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Ukraine’s Crisis Of Social Capital

A woman places carnations into shields of antiriot police in Kyiv, November 2004
A woman places carnations into shields of antiriot police in Kyiv, November 2004
The first round of the presidential election in Ukraine clearly spotlighted the decline of trust in the government. Today a question mark -- which from close-up looks like the sword of Damocles -- hangs over the legitimacy of the authorities and the emergence of civil society. The survival of Ukraine as a sovereign state -- the independence of which is constantly under threat in a permanent struggle with economic, financial, and political crises -- is at stake. The crisis of social capital in Ukraine is also a real threat. Experts point out that social capital could have contributed to the consolidation of society, but failed to do so.

What are the reasons for this decline in social capital in Ukraine? Are they similar to those in other countries? Can the "recipes" for utilizing social capital as a social phenomenon that have been applied in other countries be applied to Ukraine? What needs to be done to attract social capital and, according to Francis Fukuyama's theory, use it for in the steady development of the country?

In his 1995 book "Trust: The Social Virtues And The Creation Of Prosperity," Fukuyama describes social capital as "trust, mutual help, and activeness." At that time, the world was facing the challenge of an economic crisis, and scholars were pondering the problem of how to encourage the development of social capital to overcome that and future crises.

Programs to encourage the growth of social capital have since been successfully applied in various countries. Volodymyr Chepovy, who heads a project called Ukraine's New Leaders, gave a detailed overview of those efforts in an article published in "Ukrayinska pravda" last month. Titled "Social, Not Financial, Capital Will Save the World From Crisis," the article singled out the Indian project Lead India, which was implemented in 2007-08 as one of the best examples of that trend. "Tired of bureaucracy and inefficient managers, people began to search for new leaders," Chepovy wrote, citing examples of how the successful implementation of this project "amazed the whole world."

An intensive search for new leaders is also currently under way in Ukraine. What is stopping these new leaders from appearing here and now? Why does this search recall the plight of Diogenes, who walked the streets of Athens in daylight with a lamp, searching for an honest person? Is the problem in Ukraine rooted in the potential appearance of these new leaders or first and foremost in social capital itself?

Social capital did exist in Ukraine, both long ago and more recently. The most noticeable manifestation of that capital in action was probably the Orange Revolution, when a million people demonstrated their activeness, their trust in one leader, as well as a high capacity for organizing themselves. But just five years later, we are now faced with a shocking state of total apathy and of total mistrust, both individual and collective. Why?

There is a sociopsychological constant: the higher the level of expectation, the more painfully failures are felt. Nearly all the dreams generated by the Orange Revolution have been compromised. Society experienced this as a betrayal of its most precious hopes, and took that betrayal very badly. This is the first reason for the decline of social capital in Ukraine.

Antisocial Elements

The second has to do with elite groups, which were formed primarily from antisocial elements that do not see themselves as members of society and look upon society only as a source of profit. As a direct consequence of the activities of those elite groups, the first shoots of civil society and the first attempts by citizens to organize themselves are being destroyed. Attempts by citizens to organize themselves into anticorruption bodies ended with the transformation of those bodies (including the Anticorruption Fund) by various oligarchs into instruments in their clan wars.

The third reason is the socioeconomic practice of social Darwinism, which in a post-Soviet society is transformed into Alexander Solzhenitysn's legendary formula "You die today; I die tomorrow," and which was not constrained by either ethical constraints or legal norms. Amorality multiplied by legal nihilism -- that is the algorithm of Ukrainian society today.

Experts say Ukraine is accumulating negative social capital, as evidenced by crime, corruption, and other negative phenomena. There are similar trends in other postcommunist countries, with the exception of the countries of former Eastern Europe which have largely overcome entitlement, crime, and corruption.

Individuals in Ukraine are not consciously aware of themselves as citizens: if they were, how could they swallow everything the government offers them? Sociological surveys over the past few years show the same result: over 80 percent of respondents do not belong to any civic organization. This is a very low percentage, even compared with Latin America, and it shows that institutions that form and accumulate social capital are not trusted in Ukraine.

The decline in social capital precludes the formation of civil society and leads to the degradation of democratic institutes and procedures. A classic illustration of this trend is how in previous elections for the Kyiv mayor voters cast their ballots en masse for the candidate who promised the unrealistic maximum in material benefits. The result is the Kyiv we see today.

It is an axiom that countries where there is practically no social capital are incapable of either modernizing or developing. The failed states of sub-Saharan Africa have one common feature: the absence of social capital. This comes to mind when you drive out of Kyiv in any direction into the provinces and pass elite enclaves. The road is not cleared of snow and ice in winter and at other times of the year it is simply a clearing in a particular direction, indicated by cracked tarmac, potholes, and heaps of garbage piled up on the sides. And coming in the opposite direction you see speeding Maybachs, Rolls Royces, Ferraris. It never occurs to the owners of those luxury cars to pay even a token amount for the upkeep of the road to their homes. And that surely is a living epitaph for social capital in Ukraine today. Is it possible to break out of the vicious circle of social degradation in Ukraine? That is the mission that the state should take upon itself together with a state building elite, out of an instinct for self-preservation, if for no other reason. All we have to do is find such an elite.

Nadia Stepula is a broadcaster with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL