Following months of protest on Kyiv’s Maidan, many Ukrainians have begun to address one another these days not with hello or how are you? Instead, the exchange follows the old saying from the partisan army that fought for an independent Ukraine during World War II: Glory to Ukraine, with the response: Glory to the Heroes!
Yet over the course of the events on the Maidan, a new group of heroes has emerged – everyday people who work in and own kiosks, shops and cafes, who were fighting for right to live in a more open and prosperous country, free of the corruption that has made it so hard to do business in Ukraine.
Indeed, many businesses – often coordinated by business associations – from across Ukraine took part in the Maidan movement, both in Kyiv and in smaller regional demonstrations. CIPE has heard reports that small businesses contributed thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind donations to support people in Independence Square. Business associations provided legal aid to those who were detained or put on local wanted lists for their role in the Maidan.
Given that business associations did not exist during 70 years of Communist rule, and that they are sometimes considered the country’s weakest civil society institutions, they have shown themselves remarkably dedicated and vibrant organizations during these months, capable of uniting across regional divisions. Indeed, recently, 11 new cross-regional coalitions of associations have taken shape.
In Crimea, where the situation has now become more pressing, one CIPE partner from Simferopol’s Union of Entrepreneurs is reportedly facing grave repercussions for his choice to coordinate the Crimean Maidan, travel to Kyiv to meet with reform-oriented parliamentarians, and try to bring about changes in Crimea. As a result, he has been forced to leave his home region, and is now unsure that other business leaders who remain will be willing to take such serious risks.
In CIPE’s experience, the coordinated efforts among associations from across the country runs counter to the picture of a starkly divided Ukraine. Indeed, in any democracy, there will be people with differing points of view, who still must come together to find ways jointly to resolve the problems their country faces.
Ukraine’s associations, representing the country’s small business sector, epitomize this dedication. Working often with small operational budgets, without the support of funds from the country’s largest businesses, and some now in very adverse conditions, they are still finding ways to communicate, share ideas, and advance the cause of reform.
Rachel Grossman is Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia at CIPE.