Three major differences between the German and Ukrainian policy world
By Alex Vasylkivskyi.
Contemporary Ukraine is on the way of transformation from a socialist post-soviet republic to a democratic state. In that, it is one of many Eastern European countries that struggle to become an equal member of the European family. Ukraine has already signed an association agreement with the European Union, a proof of its government’s intent on integration into the EU. The ‘Revolution of Dignity’ and the war with Russia further strengthened the European vector of Ukraine’s foreign policy. Yet, the Dutch referendum on the EU’s association with Ukraine shows that not everyone in the EU is happy with Ukraine’s advances. And despite major achievements in terms of democratic change, Ukrainian society still displays soviet-like behaviour at times. This slows down any development of democratic reforms and influences on Ukrainian policy world.
So what are the chances for a further, closer association of Ukraine with the EU? What are concrete differences between Ukraine and current EU member states? A two month internship at d|part in Berlin allowed me to observe what is going on in the world of German policy and civil society from an insider perspective. During this time I lived and worked in Berlin, Germany’s political hotspot. Compared to my experiences of living and working in Kiev, I observed several differences of how things work in politics in Germany versus in Ukraine. These observations help me to underline three key differences between German and Ukrainian policy making and civil society development.
Difference #1: The presence/absence of ideology
The first difference between the Ukrainian and the German policy world is one of ideology. Or rather: the presence and absence of ideology. Ukrainian political parties rarely have clear ideological principles. The programme of a political party in Ukraine can easily contain positions of what would be called opposite political spectrums in the rest of Europe. For instance, one of the most popular Ukrainian political parties, «Homeland», sees itself as a socialist party. Despite this, the election manifesto of this party combines typical socialist approaches with traditional liberal elements. For example, «Homeland» promotes huge expansions of the state budget dedicated to the provision of welfare. At the same time, this political party promotes low taxes for small and medium-sized enterprises, which is not typical for socialist parties.
In contrast to Ukrainian political parties, German political parties have a rather defined ideology and system of values. Fundamental principles of ideology usually determine the suggestions German political parties put forward on economic and social policy. This however is not common for Ukrainian political parties. Socialism was the dominant political ideology in Ukraine for 70 years, during its soviet period of history. Political pluralism In Ukraine became available, so to say, only after independence in 1991. During this short time of independence, political parties were not able to develop democratic fundamental values together with appropriate economic and socio-political models. This is one reason that explains why consistent ideology is often missing in the Ukrainian policy world. This absence of ideology is also a suitable tool for populism. Without defined ideology, political parties can make flexible election manifestos, suitable for various categories of voters.
Difference #2: A government body dedicated to the political education of citizens
A second difference pertains to the level of political education and, more generally, the political culture in society. From a Ukrainian point of view I observed that German society, in contrast to Ukraine, demonstrates a high level of civic political culture . That is a high level of engagement with politics, a valuing of active participation in local communities and civic associations, membership in political organisations and tolerance towards opposing views. Several factors may contribute to this difference in political culture between Germany and Ukraine, but, in my opinion, political education is the most important factor. In contrast to Ukraine, Germany has a government body dedicated to the political education of its citizens. The Federal Agency on Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung), together with numerous non-governmental organisations, signs responsible for providing training and knowledge on how politics works. In Ukraine, in contrast, non-governmental organisations are the only actors providing civic and political education to citizens. The Eidos Centre for Political Studies and Analysis, Institute of Political Education, The Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research, and Civil network OPORA are few organisations from the list. However, it is evident that NGOs do not have the same capacity and not nearly as much funding to provide political education to all types of citizens as a dedicated government body such as the German Federal Agency on Civic Education has available for this task. In contrast to Germany, the Ukrainian government does not have a specialised institution for the provision of political education. As a consequence, comparative surveys attest Ukrainians critically low levels of political interest. In the 2012 European Social Survey only about a third of Ukrainians said they were interested in politics compared to nearly two thirds of Germans. This can be viewed to cause specific problems in the Ukrainian policy world. For example, the lack of political education creates a gap in communication between citizens and politicians that leads to low level of citizens’ trust in the government and public officials. In the same survey, more than 40 percent of Ukrainians said they have «no trust at all» in politicians, political parties, their country’s parliament and legal system. In contrast, less than 10 percent of Germans would say the same about their country. Ukrainian citizens do not know how to use their rights to exercise power. This particular characteristics of development and practice of political education in Ukraine also creates favourable conditions for populism.
Let us zoom in on populism as a characteristic feature of political culture for a moment and look at the differences for this particular political phenomenon between Ukraine and Germany. Populism became a recurring widespread trend in the European political world over last few years and Ukraine is not an exception from this case. Usually the most controversial topics in society become a breeding ground for populism. Far right populism, the kind that predominately surfaced in Germany recently, uses conservative, anti-migration, anti-globalisation or Euro-sceptic slogans. Populism in Ukraine, in contrast to Germany, has always existed. It is also more left-oriented, focusing on promising social equity. Problems in the provision of political education prepare the ground that allows Ukrainian populists to manipulate public opinion, making populism not just a one-off topical phenomenon, but a lasting characteristic in Ukraine.
Difference #3: Higher levels of engagement in civil society and political associations
The third difference between doing politics in Ukraine versus Germany pertains to the level of civil and political participation. It is necessary to look at this difference at several levels: engagement in local government activities, engagement in civil society organisations and membership in political associations.
Compared to Ukrainians, I observed that Germans are more active in decision-making processes on the local level, possibly due to a feeling of responsibility. During my stay in Berlin I was a witness to the referendum on the future of Tegel airport. This issue has mobilised lots of Berliners, involving them in a local decision. I observed that local referendums in Germany are an important part of local direct democracy, something I had not witnessed to the same extent in Ukraine. Another interesting fact is about citizens’ engagement in participatory budgeting in Germany. According to buergerhaushalt.org citizens in 452 municipalities all around Germany took part in participatory budgeting processes in 2015. The majority of Ukrainians, in contrast, remain passive in local government activities. There are two possible reasons for this phenomenon. The first one is our understanding of where decisions are taken that is a relic of the soviet past, where all activities on local level were prerogative of the central government. The second reason is that many tools of local direct democracy in Ukraine were established only after the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014. Participatory budgeting, for example, was established only in 2015 in Ukraine. According to a report of the International Renaissance Foundation together with All-Ukrainian NGO «Сommittee of Voters of Ukraine» only 45 cities in Ukraine were engaged to participatory budgeting in 2017. Similarly, signing of e‑petitions to local government bodies became available for Ukrainian citizens only after 2015. But by 2017, already more than 100 local communities in Ukraine had implemented this form of direct democracy. Unlike German citizens, Ukrainians are not used to instruments of local direct democracy such as local referendums, because the Ukrainian legislation regulates only national referendums.
Engagement in civil society organisations is a great indicator of how advanced a civil society is. It was interesting for me to observe the involvement of German citizens in various civil society organisations that provide their services in different fields from culture to energy efficiency. In Ukraine, civil society is still developing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though there was a strong boost to the development of civil society in Ukraine after the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014 and the event made Ukrainian citizens more active in numerous civic activities, from volunteering to membership in civil society organisations, its levels of engagement are still nowhere near what I observed in Germany. According to the Ukrainian Governmental Strategy on youth development adopted in 2016 — only 2% of Ukrainian youth (between 14 and 35 years) are active in civil society organisations. 6% of Ukrainian youth regularly take part in civic activities. United Nations in Ukraine report «Ukrainian youth-2015» indicated that in 2015 roughly 54% of Ukrainian youth were engaged in at least one civic action. Unlike Ukraine, Germany has much higher rates of civic engagement, with around 40% of the population members of civil society organisations and 14% of the population actively engaged to civil society activities.
Many German citizens are also active members of political associations. Membership in political organisations provides them with opportunities to influence the policymaking process. Ukrainians, in contrast, associate political organisations with a closed club. Instead of actively taking part in decision-making processes, the majority of Ukrainian citizens rather delegates this right to someone, who they think is more proficient in policymaking. Low levels of involvement in political associations also has a negative influence on communication between citizens and politicians. A few years ago, however, the situation with participation in political associations changed in Ukraine. Citizens started not only to follow the policymaking process, but also became more engaged in political parties and unions, trying to provide their own input in decision-making. According to results of a social survey conducted in 2016 by social group «Rating» approximately 2% of the Ukrainian population now have a membership in political party. That is the same level as Germany with 2% of Germans engaged in political parties.
The policy and civil society world in Germany differs greatly from that in Ukraine. The German way of doing politics and organising civil society is based on principles of genuine rule of law, democracy, transparency and personal responsibility. Ukraine can learn a lot from the German experience in terms of political culture, political education, civic and political participation. As a young democratic state Ukraine is still on the way of transformation from post-soviet state to modern European country. New democratic approaches to politics, governing and civil society development often still clash with relics of soviet mentality. However, recently the Ukrainian society demonstrates a positive dynamic towards democratic transformation. It is only that these kinds of changes need a long time.
 Yuriy Shveda & Joung Ho Park (2016). Ukraine’s revolution of dignity: The dynamics of Euromaidan. Journal of Eurasian Studies, 7 (1), 85–91.
 Gabriel Almond & Sidney Verba (1963). The civic culture: Political attitudes and democracy in five nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Alex Vasylkivskyi was an intern at d|part in 2017. Alex is an assistant to the Ukrainian parliamentarian Dmytro Lubinets, where one of his key responsibilities is advising on international cooperation, and he is active in delivering humanitarian aid to internal refugees in Ukraine.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.