, and the initial proposal of the European Commission reckoned only with annual meetings, working groups and some funding for them. It was Belarusian civil society who was pushing for a Steering Committee within the civil society branch of the EaP. The idea of establishing National Platforms was also introduced by civil society representatives from the partner countries. Belarusians and Armenians, first and foremost, have been “very interested and active from the very beginning” in terms of the CSF. Ukraine joined these efforts and realized it was time to become active as well. Their suggestions were largely accepted; it was a very “open, democratic process of creation”, Kohut said. So it (the CSF design) has happened to be built, he continued, adding in the same breath that much has been done on a voluntary basis, as to how the CSF has been organized and has pursued its activities. Moreover, it is up to every single National Platform how it organizes itself internally, to which doings it gets involved.
The process of establishing National Platforms for the EaP CSF in the six countries was launched in 2010. They bring together particular country’s CSOs interested in EU-related affairs, especially the Eastern Partnership. Founding conference of the Ukrainian National Platform took place on 2 February 2011 (besides the Commission and Ukrainian NGOs, external donors like the Soros Foundation or the International Renaissance Foundation had also contributed to its formation). Majority of participating CSOs wanted it to be a discussion site where they could reconcile their positions, and it was also meant to “involve into its activities the existing associations of civil society initiatives, such as the Public Expert Council under the Ukrainian Part of EU-Ukraine Cooperation Committee,” as stated by Kohut at the Conference. He saw it as “a possibility to unite the potential of many teams dealing with the European affairs across Ukraine”.
In September 2011, EU Delegations in the six neighbouring states organized meetings with members of National Platforms with the participation of their governmental representatives, in an effort to enhance their mutual dialogue and make it regular in the format of trilateral forums. It has been yet another demand of the CSF itself, for which it has gained the EU’s support.
The CSF through representatives of National Platforms (along with EU member states and Eastern partner countries’ officials) had also aided the content of the Eastern Partnership Roadmap. In February 2012, they were invited by EU Delegations to meetings dedicated to discussing the Roadmap being prepared by the EU (European Commission and the High Representative) and consulted with partners at that time. Its preparation was endorsed at the EaP Summit in Warsaw on 29-30 September 2011 and it is intended to guide the work under both bilateral and multilateral frameworks of the Eastern Partnership until the next EaP Summit to be held in Vilnius in autumn 2013 – it lists thematic areas, more or less specific objectives, expected outcomes resulting from their successful accomplishment, and it sketches means of EU support in this regard. “Enhanced role of the CSF National Platforms in EaP countries” is one of the targets. The Forum and its National Platforms (as well as the Euronest and CORLEAP) are not only “expected to play a greater role in achieving the Partnership’s goals” by other stakeholders but they have identified stepping up their engagement in these processes as “the most important goal” themselves.
Raising a status
Back in 2009, the Commission recommended that the CSF co-ordinators could be invited as ad hoc participants to the meetings of the EaP multilateral platforms as well as to the EaP ministerial meetings and EaP summits, in order to report on the CSF activities and present its recommendations. Since then, CSF representatives have presented a plenty of their opinions, initiatives and recommendations in sessions of other EaP multilateral structures or submitted them in a written form for consideration to the authorities many times. [Early examples include recommendations adopted during the CSF plenary sessions in Brussels (2009) and Berlin (2010) which were presented in the EaP Foreign Ministerial meetings in December 2009 and December 2010; participation of CSF representatives in consultations on the EU trade policy towards the EaP countries that have been organized as a response to one of the CSF recommendations, etc.] What is more, the CSF itself has been striving for gaining a permanent (not just an ad hoc) participant status in the EaP thematic platforms allowing them to attend the platform meetings and providing them with an access to a bunch of information they had been denied previously. So, as Kohut put it, the participant status was offered by the Commission first but this happened just after a lot of appeal, numerous activities, letters, etc.
By its third plenary session in Poznan (28-29 November 2011), the Forum had been engaged in the work of several working panels established under the thematic platforms and achieved permanent participant status in the meetings of the latter that was renewed on 15 November 2012 for another year. Plus, in 2012, the CSF was invited to the Euronest (Eastern Partnership Parliamentary Assembly), he completed. Last but not least, the Civil Society Forum had been invited to become a permanent observer of the annual CORLEAP (Conference of the Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership) prior to its very first meeting in September 2011.
In the event, a CSF representative pointed at, among other issues, a need to involve civil society as one of the main partners to decentralization processes in the EaP countries, and encouraged local governments to strengthen their co-operation with CSOs “in order to ensure implementation of citizen-oriented policies and enhance their independence from national government”.
So far, only members of the Steering Committee could have used the right of a permanent observer of activities of other EaP multilateral settings. However, the CSF has attempted to change it in order to bring more experts with specific inputs to the fore and to overcome problems with time constraints of members of the Steering Committee by enabling to dispatch other than those few members of the Committee out of two hundred Forum’s participants to some of the events.
It is important to realize that any activity of the civil society representatives within the CSF is an additional work for them, along with their ordinary duties and business within their own CSOs. Kohut pointed out that they dedicate themselves to the Forum’s functioning “at the expense of their working and spare time for a relatively little reward”. “All that is not paid,” Svyatoslav Pavlyuk remarked. The time, costs for travelling and communication one spends in addition to regular scheduled meetings of the Steering Committee and working groups, e.g. while performing tasks within sub-groups established under each working group (like fundraising and other forms of interaction in-between) are not covered by the Commission. Meanwhile, participants of the Forum have to balance cash flows of their own organizations. Altogether, this is, for instance, why Ihor Kohut had not got backing from his own NGO Agency for Legislative Initiatives when it was to be decided about whether he would or would not serve as a country facilitator (head of the National Platform) for the second term, as he admitted during the interview. (In spite of that, he was elected to the position again.) Pavlyuk also recalled the administrative burden: “At the time I was a member of the Steering Committee for the very first year, we calculated that the amount of time any member (a person) of the Steering Committee was spending annually to administer participation in all these structures is 35-40 working days a year… I was getting up to two hundreds emails per day just for the Forum-related issues…”
This overloading of the Steering Committee, a need for a continuous oversight or at least a person in charge of monitoring and administering the implementation of the CSF decisions has led the Committee to another endeavour and one of the last milestones in the institutional development of the CSF – setting up its Secretariat. In August 2012, it was registered as an international non-profit organization based in Brussels, envisioned to fully support the work of the Steering Committee.
Asked about a “reward” for their “volunteering”, i.e. advantages stemming from their involvement in various kinds of common doings, either of the CSF or those of multilateral platforms or panels; both respondents identified networking (and, to a lesser extent, a possibility to travel) as the utmost benefit – especially participation in side events like workshops, dinners, etc. where they can mingle with officials informally (primarily with EU representatives), address their concerns, raise issues, and establish external contacts providing participants with “new opportunities to get new ideas and partners”, as put by Pavlyuk. Kohut further pointed at the fact that Ukrainian officials used to seize space for communicating with “Brussels” during official meetings like Summits extensively.
The CSF has thus become an additional channel to deliver information especially to the EU Commissioner for enlargement and the ENP Štefan Füle (as a representative of Brussels) as well as to partners from the EU member states. Besides the access to decision-makers, networking enables an access to documents as well – last but definitely not least “precious outcome” of the participation in the Forum highlighted by Pavlyuk: “Very often you could notice that the government is not that much professional or more professional than NGOs or think-tanks in certain issues but they have a monopoly on the access to information. Instead of creating the policies, they are manipulating and making tricks with the information… They have more expert knowledge just of the facts, of the laws, of the information but NGOs have very often much better analytical approach and analytical knowledge.” He argued merging it with better acquaintance with facts, regulations or processes has strengthened a capacity of NGOs as watchdogs. “When you know the processes, you can try to influence them, and when you do not know the processes, status of documents, agreements, negotiations; you can do nothing. Of course, there are very narrow spheres where you are not able to barter with the government like nuclear safety – it involves a lot of very specific knowledge that most of the citizens and NGOs do not have. But, at the same time, there are professional associations which can do that. They should be consulted but the government usually tries not to do that. It is case-by-case.”
An unconditional “educational exercise”
From initial steps of the CSF participants as well as from numerous further activities they have been engaged in up to now, it can be seen that they have done a lot on their own, thanks to their often pro-active approach without being conditioned or without clear–cut rewards or punishments being set by the EU for such an engagement. National Platforms, Steering Committee and working groups have produced a lot of joint calls (for reducing Schengen visa fees, increasing the number of scholarships for students from partner, etc.), statements (on the sentencing of Ales Bialiatski in Belarus and call on his immediate release), reports (on progress and setbacks in particular EaP countries), opinions or sets of recommendations. Although nobody is actually looking to what extent anybody reads that to what extent national governments take them into consideration, according to Pavlyuk, “this creates a new culture of thinking” of civil society organizations. It puts them into a framework where they have to formulate their remarks onto one page, “so it has to be concrete and [they should] understand what is doable and what is not – it is an educational exercise,” he stated and recognized that the CSF recommendations were indeed becoming “more and more concrete and doable”.
Likewise, a purpose of creation of the Ukrainian National Platform had not been crystal clear when four or five different pro-European platforms had already existed and a supposed product or expected outcome of each of them had been unclear, according to Pavlyuk. When he had been a country facilitator, he had opined that it had been all about the same institutions, the same people meeting weekly under different roofs and labels, so it had made no sense to create one more group alike. Ukrainian civil society had not had “a capacity to run all that”, he added when clarifying his initial point of view. Nevertheless, now he admits: “At the same time, the fact that the Platform exists gives us actually a chance… somehow to legitimate certain positions of Ukrainian NGOs towards Ukrainian government and towards the European Commission. Last year, we initiated three joint letters signed by the NGO community, by the National Platform, by other platforms, towards the European Commission, containing our position encouraging the EU not to suspend the negotiations on the Association Agreement with Ukraine because of these internal political problems. It would just worsen the situation. And, it worked.”
At the EU-Ukraine Summit in Kyiv in late 2011, the then EP President Buzek, President of the European Council Van Rompuy, president of the European Commission Barroso and Commissioner Füle took into consideration an argument that there are still people in Ukraine the EU can talk to, Pavlyuk revealed. “I think this is probably the maximum we could do last year that these new agreements have not been suspended. It is very important because if the Agreement is initialled, it can be published. As soon as it becomes public, we may start pressing the government to meet precise requirements of what has to be done. What is more, we can explain the population, the citizens of the country, what is at the bottom of the European integration, to explain that it is not about signing an agreement with the European Commission which is ʻsomewhere there, in the skiesʼ but it is about changing everyday issues of our life, our relation with the government, the government’s relations with the citizens.”
Getting in touch with neighbours or, as put by Pavlyuk, partners from “a region with special interest”, including by means of the CSF, is “very natural”, he noted, but, at the same time, very tough; taking into account a disinterested and lax approach generally shown by Ukrainian ruling elites to the multilateral activities of the EaP, to say nothing of the endeavour made by the civil society. Nevertheless, the EU has recognized that the CSF “has quickly become one of the most dynamic elements” of the Eastern Partnership, as stated at the most recent CSF plenary session (Stockholm, 29-30 November 2012) by Füle, who has been generally very supportive of the CSF and made clear on several occasions that the EU would be unable to achieve its aims by engaging just with governments.
The author is grateful to the respondents – Ihor Kohut and Svyatoslav Pavlyuk; and to the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) financially supporting her research stay in Kyiv. For their willingness and irreplaceable help throughout the research, the author would also like to thank to Ilona Postemska, a friend of hers; to Marek Janovský, policy officer, European External Action Service; Volker Genetzky, policy officer, DG ENTERPRISE; Claire Morel, policy officer, DG Education & Culture; H.E. Pavol Hamžík, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Slovak Republic to Ukraine; and Vadym Triukhan, former Director of the Coordination Bureau of European and Euro-Atlantic integration at Government of Ukraine (now partner at IMG Partners).