• Opinion by Andrew Firmin (London)
  • Interpress service

Ukraine’s civil society is doing things it never thought it would. A huge volunteer effort has seen people come forward to help.

Overnight, aid programs and online platforms sprang up to raise funds and coordinate aid. There are many initiatives evacuate people from occupied territories, rehabilitative wounded civilians and soldiers and repair damaged buildings. Support Ukraine now coordinates support, mobilizes a community of activists in Ukraine and abroad, and provides information on how to donate, volunteer, and assist Ukrainian refugees in host countries.

In a war where truth is a casualty, many answers try to give an accurate picture of the situation. Among these are 2402 Fundprovide safety equipment and training to journalists so they can report on the war and Free videographer initiative, which has built a solidarity network of independent filmmakers to tell independent stories about the struggle in Ukraine.

Alongside these, efforts have been made to gather evidence of human rights violations, such as Ukraine 05:00 coalitionbring together human rights networks to document war crimes and crimes against humanity, and OSINT for Ukrainewhere students and other young people collect evidence of atrocities.

The hope is to one day hold Putin and his circle accountable for their crimes. The evidence collected by civil society could be crucial to the work of UN monitoring mechanisms and the International Criminal Court’s investigation that began last March.

As is so often the case in times of crisis, women play a huge role: overwhelmingly, it is men who have taken up arms, leaving women to take responsibility for pretty much everything else. Existing civil society organizations (CSOs) have also been instrumental and quickly redeployed their resources to humanitarian and human rights.

Ukraine demonstrates that an investment in civil society, as part of the basic social fabric, is an investment in resilience. It can literally mean the difference between life and death. Continued support is needed so that civil society can maintain its energy and be ready to play its full role in rebuilding the country and democracy when the war is over.

Russia’s crackdown

Vladimir Putin also knows the difference an activated and active civil society can make, which is why he has moved to further close Russia’s already severely limited civic space.

One of the latest victims is Meduza, one of the few remaining independent media outlets. It was in January declared an “undesirable organization”. This effectively bans the company from operating in Russia and criminalizes anyone who even shares a link to its content.

Independent broadcaster TV Rain and radio station Echo of Moscow were previous victims, both blocked last March. They continue to broadcast online, as Meduza will continue to operate from their base in Latvia, but their reach across Russia and ability to provide independent news to a public otherwise fed a diet of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda is greatly reduced.

It’s all part of Putin’s attempt to control the narrative. In March last year, a law came passed imposes long prison terms for spreading what the state calls “false information” about the war. Even calling it war is a criminal act.

The dangers were made clear when journalist Maria Ponomarenko was convicted to six years in prison for a Telegram post criticizing the Russian army’s bombing of a theater where people were taking shelter in Mariupol last March. She is one of a kind reported 141 people so far charged with spreading allegedly “false” information about the Russian army.

CSOs are also in the loop. The latest target is the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organization. In January, a court ordered suspension. Several other CSOs have been forced out.

In December, a strengthened law on “foreign agents” took effectwhich gives the state virtually unlimited power to label any person or organization that expresses dissent as a “foreign agent,” a label that stigmatizes them.

The state falsely characterizes its imperial war as a fight against the imposition of “Western values,” making LGBTQI+ people another convenient target. In November a law passed, expanding the state’s restriction on what it calls “LGBT propaganda.” The effects are already noticeable heavy censorship and the disappearance of LGBTQI+ people from public life.

The chilling effect of all these repressive measures and systematic disinformation has helped dampen protest pressure.

But despite the prospect of detention and violence, people have protested. Thousands of went out into the streets across Russia to call for peace when the war began. Further protests came on Russia’s Independence Day in June and in September, after the introduction of a partial mobilization of reservists.

Criminalization has been the predictable answer: over 19,500 people have so far been imprisoned at anti-war protests. People have even been arrested for holding up blank signs in solo protests.

It is clear that there are many Russians for whom Putin does not speak. One day his time will end and there will be a need to rebuild Russia’s democracy. The reconstruction will have to come from the ground up, with investments in civil society. Those who speak out, whether in Russia or in exile, need to be supported as future builders of Russian democracy.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS editor-in-chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS lens and co-author of Report on the state of civil society.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service