From Informal Social Capital to Public (Self)-Service: Exploring Digital Civil Society in Post-2013 Ukraine
Over the past thirty years, Ukraine has seen three public protests that have come to be known as ‘revolutions’. Yet despite these repeated demonstrations of ‘people power’, Ukraine’s civil society has been too often underestimated or dismissed as ‘weak’ in academic literature. This thesis confronts this paradox, tracing the development of civil society in Ukraine and uncovering the roots of its vitality in ‘informal social capital’, a byproduct of statelessness and internal colonialism. Analysing the dataset of the European Social Survey (ESS) conducted in Ukraine biannually between 2002–2012, which illustrated that Ukrainians consistently sustained the ‘networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’ at the heart of the classic definition of social capital (Putnam 1995, 67), I argue that Ukraine’s particular social capital resides not in strong democratic institutions, but in vibrant cultures of informal mutual self-help in local and professional communities. My discussion suggests that, in the case of Ukraine, neither democratic governance nor the rule of law represents the sine qua non for an impactful civil society. To understand these cultures of informal mutual self-help, I offer four close readings of sustainable grassroots public service initiatives in post-Maidan Ukraine – Hromadske, StopFake, Prometheus and ProZorro – informed by semi-structured interviews with the activists who launched them. These civic entrepreneurs cite an ideational dedication to the common good and a keen understanding of the reform inefficiencies of the state as principal drivers for their emergence as activists. Since 2014, their initiatives have served millions of Ukrainians and cultivated Ukrainian civil society in the face of urgent economic, political and military crises. I explore the central role of social networks in mobilising pro bono professionals to compensate for inadequacies of the state and overcome a dramatic lack of financial resources and in achieving organisational sustainability over the long term. Ultimately, I show that a motivation for volunteering and extensive social mutual self-help networks of cooperation and trust, coupled with the availability of the unpoliced and highly accessible digital media, have led to the development of a robust ‘digital civil society’ in Ukraine. Digital media affordances allow grassroots civic initiatives to gain scale and institutionalise themselves, retaining the horizontal ethos of co-production. The case of Ukraine thus contributes to a growing body of evidence of the strength of informal digital civic activism in post-Soviet and post-colonial societies, inviting us to revisit the presuppositions of the liberal paradigm in civil society studies, which have dominated the scholarly debate in Western Europe and Northern America since the early 2000s.