At an event in Washington on Tuesday 23 May, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Ukraine’s new Ministry for Digital Transformation made a remarkable pitch to the American people. US taxpayers were told that they were now ‘social investors’ in Ukrainian democracy. Wearing the Silicon Valley uniform of blue jeans, a T-shirt and a headset mic, strutting the stage like he was delivering an impassioned TED talk, Ukraine’s 31-year-old Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov explained the many features of the country’s pioneering mobile application. Thanks to Diia, he said, Ukraine would be run less like a country and more like an IT company, soon becoming ‘the most convenient state in the world’. USAID Administrator Samantha Power echoed this aspiration, noting that Ukraine – long known as the breadbasket of the world – was now ‘becoming famous for a new product . . . an open source, digital public good that it will give to other countries’. This would be achieved through the transatlantic partnership between the two nations. ‘The US has always exported democracy’, Fedorov said, ‘now it exports digitalization.’
When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019, he promised to transform Ukraine into a ‘state in a smartphone’, making most public services available online. A digitalization agenda of this kind was virtually unprecedented, dwarfing ‘e-Estonia’ in both the speed of its rollout and the scale of its ambition. The programme’s crown jewel was Diia, launched in February 2020 with ample support from USAID. US funds reportedly amounted to $25 million for ‘the infrastructure underpinning Diia’ alone. Additional grants have come from the UK, Switzerland, the Eurasia Foundation, Visa and Google. The app is now used by some 19 million Ukrainians, about 46% of the country’s prewar population.
Diia means ‘action’ in Ukrainian, and the word also works as an acronym for ‘the State and I’ (Derzhava i ia). What makes the app remarkable is its array of functions. It permits Ukrainians to access numerous digital documents, including ID cards, foreign biometric passports, drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations, insurance and tax numbers. Ukraine claims to be the first state in the world with a digital ID that’s valid throughout the country. The app also offers a variety of services, including ‘the fastest business registration in the world’, where ‘you only need two seconds to become an entrepreneur’ and ‘30 minutes to found a limited liability company.’ Diia can be used to pay debts or fines, receive Covid vaccination certificates and obtain various documents and services related to the birth of a child, via eMalyatko (‘eBaby’). To ensure widespread adoption of the app, the government produced a miniseries with well-known Ukrainian film stars – creating what Fedorov calls ‘the Netflix of education’, particularly for those in rural areas and the elderly.
After the Russian invasion, the app’s remit was expanded. Diia began allowing users to apply for internally displaced persons certificates as well as state benefits (IDPs receive a monthly sum of UAH 2000, or about 60 euros). When Russian forces destroyed numerous TV towers, Diia launched broadcasting services to ensure an uninterrupted stream of Ukrainian news sources. Ukrainians can also register destruction to property from Russian military strikes, which the government says will guide the country’s post-war reconstruction. Beyond the introduction of these useful wartime services, Diia has rolled out an array of ‘civil intelligence’ features. With Diia eVorog (‘eEnemy’), civilians can use a chatbot to report the names of Russian collaborators, Russian troop movements, the location of enemy equipment and even Russian war crimes. Such reports are processed through support services at Diia; if deemed legitimate, they are submitted to the headquarters of the Ukrainian armed forces. At first glance, the interface looks like a video game. Icons are illustrated as targets and army helmets. After users submit a report about the location of Russian troops, a muscle-flexing emoji pops up. When they submit documentation of war crimes, they click an icon of a drop of blood.
Diia is part of a larger nation-branding exercise that positions Ukraine as a technological powerhouse forged in war. In the emergent national mythology, Ukraine has long possessed technological expertise and talent, but was held back by inferior Soviet science and, more recently, Russia and its culture of corruption. This rhetoric is nothing new for Eastern Europe. A number of cities, including Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania, Sofia in Bulgaria, and Constanta and Iasi in Romania, have touted themselves as having the fastest internet in the world. A little over a decade ago, Macedonia inaugurated an ambitious – and since abandoned – project that brought broadband internet to 95% of the country’s inhabitants. Estonia famously embraced IT upon gaining independence, launching the widely publicized e-Estonia initiative which placed most government services, as well as voting, online. Most recently, tiny Montenegro is aiming to become the world’s ‘first longevity-oriented state’, fostering investment in health tech, longevity biotechnology, synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Spearheaded by Milojko Spajić, leader of the Europe Now! Party, which captured the presidency last April, a series of programmes aim to transform Montenegro into a ‘crypto hub’ (Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, has just been granted Montenegrin citizenship). During Tuesday’s visual presentation, which echoed the aesthetics and spirit of a late-aughts Steve Jobs iPhone rollout, it was announced that by 2030, Ukraine intends to have become the first country to go entirely cashless and have a court system governed by AI.
The global communications scholar Stanislav Budnitsky has written extensively on e-Estonia and nationalism in the digital age. In assessing the value of these online services, he stresses the importance of separating the technological from the mythological. Technologies like Diia have clear benefits, particularly for internally displaced people and refugees, but the mythology attached to them requires further consideration. For example, Diia has been widely touted as an antidote to corruption, notoriously rife in Ukraine. The app promises to reduce bribery dramatically by eliminating low-level officials who are well-positioned to demand payment in exchange for certain essential tasks. Diia also introduces ‘randomness’ into the assignment of court cases, which the app’s enthusiasts claim will diminish corruption in the judiciary. As Zelensky noted at a recent Diia Summit, ‘A computer has no friends or godfathers, and doesn’t take bribes.’ Yet while Diia may help to decrease low-level corruption, it will do little to confront its larger and more damaging manifestations, such as the long-standing symbiosis between oligarchs and the state. Often, tech-mythology serves only to obscure the most vexed political problems.
Diia is more than an app; it is now ‘the world’s first virtual digital city’: ‘a unique tax and legal space for IT business in Ukraine’. IT companies ‘resident’ in Diia City enjoy a preferential tax regime. ‘This is one of the best tax and legal regimes on the planet’, said Zelensky; a place ‘where the language of venture capital investment is spoken’. Residents of Diia City will also benefit from a ‘flexible employment model’, including the introduction of precarious ‘gig contracts’, hitherto nonexistent in Ukraine.
Now USAID wants to expand Diia to ‘partner countries’ around the world; in Power’s words, ‘to help bring other democracies into the future too’. At the World Economic Forum in January, Power announced that an additional $650,000 would be provided to ‘jumpstart’ the creation of Diia-ready infrastructure in other countries. On Tuesday, Power said these would include Colombia, Kosovo and Zambia. This global effort builds upon USAID’s 2020-2024 digital strategy published during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. (It’s little wonder that conspiracists tend to link Diia to the so-called ‘Great Reset’: a WEF initiative that aims to rebuild trust in global capitalism by promoting ‘multi-stakeholder’ partnerships that unite governments, the private sector and civil society ‘across all areas of global governance’.)
Perhaps the most striking thing about the rhetoric around Diia is that its app-inspired tech solutionism is such an anachronism. A recent video introducing Ukraine’s IT sector to the world looks as if it belongs to a simpler, more optimistic time. ‘IT is about freedom’, the narrator says. ‘All you need is a computer to invent a great variety of things.’ An interviewee explains that the first computer in continental Europe was built in Ukraine. ‘There were a lot of talented specialists in Ukraine, but the borders were closed and private entrepreneurship was mostly illegal.’ As these words are spoken, images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ronald Reagan and the Pepsi logo flash up on screen.
This is the threadbare rhetoric of 1989 paired with a haggard California ideology. The idea that Twitter was going to bring democracy to the Middle East was stale well over a decade ago. When the Clinton State Department introduced the notion of ‘digital diplomacy’ – with one senior advisor telling NATO that ‘the Che Guevara of the 21st century is the Network’ – it already rang hollow. But in 2023, at a time when banks are collapsing in Silicon Valley, tech jobs are hemorrhaging by the hundreds of thousands and San Francisco is in seemingly terminal decline, such unyielding faith in app-driven prosperity sounds more than naïve. It reflects the impoverishment of the Western liberal-democratic imagination, unable to deliver a convincing or desirable vision of the future, on- or offline. In this imperial thought-world, the Cold War rhetoric of freedom has been replaced by the limp promise of convenience.
Read on: Lily Lynch, ‘A New Serbia’, NLR 140/141.