Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ukraine's New Activists Shore Up Struggling State

Unprecedented trend sees volunteers stepping in to aid under-resourced military.
By Anya Tsukanova

Yuri Biryukov, a 40-year-old businessman, had never been involved in any charity work until just a few months ago. Today, he is one of Ukraine’s best known fundraisers, helping to shore up the armed forces in a state whose institutions have suffered from long years of corruption and neglect.

Through his Facebook page, Biryukov has managed to raise some 850,000 US dollars and supply enormous quantities of badly-needed equipment to Ukrainian army soldiers fighting pro-Russia insurgents.

Biryukov is just one of a growing number of people taking part in a surge of public spirited action, sparked by the Maidan protests in Kiev and further fuelled by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict in the country’s east.

The current government inherited a crumbling state from former president Viktor Yanukovich, ousted in February, and has struggled to meet its electorate’s expectations.

Some of its functions are fulfilled today by volunteers who help supply a badly-resourced army, support those displaced from the conflict zone and even help create new legislation for the parliament.

This is an unprecedented trend in Ukraine, which ranked 102 in the list of 135 countries in the World Giving Index 2013. According to a survey published in July 2013 by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) and the Razumkov Centre, only eight per cent were involved in any kind of activism.

The same study found that 85.5 per cent of the population did not belong to any kind of public organisation, union or party, with many citing the apparent impossibility of bringing change and the lack of time for unpaid work.

But it is clear that the mood has changed, according to Maxim Latsyba of the Ukrainian Independent Centre for Political Studies.

“People started to feel responsible for their country and their compatriots. They are ready to help not only their relatives but also strangers. This is a sign of a modern society,” he told IWPR. “Understanding of a common cause makes people sacrifice their time and money. Other factors are a deep distrust in the state and its capacity to act. Now it’s up to the new authorities to do their best to restore civic confidence.”

Displays of solidarity were part and parcel of the protests in central Kiev that began late last year.

After police forces beat peaceful opposition protesters on December 30, thousands of Kiev residents flocked to the St Michael Monastery where some of the injured had taken refuge, bringing them food, tea and warm clothes, and offering them accommodation.

During the three months of the uprising, volunteers of all ages, from students to pensioners, established networks to provide everything the protesters needed, from food and water to the petrol used for Molotov cocktails and the tyres used to create barricades.

Ton of medicines were donated for makeshift clinics, with doctors and even surgeons treating injured demonstrators who were afraid to seek help in state-run hospitals for fear their details would be passed to the authorities.

It was these protests that first got Biryukov interested in volunteering. He served as a paramedic in an improvised central Kiev hospital set up by the opposition on February 18, during the deadliest days of the protests in which dozens of people were killed.

When Russia’s incursion into Crimea began a week later, and many feared a full-scale military conflict was imminent, he joined a Facebook group to support the Ukrainian army.

“We all wanted to do something but it was unclear what exactly was needed,” Biryukov told IWPR. “Then one guy wrote that a military unit situated near Kiev had asked for some food to be brought to them. We started to take care of them and that’s how it all began.”

Biryukov then asked his father in Mikolayiv, a city in southern Ukraine, to contact local military units to assess their needs. Soldiers asked for radio sets and then medicines, all of which he managed to supply.

With the demands growing, at the end of March Biryukov launched his first Facebook appeal to raise money for bulletproof vests. By July, he had raised more than ten million hryvnias (850,000 dollars), a huge sum in a country where the average monthly wage is less than 400 dollars and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

“Many donations we receive are five or 40 hryvnias (40 cents or 3.4 dollars),” he explained. “But we also have a group of sponsors who send us 30,000 to 40,000 dollars per week. The average donation from inside Ukraine is 100 hryvnias [eight dollars], while from abroad it’s 200 dollars.”

His initiative has already paid for 3,000 sets of body armour and 2,000 helmets, as well as thermal vision cameras and emergency medical kits. He has even supplied a sophisticated sniper rifle worth about 40,000 dollars.

“We deliver everything – tens of thousands of pairs of underpants and socks, tonnes of uniform, tonnes of food,” Biriukov said.

He now heads a team of around 20 volunteers but still works up to 20 hours a day and says he is an “absolutely happy man”.

Many other groups and private individuals are also intent on providing similar support.

According to media reports, dozens of residents of western Ukraine travelled to neighbouring Poland, where each bought a second-hand bulletproof vest and helmet to bring back for the Ukrainian military. Under Polish law, individuals could not carry more than one item at a time.

This new spirit of activism goes far beyond supporting the Ukrainian military. With government assistance poorly administered and largely insufficient for the estimated 54,000 people uprooted by the conflict, NGOs are organising help for those directly affected.

The Volunteer Squadron was formed to help people from the eastern regions and Crimea. As well as providing assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs), it delivers humanitarian aid to areas of the conflict zone where water and electricity supplies have broken down and help evacuate those who wish to leave.

Another initiative, Vostok SOS, launched in Kiev by pro-Ukrainian activists who fled Lugansk, in eastern Ukraine, has already found temporary accommodation for over 2,000 IDPs.

“When we left our city, we realised that a humanitarian catastrophe was about to happen and the government was doing literally nothing to prepare,” Vostok SOS spokeswomanYulia Krasilnikova said.

The information war is another battlefield where civil society is attempting to shore up the efforts of the Ukrainian government.

To help fill an initial lack of official information at the beginning of the crisis, think tank director Dmitry Tymchuk became a de facto spokesperson for the Ukrainian military, providing quick and reliable data about the situation in Crimea.

With government communication considerably improved in recent months, he remains a much-used source of information about fighting in the east.

Elsewhere, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre in Kiev was established in March by leading communication professionals, and has hosted hundreds of news conferences and sent out thousands of press-releases in Ukrainian, Russian, English, French and other languages, becoming an important resource for foreign media.

Volunteers are also involved in drafting legislation. More than 150 Ukrainian NGOs and experts founded the Reanimation Reform Package initiative through which activists prepare reform bills in key sectors from the fight against corruption to the public health system and push for parliament to adopt them.

So far, seven of these bills have been passed into law, with many more waiting to be examined.

“Until recently a key principle of Ukrainian society was formulated in the old saying, ‘my house is on the outskirts, so I don’t know anything,’” Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Ringis wrote in a recent op-ed in the online newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda. “But over the last six months this national idea has gone out of date. Now it’s more relevant to say, ‘my house is in the centre, so I’m in charge.’”

Anya Tsukanova is a journalist in Kiev.