ARTICLE I E-Participation Waves: A Reflection on the Baltic and the Eastern European Cases

22 September, 2019

By UDI Associate Dmytro Khutkyy. The article was originally published by Reflections & Viewpoints.

Abstract: E-participation often experiences rise and decline, thereby the study aims to identify causes and outcomes of e-activism upturns. The research is based on expert interviews, content analysis, and self-reported statistics. It became evident that the studied European countries – Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – follow different trajectories, but still reveal common patterns. In particular, election campaigns, political and economic crises, and new policies can facilitate e-participation, which can institutionalize, frame an agenda, draft a policy proposal, and lead to a policy change or a government change.

Keywords: digital democracy, electronic democracy, participatory democracy, e-participation
Acknowledgement: This research has been conducted with the support of the Open Society Foundation Eurasia Program and the Swedish Institute Summer Academy for Young Professionals. The author expresses appreciation to the interviewees for expert opinions, to Mariana S Gustafsson for comments on earlier drafts, and to an anonymous reviewer for the feedback.

1. Introduction

Political participation rates in European countries are generally low. This is especially pronounced if we consider that modern engagement options are easily and instantly available via online platforms. Nevertheless, sometimes e-participation rises and declines in a cyclic pattern. Therefore, this paper aims to explore such pattern in selected countries. The two research questions are: what conditions lead to a rise of online participation? what are policy outcomes of such e-participation?

To seek answers to these questions, it is useful to conduct an international comparative study. For this aim, six European republics – Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – are a suitable choice. In 1990s, they started from similar politico-economic conditions, but followed different paths, generating a diversity of political situations with observed ascension in electronic participation. So, the paper will analyze the cases of enhanced e-participation in these countries.

For this aim this exploratory qualitative study employs an inductive approach, using empirical
data to draw conceptual conclusions. It is primarily based on a series of semi-structured expert
interviews with civic activists, scholars, IT specialists, think-tank analysts, politicians, officials, and other experts. The fieldwork lasted from March 6, 2017 till June 6, 2017 resulting in 70 interviews. The distribution of interviews among countries is the following: Belarus – 10, Moldova – 12, Ukraine – 14, Estonia – 10, Latvia – 14, Lithuania – 10. Also, a content analysis of e-platforms was conducted and their self-reported statistics was considered. The findings are presented below.

2. E-Participation Cases in the Baltic and the Eastern European States

In Belarus, people turn to online platforms and to social media (Facebook and Twitter, VKontakte,
and Odnoklassniki) to deliberate and mobilize for offline protests. In March 2006, following the
presidential campaign with disputed election results, the public went out into streets to demand reelections in the so called “Jeans Revolution,” but the protesters were arrested. The Belarussian public
discussed the situation in the safe online space of Live Journal (Interview with Dzmitry Karenka, 21
March 2017). During June-August 2011, people protested against government’s policies linked to
financial crisis, but were arrested not reaching any policy results. This “Social Network Revolution”
relied on social media for civic mobilization for street protests, informing on results, discussion, and
internal communication (Interview with Andrei Kazakevich, 10 April 2017). In 2015, the president
issued a decree on preventing social dependency, which demanded unemployed to pay fines to the
state, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, who received notices to pay fines. Information
from official mass media was widely disseminated and discussed in social media (Interview with
Dzmitry Karenka, 21 March 2017). As the deadline for paying fines was approaching, people selforganized in social media and started a series of protests lasting for four months (February-May
2017). Due to these protests, the decree, despite being legally enacted, was in fact stopped (Interview
with Andrei Kazakevich, 10 April 2017). Besides, after the protests activists launched a
crowdfunding campaign in Facebook to support those who were fined, demonstrating moral and
material solidarity (Interview with Julia Mitskevich, 12 April 2017).

In Belarus, the government avoids public discussion, so people migrate to social media for a
genuine deliberation, thereby becoming cyber-guerillas (Interview with Dmitry Boichenko, 1 April
2017). Authorities often ignore people’s e-appeals on official online portals (Interview with
Uladzislau Ivanou, 1 April 2017). Even the most optimistic estimations demonstrate that not more
than every second petitions are reacted upon (Interview with Uladzimir Kavalkin, 14 April 2017).
Consequently, digital activism intensifies around election cycles. It might be magnified by some preelection liberalization (Interview with Tatsiana Chulitskaya, 14 April 2017) conducted to legitimize
elections for international community (Interview with Vasily Naumov, 27 April 2017). Also, social
activism arises in times of crisis (Interview with Mikhail Doroshevich, 16 April 2017).

In Moldova, e-participation is reportedly low. However, there are some spikes around elections.
Numerous diasporas employed digital tools to discuss political developments in social media and
to push for elections (Interview with Stela Cudalb, 9 May 2017). Observers who witnessed violations
submitted real-time online reports via Internet-equipped tablet PCs (Interview with Ion Manole, 31
May 2017). Also people used Facebook to unite for an offline protest against the change of the
proportional voting system towards uninominal voting system (Interview with Maria Stratan, 18
May 2017). Besides, the project Promis registers and analyzes electoral promises and check them for
implementation. It experienced its highest activity in 2010 and 2014, precisely around parliamentary
elections. Yet, the 2019 parliamentary elections are not reflected there. Reportedly, this initiative has
not had much impact (Interview with Marian Cepoi, 13 May 2017). Besides, people mobilize online
reacting to a corruption scandal, yet such activism soon declines. For example, the e-appeals project was launched in February 2011, reached its peak of e-appeals in May-December 2014, and
faced a decline in usage since then ( 2019).

The political context for online activism in Moldova is unfavorable. There is a low level of trust
of citizens towards authorities (Interview with Ion Manole, 31 May 2017) and a low awareness about
online platforms, leading to a low participation (Interview with Cornelia Amihalachioae, 21 March
2017). Allegedly, the government is not willing to introduce fundamental institutional changes
(Interview with Elena Prohnitchi, 6 June 2017). Authorities are not very open, few officials respond
to e-appeals (Interview with Olesea Stamate, 19 May 2017). In most cases even journalist
investigations do not impact policies (Interview with Petru Macovei, 2 June 2017). Not all identified
corruption cases are transferred to court and even fewer are prosecuted (Interview with Cornelia
Cozonac, 31 May 2017). Therefore, civic activists in Moldova do not rely on participation institutions,
but launch an hoc campaigns (Interview with Marian Cepoi, 13 May 2017).

Ukraine’s most notorious e-mobilization case occurred in November 2013, when a journalist
made a Facebook post calling people to join him at Maidan Square in Kyiv to demand Association
Agreement with EU. This post went viral and attracted protesters for what then became
Euromaidan. The clashes between the protesters and the police went violent. As a result, the
Revolution of Dignity, which ended in February 2014, turned geopolitical attitudes of the public
towards European Union, led to the change of government, and initiated multiple reforms.
Most importantly, this tide of revolutionary mobilization transformed into an institutionalized
online civic participation. In July 2015 joint advocacy efforts of the civil society and MPs resulted in
legal amendments introducing e-petitions. Most popular online petitions were addressed to the
president, and by March 2019 as much as over 32,000 e-petitions were submitted. However, the most
popular ones, assessed by the number of supporting signatures, were submitted during the first
three months – August-October 2015 (Electronic petitions 2019). Public opinion surveys
demonstrated that over two years – from 2015 to 2017 – the shares of both extreme skeptics and
extreme optimists decreased, as the public gained more moderate views (Khutkyy 2017). As people
became more experienced in e-participation, their expectations decreased. In particular, the share of
those who believed that an e-petition is a dialogue between the people and authorities, has
statistically significantly decreased from 33.8% in 2015 to 26.6% in 2017 (Khutkyy 2017). Other eparticipation formats of national scale include e-voting, open data analytics, and journalist investigations. E-voting for candidates to the civic councils at the several ministries and government
agencies were held annually starting from 2015 (Electronic Democracy 2017).

But why did the digital engagement occur? First, civic participation itself was massive. As an
official recalled, the number of requests sent directly to the government increased dramatically, so
they decided to make a separate online platform for them (Interview with Dmytro Shymkiv, 26 May
2017). According to another official, the authorities wanted to increase trust (Interview with Ihor
Khatsevych, 24 April 2017). Officials stated that they envisioned themselves as partners with the
civil society (Interview with Dmytro Makovskyi, 25 April 2017). Yet, some politicians were eager to
build a better popular image (Interview with Victor Nestulia, 24 April 2017). Perhaps, they did not
realize how strongly have they empowered the people (Interview with Serhiy Loboyko, 24 April
2017). Also, international organizations provided financial and mentoring support (Interview with
Nadiia Babynska, 28 April 2017). Overall, it was a convergent effect of a mobilized civil society and
an open government (Interview with Jordanka Tomkova, 9 May 2017).

Estonia is famous for its online voting (i-voting). The dynamics of its parliamentary and local
elections shows that the share of online votes of all votes cast grew from 1.9% in 2005 to 43.75% in
2019 (e-Estonia 2019). A comprehensive quantitative study of 11 years (8 paper and electronic
elections) of Estonian population demonstrated that e-voting has diffused among the overall voter
population bridging societal divisions, although the potential enabling effects required at least three
elections to appear (Vassil et. al. 2016). Evidently, such e-participation in the frame of representative
democracy occurs on the occasion of elections and is effectively institutionalized. Estonia also
experimented with direct e-participation tools: TOM (crowdsourcing ideas) in 2001,
(commenting on draft laws) in 2004, 2005, and 2007, (e-petitioning) in 2010, (participatory policy drafting) in 2013, and (e-petitioning) in 2016.
Of these, was a response to a political crisis of citizens trust towards the government
regarding party funding (Interview with Maarja Toots, 7 March 2017). Its active phase was during
January-April 2013 and of 15 proposals sent to the parliament, three became laws ( 2017).
A common vision among stakeholders played a key role. The Chief Architect of the Estonian egovernance system contemplated that trust was the basis for e-democracy tools, and that engineers,
bureaucrats, politicians, and citizens have been developing it for the 20 years, building a positive
trust cycle (Interview with Andres Kutt, 7 March 2017). Indeed, political consensus for the launch of
e-voting was important (Interview with Robert Krimmer, 16 March 2017). And citizens trusted the
e-solution of ID card and mobile ID (Interview with Priit Vinkel, 6 March 2017).

But why there is little e-activism beyond elections? One explanation is that the abundancy of eservices
creates a kind of consumer e-democracy for everyday activities – having received these
services by default citizens do not feel engaged (Interview with Kristina Reinsalu, 16 March 2017).
Another version is that people are simply not aware of e-democracy options (Interview with Maarja-
Leena Saar, 13 April 2017). Probably, only a huge crisis will create the necessity to use e-participation
tools massively (Interview with Hille Hinsberg, 17 March 2017). The government has not linked the
e-initiatives to the institutional process of making or monitoring policy decisions (Interview with
Maris Jõgeva, 15 March 2017). Although, an official’s position is that ministries exercise direct contact
with stakeholders (Interview with Liis Kasemets, 17 March 2017).

In 2010, Latvia witnessed a rise of anti-oligarchic movement, so the society was ready for change.
Civic activists communicated the message “give people some influence or face consequence,” so the
parliament introduced e-petitions (Interview with Imants Breidaks, 23 March 2017). Overall, epetitions
collected over 1 million e-signatures ( 2019). claims that of 38
initiatives submitted to authorities, 26 (68%) were supported as laws or government decrees, thereby
constituting the world’s highest success rate of this kind ( 2019). Official’s position is
that the success of e-petitions is due to citizens-authorities cooperation (Interview with Dita Erna
Sile, 13 March 2017).

However, the critical perspective that during the last years the e-petition platform usage in Latvia
has declined (Interview with Daunis Auers, 23 March 2017). Another civil society expert also
observed that e-democracy platforms disappeared rapidly and concluded that e-participation in
Latvia is still ad hoc as citizens communicate with politicians via social media, e.g. Twitter (Interview
with Iveta Kazoka, 23 March 2017). And it is NGOs, not citizens, who challenge government policies
(Interview with Iveta Reinholde, 31 March 2017). Moreover, even civil society needs a pressing issue
for collective action: “if there is nothing on agenda, there will be no activity” (Interview with Liene
Gatere, 24 March 2017).

Finally, Lithuania has some practice of e-consultations. For example, in 2012, at a national
crowdsourcing platform people contributed over 1,000 ideas for the Lithuania 2030 is a national
strategy ( 2019). However, it was held only once. E-participation, e.g. via Facebook,
happens before elections as a part of political campaign (Interview with Aine Ramonaite, 30 March
2017). Quite vividly, only three e-petitions collected the required number of signatures at an
independent platform – this occurred before elections, as some political parties wanted to raise their
popularity (Interview with Donatas Simelis, 24 March 2017).

Lithuania clearly lacks collective action in political realm. The citizens are not interested in
participating in political processes while politicians do not demonstrate political will (Interview with
Agnija Tumkevic, 31 March 2017). There is also a high distrust of population to political institutions
(Interview with Aine Ramonaite, 30 March 2017). People are more involved via social networks
addressing politicians directly (Interview with Rytis Kalinauskas, 31 March 2017).

3. Conclusion

Each observed country experiences political developments, which generate e-collaboration
among the public (see Table 1). What is different, is how these challenges are resolved. In Belarus,
crisis-driven e-participation helps mobilize people for protests, but the government oppresses them
with coercion instantly. In Moldova, online activism also intensifies around crises, but has virtually
little or no impact on policies as the government effectively stalls systemic change. In Ukraine, civic
coordination in social media helped mobilize, enact a government change, and carry on the
revolutionary momentum to multiple reforms and more institutionalized forms of online policy
making. Estonian government largely engages e-participation for e-voting, and experiments with econsultations, although with minor effect on public policy. In Latvia, a political crisis gave an
impetus for legitimizing e-petitions. Driven by the civil society sector, e-petitions help draft and
advocate new policies. In Lithuania, the people raise issues, the government initiates e-consultations,
but with little effect on policies. These cases demonstrate that election campaigns, political crises,
civic protests, and policy initiatives can facilitate massive e-participation. In some cases it can bring
new policies or institutionalize new digital participation forms. The latter is possible when a
grassroots push from civil society coincides with the openness of authorities.

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Dmytro Khutkyy is the Kone Foundation Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, the National Researcher at the Independent Reporting Mechanism, Open Government Partnership initiative, and the Expert at the Coalition for the Advance of e-Democracy, in Ukraine. He has obtained his PhD in Sociology at the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and taught sociology courses at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. After that he has accomplished several international programs in Austria, Estonia, Germany, and the United States, studying patterns of democratic participation under the modern global trends. In Ukraine, he participated in grassroots civic activism within
the Center for Innovations Development, Reanimation Package of Reforms, and Transparency International. Dmytro Khutkyy evaluated and advised on reforms of Ukrainian government related to access to information, public accountability, and civic participation. Besides, he performed expert consultancy for UNDP, OECD, eGA, EGAP, DRI, IRI, and other organizations on civic technology and open government. Dmytro Khutkyy conducts research, training, and communication to promote civic participation, good governance, and institutional change.