At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Viktor Stepanenko of the Ukrainian National Academy of Science and currently a Fulbright-Kennan Institute Research Scholar, discussed the role of civil society in post-Soviet Ukraine. He explained that it is widely accepted in the West that civil society is an important element of any democratic system and that civil society is extremely weak in Ukraine. Although he agrees with both of these views, Stepanenko believes that it is necessary to examine Ukrainian civil society in its proper social and cultural context in order to understand this weakness and how it can be overcome.

According to Stepanenko, civil society has become a "mantra" in post-Soviet states, but the use of this term in public discourse in Ukraine has been vague and contradictory. Government officials, he argued, are attempting to change the concept of civil society to privilege state-organized groups over grassroots organizations. To this end, the Ukrainian government has established its own pseudo-NGOs, manipulated and parodied Western concepts of civil society, and launched political and media attacks on "grant-eaters"—organizations that receive funding from foreign donors.

Stepanenko cautioned that government attempts to control discourse on civil society may prove successful because the public has very little knowledge or understanding of the subject. He argued that within the NGO community, activists focus on organizational development, ignoring the issues of social capital and shared values that are also necessary for civil society. Stepanenko contended that public ignorance of NGOs in Ukraine can be blamed partially on state-led media campaigns and partially on lack of interest in promoting public awareness among NGO leaders themselves.

Looking at official statistics, it appears that Ukraine does have a strong civil society, according to Stepanenko. He noted that Ukraine has 30,000-40,000 registered NGOs, and state officials have claimed that 90 percent of NGOs have budgets of $50,000-$300,000 per year. However, Stepanenko distrusts these claims. He argued that the fact that over 80 percent of Ukrainian citizens are not active in any type of voluntary organization paints a picture of a much weaker civil society. Ukrainians have a low level of civic engagement in comparison to both citizens of Western democracies and citizens of post-authoritarian states in Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Stepanenko argued that there are four main reasons for the low levels of civic engagement in Ukraine: popular distrust of organizations and of the political process in general resulting from the Soviet legacy of "forced ritual activities;" disillusionment with the results of democratic and market reforms; the absence of a strong middle class; and the persistence of informal social networks and a clientelist culture. These social characteristics, together with the state's distrust of grassroots activism, have led Ukraine to stagnate in its current semi-democratic state, he contended.

In order to foster the development of a democratic society, Stepanenko believes that NGOs must work to improve public awareness of civil society and develop a national system for civic control of government. He argued that there is fertile ground for civic engagement in Ukraine if society can overcome the legacies of stagnation and distrust.