Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Civil society – Ukraine’s great hope


Ukraine is struggling to create the conditions in which democracy can thrive. This process threatens the control of those who have held sway for decades, and they are fighting back. The struggle is far from won. Yet as The Economist magazine noted recently, ‘the energy of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity has not dissipated. Instead it has carried over into civil society.’ It quotes Sevgil Musaieva Borovyk, editor of the online newspaper Ukraiinska Pravda: ‘We have created a toxic environment for Ukraine’s corrupt officials, who have been stealing for the past quarter century.’


Many of the Ukrainians who took part in this year’s Caux conference on Just Governance for Human Security are active in this struggle. Mykola Khavroniuk, a Director of the Centre for Political and Legal Reform in Kyiv, trains government officials and business managers in methods of overcoming corruption. Victoriia Vdovychenko has started a School for Good Governance in Kyiv. Viktoriia Kuts-Mryshuk and Marina Dadinova are leaders of Switch On, a national initiative which is empowering citizens to tackle civic problems such as corruption in their locality.


Improving governance is not the only challenge facing Ukraine. There is also an urgent need to bridge the divide between Western Ukraine, where people speak Ukrainian, and Eastern Ukraine where many speak Russian. Russia is waging war against Ukraine, and its media exacerbates this divide.


In response, a network of Ukrainians have trained in dialogue facilitation and mediation and are now in Eastern Ukraine. Some of them led a workshop at the Caux conference. In the last six months, Oleh Ovcharenko told the workshop, a team of 16 have held 53 dialogues, each lasting up to four days. The UN Development Programme has given financial support to this work.


In many cases the dialogues have brought together Ukrainian soldiers – who come mainly from Western Ukraine – with the local people.  Sometimes a change in attitude has been immediately apparent. In one town, when the local people had criticised the conduct of the soldiers during the dialogue, their commander gave them his mobile phone number so that they could reach him direct with any complaints. Shortly afterwards, the town council invited the soldiers to join them at a celebration in the town.


This network originated from the Foundations for Freedom programme which began when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and Initiatives of Change was able to work in Eastern Europe. Since then over 3,000 East Europeans have taken part in courses aimed at enabling everyone to discover how they can play a part in building a democratic society.


In 2012 some of them launched a nation-wide programme of dialogue on the theme, ‘Ukrainian action: healing the past’. ‘We realised that our country would only come together if we each understood what others have endured,’ Oleh explained. ‘These dialogues gave people the chance to tell of their experience during our worst times. We published many of these stories, and produced a documentary film.


‘When war came to Ukraine in 2014, people we knew in the conflict regions contacted us, asking our help. This took us to these regions. And when people were forced to flee, we found there was a need to reconcile these ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ with their new neighbours. So we are also working in Central and Western Ukraine.


This is not the only way they are bridging the divides. Together with the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Foundation in Germany and the International Youth Meeting Centre in Auschwitz, they have developed a project, ‘History begins in the family’, with the aim of ‘learning lessons of the past in order to connect the unhealed past to the present and future.’ This is bringing together young people from Germany, Poland and Ukraine.


Meanwhile others are collecting the stories of miner’s families from East and West Ukraine. ‘By sharing their stories, Oleh said, ‘they discover that they have much in common, and that has brought new understanding and a sense of solidarity to mining families across the country.’


Also speaking in the workshop was Nataliia Holosova, a teacher. She is working with children whose lives have been disrupted by the conflict and the annexation of Crimea. ‘We hear stories that make us cry,’ she said. ‘The most difficult children are those who have experienced conflict first-hand.’ They have enlisted expert help from Ukrainian and Polish organisations, and from Anne Frank House in the Netherlands.


She works to integrate the children, who find themselves in new schools, often dealing with a new language, sometimes having lost family members. One child said to her, ‘I pray to God every day that my mother and brother are still alive on the other side.’


In doing this work, Nataliia said, ‘We are learning the value of “live histories”. Children need to learn that history is not always what is in the textbook, but is what people have experienced. So we encourage them to tell their life stories. And we widen their knowledge of differing cultures. We use a Czech programme, the Dialogue of Cultures, which introduces the cultures of Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and elsewhere through personal stories. This builds understanding and helps integration, just as it does with the miners.’


Recently Foundations for Freedom organised a workshop in Lviv, she said, ‘which gave us the chance to teach the teachers how to encourage integration through new methods of teaching history and of communicating with young people.’


The workshop concluded with a question on how those from outside the region could help. Oleh responded, pointing out the immense need for the work they are doing. ‘The core of this work is the approach of Initiatives of Change,’ he said. ‘We value all the help we can get in heightening our understanding of this approach, and our skills in applying it.’

John Bond


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