Ukraine’s Success after 25 years

Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman at the Ukraine in Washington Conference 2016 

September 14, 2016

Nadia has asked me to reflect on Ukraine’s experience – and its success – after 25 years.  NED was there from the beginning, nurturing the active roots of civil society in the 1980’s. 

Ukraine is different from Russia, where (as NED’s Nadia Diuk has pointed out) the state has been the concept around which all ideology and values have revolved, whereas in Ukraine, society or “hromada” has been at the center, and NGOs have been called “hromads’ki orhannizatsii” or civic organizations.  In 1988-89 NED supported work on the Ukrainian Catholic Church through Keston College, among others; Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine that supported the Helsinki group underground publications; Kyiv Memorial, that did work on collecting documents on the Holodomor; and a separate grant for the Crimean Tatars; in addition to many other groups, especially after Ukraine became independent in 1991, including the Rukh, the Student Brotherhood, and the Lion Society, in addition to think tanks like the Europe XXI Foundation and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, which pioneered the use of the exit poll to counter the falsification of elections, and internet sites like Ukrainska Pravda.

Ukraine has always been a place where diverse confessions and ethnic groups co-existed, which created the foundation for a functioning pluralism. The cultural and political diversity in Ukraine has prevented the consolidation of authoritarianism for any length of time, but this diversity has, in the past, also prevented the emergence of a nation with a consolidated national identity.  Ukraine has been through a long, difficult and violent struggle over the past 25 years.  There has been much suffering, many people have died, there have been revolutions and counter-revolutions.  But through it all, the struggle and suffering have contributed to the growing unity of the country and have created a wave of civic activism not seen anywhere in this region. 

I visited Ukraine in May of 2014, right after the EuroMaidan, for the “Thinking Together” conference organized by Tim Snyder and Leon Wieseltier.  I saw for myself the extraordinary progress that has been made building an ecumenical spirit of religious tolerance and fraternity, which included the Jewish minority, and also building Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation.

When I visited the following year to attend a meeting of the World Movement for Democracy and to speak at a civil society conference, I saw something else that reminded me of something that the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kyiv in 1898, said in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.  Our secret weapon, she said is ain breira – we have no alternative.

Ukraine has no alternative but to succeed and to survive, because its very existence is at stake.  That’s why it has overcome a devastating economic crisis after the overthrow of Yanukovych and cut inflation from 61% in April 2015 to 9.8% a year later and undertaken many other reforms that Anders Aslund has summed up by saying that “Ukraine has never undertaken as great and substantial reforms” in its history.

Of course there’s still a very long way to go in reforming the courts and the judiciary so that real penalties can be imposed on people guilty of corruption; in privatizing the thousands of state-owned-enterprises that drain public resources; and in securing property rights and decentralizing power and resources to local communities.

How far there is still to go was made very clear in an article by Joshua Yaffa that appeared in The New Yorker earlier this month, that tells the story of two muckraking journalists, Mustafa Nayyem and Serhiy Leshchenko, who made the transition two years ago from protest to politics and are now fighting corruption and for reform from within the parliament. 

A corrupt system built up over three generations of communism cannot be rooted out quickly.  It’s not just political, social and economic reforms that are needed.   What’s also need is a cultural change, a change in the way people think about individual social responsibility.

That’s the central message of Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Laureate for Literature from Belarus, who talks in her new book Secondhand Time of the need to replace Homo Sovieticus, the mindset of people who live in the secondhand time of old prejudices. It’s one thing to remove the external trappings of communism, she has said, but “cutting it from one’s soul is something different.”

This is what is being done today by young people I’ve met who are graduates of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. They are conducting a moral and spiritual struggle to renew Ukraine, to overcome the culture of mistrust, cynicism, and pervasive corruption, and to build a new generation that is steeped in the values of community and individual responsibility, and who are working to in Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, and other cities in the Donbas, and to bring people from the east and west of Ukraine together around shared values and a new civic activism.

The fact that Ukraine has been able to do this while defending itself against a war of aggression launched and continued for more than two years now by Russia is extraordinary.  Almost 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed in this war, more than a million-and-a-half people have been internally displaced, yet still Ukraine fights on to defend itself against this aggression because it has ain breira, no alternative. 

If Ukraine succeeds, it will provide a model of democracy in a country neighboring Russia where millions of people speaking Russian enjoy freedom of expression.  Such a model will inevitably strengthen those in Russia who look to Europe and want a society free of the corruption, hatred, and violence.

If Ukraine succeeds, it will also mean the defeat of Putin’s effort to restore the Russian Empire, which requires reversing the course of history over the last century that has seen the collapse of all other empires. 

Not least, if Ukraine can prevail against Putin’s military aggression, it is likely to set in motion a process of democratic change in Russia itself.

That’s why the struggle for freedom and independence in Ukraine deserves the support of the United States.  That’s why sanctions are important and needed to be maintained and even strengthened if Russia continues to violate the provisions of the Minsk Agreement that calls not only for a cease fire and the pullback of heavy weapons and no interference with OSCE monitors, but a pullout of all foreign troops.   Russia needs to withdraw its troops and weapons from Ukraine.  And if it doesn’t, not only should sanctions be strengthened but Ukraine should be given the defensive military support that Congress has called for not just to defend its hard-won independence, but to raise the price that Russia will have to pay for its continued aggression.

We need to be very clear that this is not just a local or a European problem.  It affects international peace and security and the prospect for restoring a stable and liberal world order.  Two years ago, at the Kyiv conference I attended, Ukraine was called the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy.  It still is, even though many people want to focus on other problems.  The Ukrainians don’t need us to fight their battle.  They can do that themselves.  But they need our help and our solidarity, and we should give that to them because that is consistent with our interests and also with the values of freedom and democracy that Americans continue to hold dear.