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The Fight for Democracy in Ukraine: A Conversation with Center UA's Svitlana Zalischuk

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, March 16 2014

Svitlana Zalischuk speaking at PDF PL-CEE 2014, Warsaw (Photo: Onnik James Krikorian)

One of the highlights of this year's Personal Democracy Forum Poland-Central/Eastern Europe (PDF PL-CEE) conference* last Thursday and Friday in Warsaw was the talk by Szitlana Zalischuk, the founder of Ukraine's Center UA civic group. "Democracy is weak," she warned the 300-plus attendees, who had come from 25 countries around the world to learn from each other about the potential of technology to enable positive social change. The "EuroMaidan" movement may have forced Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych out of office, but it was far from clear that non-violent civic activism was going to win the day in the face of an invasion of Crimea and more not-so-veiled threats of force from Russia.

At the same time, she reminded everyone of the power of social solidarity, and pointed to many examples, such as when 200 people showed up at a Kiev hospital after the call went out on Facebook for donors with a particular blood type. And she agreed strongly with her compatriot Tomasz Piechal, a Ukrainian journalist who talked about the two types of fighters now at odds in his country--those who fight with guns and those who fight with smartphones.

Like many other PDF PL-CEE attendees from the region, Zalischuk was both electrified by the victory of the EuroMaidan protest movement and deeply worried about the future. On Saturday, the day after PDF-PLCEE ended, we sat down together during an open data hackathon held in a conference room in Warsaw's new soccer stadium. Our interview, which took place in three parts, is embedded below.

In the first part of our conversation, Zalischuk talks about how she went from working as a journalist to creating a new non-governmental organization, Center UA. There wasn't enough "political will from the top" to democratize her country, and decided to try to build demand for change from below. UA, she notes, means both Ukraine and "united actions," noting that her group's main method has been to build coalitions and roundtables around common initiatives. Their main focus has been government transparency, advocating for political dialogue and reforms like the institution of a real freedom-of-information law. Hundreds of organizations rallied for two years to enact that critical change, she notes.

When the EuroMaidan protests began over Yanukovych's decision to reject the European Union integration process, Center UA joined in the protests from the first day, Zalischuk says. It was a question of Ukraine's fundamental identity, she said, whether we would be" authoritarian or democratic." "There was no choice for our organization," she said. As for reports like the one by PandoDaily's Mark Ames which claimed that Center UA was itself was a puppet of American funders and US foreign policy, she said that it was a "piece of non-quality journalism."

She added, "Whoever wrote this article, I never got an email or calls or address on my Facebook" asking for a response to its charges. "We were prosecuted and pressured by the previous government…they hacked our emails and listened to our telephone conversations and published my private conversations. So I get used to this different kind of 'black PR.,'" referring to Ames' piece.

In the second part of our conversation, Zalischuk went into detail about how social media enabled and helped shaped the EuroMaidan movement. "It actually started on Facebook," she noted, when on November 21, when journalist Mustafa Nayem wrote on his Facebook page said it was time to go to the main square in Kiev. One thousand people "liked" his page, and more than 3000 Kyivans went to the square and held it overnight. Interestingly enough, journalists are trusted highly in the Ukraine, almost as much as the church.

Because of a widespread media blackout, social media became the main channel for protest organizers to coordinate their efforts, operating "like a small TV channel," Zalischuk observed, in its scope. The EuroMaidan Facebook page and blog became the central platforms for communication and logistical operations. Everything from bringing food and tea to the street protesters to organizing carpools took place via social media. (See also Carola Frediani's detailed report for techPresident on the role of social media in the EuroMaidan movement.)

During this part of our chat, I also asked Zalischuk about the rise of the "sotniya," organized self-defense units of roughly one hundred men (and sometimes women) who acted in a disciplined and courageous way to hold the main square despite massive violence from government police and riot control forces. The word, she notes, comes from the 16th century period of the Cossacks, when people also formed self-defense units. At the beginning of the EuroMaidan protest, people believed that the movement could stay nonviolent and that the police would respect their right to assemble. But once it became that wouldn't be the case, people began armoring themselves with helmets, shields and even bullet-proof vests. "Most of them were not specially trained sportsmen or from the army, these were activists--journalists, sometimes professors, artists, musicians," she said.

The movement changed, she adds, when the regime started killing people. "You see people who are dying, and who are wounded, in your lovely, peaceful country. This coldness moves from your head to your heart. You accept that there's no other way, and that you're going to stand it until the last moment."

Zalischuk also describes a fascinating interplay between the "crowd" and the "stage"--suggesting that there was a "special social contract" between the protesters and the opposition politicians who came before them on the stage and who were negotiating with the government. As long as the people on the stage understood that it was their job to ensure that there would be free and fair elections for a new government, the crowd supported them, she said. Those elections are scheduled for May 25.

In the third and last part of our conversation, I asked Zalischuk about the referendum about to take place in Russian-occupied Crimea and the massive Russian troop presence across the border from eastern Ukraine. "Russian invaded Ukraine," she said, mincing no words about Vladimir Putin's actions in the wake of Yanukovych's departure from office. "The referendum itself doesn't mean anything," she added, noting that the choice was between "yes and yes," and didn't give people a choice of maintaining the status quo. "You can't conduct a democratic referendum when a whole country is invaded and controlled by the troops of a foreign country."

This is not a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, she said, it's a conflict between the civilized world and totalitarianism, one that undermines the whole architecture of the European and world community. I asked her about the idea that the democracy movement in Ukraine was mostly strongest in the western part of the country and not so much from the eastern half, where Yanukovych got the majority of votes. She said the picture was more complicated, because Yanukovych himself had campaigned in favor of stronger ties with Europe when he was running for president.

I ran out of memory on my iPhone before our conversation concluded, but at the end, Zalischuk expressed hope for a peaceful resolution of the current conflict with Russia. The civic movement in Ukraine, she said, was taking care to avoid any kind of violent confrontation with the Russian forces inside their country. Despite her fears, she hoped that war could be averted.

*Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section, and to the Omidyar Network for its sponsorship of the PDF PL-CEE conference.