5. Policy Recommendations
The recommendations outlined in this chapter are principally aimed at donors supporting civil society development in the Eastern Partnership countries. They mostly focus on ‘soft’ elements of resilience, i.e. involving people and ideas. When disruptions or challenges to a state’s resilience occur, it is of key importance for the effectiveness of response that there be a range of actors with the knowledge and diversity of perspectives to seek solutions to complex problems. The actions proposed below are intended to support greater social inclusion, to allow for the circulation of ideas and information, and to strengthen the leverage of Western assistance.
State–civil society cooperation
- State–civil society cooperation offers a key source of resilience. (In Ukraine, it proved effective in the early stages of Russian aggression, and has also subsequently helped to support reforms.) The level of interaction and cooperation between the state, active citizens and CSOs requires a substantial boost, especially at the national level. State agencies could establish special taskforces with representatives of CSOs, business and government to design effective approaches to information security, cyber safety, education, media literacy, the inclusion of minorities and management of diversity. CSOs bring a variety of perspectives to the table, and enable feedback loops that aid with the design of optimum policy responses.
- Donors should support projects that stimulate the inclusion of citizens in policymaking, effective public consultations and the development of local democracy. To prevent alienation, disillusionment and the growth of populism, various forms of digital and offline engagement should be institutionalized. In terms of country-specific measures, the following apply:
- In Ukraine, in view of ongoing administrative decentralization, it is key for donors to support regional projects that build capacity for effective cooperation between citizens and the local authorities.
- In Ukraine and Moldova, donors should increase their support for projects advocating political reform: in respect of electoral practices, local democracy, anti-corruption policies, democratic good governance and the rule of law.
- In Belarus, with its restrictive environment for CSOs and undemocratic regime, Russia’s subversion threat opens an opportunity for a viable discussion between state and civil society about how best to strengthen sovereignty.
- Governments should aim to inform citizens better about major state policies and key reforms. When communicating reforms, government and civil society should focus on the human impact, deliver practical information, ensure clarity, highlight outcomes and outline solutions. In Ukraine in particular, in view of ongoing reform efforts, effective strategic communication about reforms and major state strategies could boost social cohesion and support for a pro-European transition. Both CSOs and reformers should capitalize on positive changes (decentralization and upgrades to infrastructure) to build optimism about reforms and the future of Ukraine as a viable democratic state. CSOs are especially advised to reach out to citizens to explain the human dimension of key reforms and their impact on people’s daily lives.
- Donor assistance should aim to support stronger social cohesion. This means increasing funding for projects that enable better integration of minority groups and the promotion of diversity, as well as civic education about human rights. In Ukraine and Moldova in particular, projects should focus on inclusive multi-language education. Donors should ensure partners engage with local communities in their respective prevalent languages.
- In Ukraine, the government should urgently address violent attacks by radical groups and the increased circulation of firearms, and ensure that law enforcement agencies handle cases of hate crimes and xenophobia properly. The country’s top leadership should make strong statements that such abuses will not be tolerated and do not belong in a democratic Ukraine. For effective security, more reform of the police is needed, along with further transformation of the SBU into a modern agency with strong civic oversight.
- In Ukraine, in view of the occupation of Donbas and Crimea, it is key to start preparing the ground for the future reintegration of both regions into the state, even during the active phase of military operations in the east and illegal annexation. Citizens seek more clarity on the government’s strategy for resolving the conflict. Civil society should develop and expand the use of facilitated dialogue to assist various stakeholders in bridging often polarized positions. Such dialogue, led by professional mediators and skilled facilitators, should engage veterans’ associations, think-tanks, security experts, leading political parties, associations of displaced persons, and displaced universities from the east.
New democratic identity
- The concept of ‘active citizenship’ should be more pronounced in donors’ assistance programmes. Promoting citizen engagement and linkages between CSOs and citizens could expand the number of actors involved in civil society. This new dimension of identity will help people express their own voices and feel stronger ownership of their citizenship.
- Since 2014, societies in the region have responded to Russian aggression and subversion by more actively promoting their non-Russian national identities. Donors should focus more on supporting cultural community projects that aim to build awareness about local and national cultures, and that also aim to increase popular knowledge about these new identities. Such efforts would have a positive effect and allow citizens to feel pride in their community, region and nation.
2. Media sector
Media reform and capacity-building for independent media
- Donors should increase funding for high-quality media and information security. Supporting broadcast, digital and print media that are free from political and oligarchic influence is of paramount importance.
- In Ukraine, donors should provide technical assistance and funding, as well as advocating sustainable public investment in the development of the public broadcaster Suspilne TV.
- In Belarus, they should resume funding to Belsat TV, as well as the Belarusian-language programmes of foreign radio stations. Donors should ensure these outlets have legitimacy in the eyes of potential new viewers – especially the most resistant ones, namely regime supporters and Russophiles. Enhancing the quality of content is the best way to make TV more attractive.
- In Moldova, donors should promote and extend support for TV channels such as TV8. Donors should promote CSOs working on high-quality media alternatives in the Russian language, and should also engage Russian minorities and Russian speakers. This also applies to other national minority languages, such as Gagauz and Ukrainian.
- Capacity-building should prioritize improving the quality of content (local news, infotainment) and reporting under pressure of disinformation and fake news (through fact-checking courses, exposure of disinformation, etc.). It should emphasize high-quality video content that could be shared on social media.
- Especially in Belarus, individual investigative journalists and bloggers are in need of essential support, including crisis assistance in case of emergency (arbitrary detention or seizure of their equipment). A platform for rapid sharing of information in the event of a crisis should be established, possibly using the existing nationwide online registry of Belarusian-speaking associations and initiatives.
Counter-narrative to Russian propaganda
- Donors should finance the production of high-quality new content that could replace Russian propaganda. This could both deliver objective information about Russia and fill the gaps in existing content (international politics, developments in the EU, etc.). Assistance should focus on outlets that target Russian-speaking audiences and minorities.
- In Moldova, a positive counter-narrative should refocus the internal debate away from the pro-EU/pro-Russia geopolitical divide and centre it on internal politics and the genuine preoccupations of citizens, such as the economy, healthcare, the rule of law, education and the need to tackle vested interests.
- The nascent Belarusian-language film industry should be supported, since it can reach out to receptive audiences far beyond Belarus – this is illustrated by the success of the Bulba film festival.
- Donors should increase funding for educational and investigative projects that develop citizens’ critical thinking, especially in terms of building awareness about Russia’s disinformation and understanding the real intentions behind its ‘soft power’ projects. Creative media literacy courses, as well as activities promoting critical thinking and the development of skills in fact-checking and assessing the quality of information sources, should be introduced in high schools and universities. Donors could assist the three countries in the development and implementation of such courses; more broadly, assistance needs to support reforms in the education sector.
- Donors should invest in high-quality research by independent international and national think-tanks and academia into Russian propaganda, trends in public opinion and civil society. The focus of research should be on the negative impacts of Russian media influence, on drivers of vulnerabilities, on technologically enabled propaganda, and on the mapping of Russian influence in the media sphere. The need is especially acute for Belarus, where, since the closure of the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies in 2016, experts lack data on major social trends.
3. Civil society support
Modalities of assistance
- Donors should increase the share of assistance that goes to action-based initiatives offering solutions to social and community problems. Currently, the balance is tilted towards more adversarial and advocacy-based types of activism. Projects should be people-driven, not just donor-driven. They should engage local communities and stem from grassroots civic initiatives. Community consultations should be promoted.
- The project-based funding approach should be replaced, where possible, with multi-year core institutional funding to local CSOs. This will allow local implementers to work on the sectors they know best, with much-needed scope to adapt to evolving situations on the ground. This is key to civil society resilience.
- Donor conditionality regarding domestic co-funding should be strengthened. Domestic giving and volunteering manifest local support for civil society and make it more resilient. Donors could set up special funding instruments to co-fund projects that demonstrate a successful crowdfunding history, a high turnout of volunteers and effective corporate fundraising.
- Donors should support enhancements to civil society infrastructure, such as improving access to hardware and software (cloud services, IT hardware), local resource centres, community centres and civic hubs.
- Donors should encourage and provide funding and technical assistance for CSOs to develop contingency plans in case of crisis. These plans should cover strategic communication, financial and human resources, the safeguarding of assets, and adaptation of core activities. In the case of Belarus, plans should ensure there is an external hub for unregistered/deregistered Belarusian CSOs. Donors could support the hosting of such a ‘safe haven’ in a neighbouring EU country.
- Donors should improve access to grants for projects aimed at countering Russian influence, and introduce streamlined grant application processes that are more flexible and easier to navigate.
- Donors should support exchanges and partnerships between pro-democracy CSOs from Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia, as and when required. CSOs from the different countries have valuable insights and examples of best practice to share in terms of countering Russian subversion and propaganda. Such cooperation could be institutionalized as a network or coalition. A special fund could be set up to support joint civil society projects on communication, education or advocacy – these would be similar to the Russian Language News Exchange or the Creative Content Support Fund, but for civil society projects.
Circle of partners
- Donors should target and prioritize community-based organizations for funding, and reach beyond the national capitals with their assistance. They should reach out to Russian-speaking organizations that share democratic and liberal values.
- Engaging diaspora organizations, especially from Ukraine and Moldova, could contribute to innovation, the development of local sources of funding, and the transmission of democratic values and practices.
- Religious charities and leaders could be more engaged in civil society programmes to build resilience. The likes of Greek-Catholic communities, the Charitas Foundation and Belarus’s protestant communities could be partners in projects and activities designed to support social cohesion.
Strengthening legitimacy and building trust
- Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova suffer from a disconnect between citizens and formal CSOs. Closing this gap will ensure civil society can perform its proper role and deliver a ‘resilience dividend’. Donors should promote the model of paid membership of CSOs, volunteering, stakeholder consultations and needs assessments of beneficiaries. CSOs should increase their capacity to use social media and other communication tools to reach and engage with wider audiences.
- To remedy the negative public perception that CSOs are biased, donors should promote transparency and conduct more rigorous due diligence in order to exclude grant-seekers who might manipulate assistance for personal enrichment.
4. Delivery of assistance
- When offering funding to state institutions for reforms or micro-financial assistance, strict conditionality should be in place to safeguard donor credibility. Conditions should focus on political reform (electoral reform and rule of law), better integration of minorities, development of small and medium-sized enterprises, and efforts to address growing inequality.
- Conditions attached to assistance funding should be widely communicated, and local civil society should closely monitor implementation of the assistance. In cases where a state breaches its conditions, assistance could be rechannelled to civil society projects. This is especially relevant for Moldova, where supporting the country’s leadership means indirectly channelling EU funding to a pro-Russia elite. Donors also cannot be seen as financing efforts to sustain corrupt institutions.
- In the cases of Ukraine and Moldova, Western politicians and policymakers should travel to the countries more often to track the progress of EU-related reforms, visit regions and engage with local media. This would increase visibility and resonate more widely with the population.
- In the case of Moldova, European countries and the US should limit their interactions with consultants and lobbying groups working for Vlad Plahotniuc in Brussels and Washington.
- Donors should invest more in people-to-people contacts and facilitate movement across borders, especially for Belarus. EU countries should introduce short-term visa-free entry for Belarusians and simplify the visa application process, as well as waive the fee for Schengen visas (instead of raising it from €60 to €80 as planned).
- The EU needs to invest in stronger strategic communication capabilities. It needs to do more to claim full ownership of its development assistance and highlight the positive impact of its engagement on the ground. This is especially true for Moldova, where local politicians and Russian GONGOs alike often take credit when Western assistance yields positive results. Such efforts, if effective, would also help to undermine Russia’s narrative that the West has abandoned the region and will not assist countries in need.
- Success stories should be amplified, and the visibility of successful projects improved. There should be more visibility campaigns, adverts, outreach and showcasing of best practice to ensure that the West receives credit for positive developments on the ground.
- The EU needs to develop better ‘storytelling’, using a localized assistance narrative and highlighting prosperity and positive change at the community level.
Rethinking the future of the Eastern Partnership
- Russia’s negative influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova challenges the foundation and the future of the Eastern Partnership. The EU needs a strategic vision for ensuring its own resilience in the region, and for achieving a common vision for its eastern neighbours.
- Such a regional cooperation track, alongside bilateral EU assistance, could, if properly designed, give an additional boost to reforms and knowledge exchange between the EU and participating countries. This is particularly relevant in view of the Eastern Partnership’s aims of building the resilience of state and non-state institutions, and of increasing civilian security against regional and global threats.
- The Eastern Partnership needs to adapt its expectations and approach to the three countries in the medium to long term, as well as think about what a sound strategy for the next 10 years could be.