Culture and education are at the center of shaping Ukraine’s national identity and recently have been the targets of conflicts and confrontations in Ukrainian society. These two areas are fundamental to Ukraine’s nation-building process as they represent the values, the customs, and the accumulated knowledge reflected through the nation’s history.
I have been involved with Ukraine since the beginnings of perestroika – the thaw during the days of Mikhail Gorbachev. I observed the historic role played by the grassroots pro-democracy movement, Rukh early in the independence process, witnessed some of the negotiations, and had the opportunity to “live in the moment” of Ukraine’s declaration of independence on August 24, 1991, before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, when on December 25, Soviet President Gorbachev handed over power to Russian President Yeltsin, and the red Soviet flag in front of the Kremlin was lowered and replaced with the three-colored flag of the Russian Federation.
In neighboring Ukraine, the intellectuals who led the revolt in Ukraine at that time showed great courage. They did not know how the conflicts in Moscow would be resolved, but they recognized that moment as pivotal in the nation’s history and chose to risk a vote for independence.
However, the real heroes were the people of Ukraine. In January 1991, millions formed a human chain through the country to voice their support for independence; on December 1, 82% of eligible voters came to the polls and chose independence by an overwhelming majority of more than 90%. The proposal for the December 1 national referendum to confirm the Parliament’s August 24 declaration of independence came from two politically opposing camps, from majority leader Oleksandr Moroz and opposition leader Ihor Yukhnovsky, as they proposed the referendum together.
The people were united as citizens of Ukraine. These events demonstrated that regardless of political, religious, ethnic affiliation, or geographic location, the people of Ukraine identified themselves as citizens of their country, who chose and demanded to be free in their own land. When considering the issue of Ukrainian identity now, the importance of these events and the prevailing sense of nationhood with common rights and aspirations should not be overlooked.
Ukraine’s position at the time was progressive and inclusive. Ukraine chose citizenship, and not ethnicity, as the basis upon which to define Ukrainian identity. Although the leaders of the new Ukraine belonged to various political parties, they were united on this critical principle of citizenship, which was included in Ukraine’s Constitution with foresight toward unification of the nation. That key phrase in the Constitution states, “All citizens of the former USSR permanently residing within the territory of Ukraine at the moment of declaration of independence of Ukraine (24 August 1991), are citizens of Ukraine”. This was the position that formed the basis of Ukraine’s independence in 1991 in anticipation of building a democratic society for all of its citizens.
This fact is important to remember in view of the political maneuvering now taking place to destabilize society by promoting ethnic and linguistic divisions and calling into question the idea of citizenship and identity. In turn, good words alone will not sustain the vision of unity and loyalty. Economic security and protection for all citizens under rule of law, a nation governed by the principles of a respected Constitution, these elements will build national pride and identity and will provide legitimacy for the country’s government.
Furthermore, to understand more fully the issues of culture and identity, reference needs to be made to events that are embedded in the nation’s memory bank. Ukraine in the 20th century was a country that most appropriately has been named “Bloodlands” by historian and author Timothy Snyder and this fact also cannot be overlooked.
Ukraine still bears the scars of the Soviet occupation, of the repressions and the Gulag, and the deep scars of the politically motivated Great Famine of 1933, known as the Holodomor, which translates as massive death by starvation. Millions of Ukrainians died during the two-year Soviet-made famine. As historian and Holodomor scholar James Mace perceptively stated – Ukraine is a post-genocide society – a society that is still struggling with the consequences of these traumas. There is hardly a family in Ukraine that has not been victimized by these events. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that the population tends to be mistrustful of government and cynical about claims of the powerful to work for the people. It is a population still vulnerable to fear, suspicion, and loss of faith. In many ways, the nation wants to embrace reconciliation and forgiveness, but many factors prevent such closure.
Yet despite the traumas of the 20th century, in little more than 20 years, Ukraine has moved well beyond its recent totalitarian past. Six presidential elections and numerous Parliamentary elections have taken place and even though there were serious questions of violations during some of them, the one element that remained constant was that the population of Ukraine always came out to vote. Ukraine’s citizens want democracy. And while we would like to see democracy develop at a faster pace, the process of transformation is moving forward, and the process cannot be turned back.
However, while the citizens support the democratic process, there are reasons for the recent pushback to democracy among the power elite. In a country where the current economic elite believe in a political and legal system of “by the few and for the few,” complete political control is essential to maintain the status quo. Combine this impulse with old habits, a totalitarian mindset that is hard to break and the evolution to an open and progressive society is being stifled.
I recall an “anecdote” from the days when the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. During the lengthy and secretive negotiations, President Nixon, Chancellor Willy Brandt, and General Secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev met to discuss their various interests. At one point Nixon said, “You think it is easy for me? Every day I look outside the window of the White House and I see people protesting again my policies, they carry signs against me, they shout “Down with Nixon! Down with Nixon! But, I cannot do anything… because that is democracy.” Willy Brandt also complained and said, “It is so difficult to be chancellor. Every day outside my office I look out and people carry banners against me and chant ‘Down with Brandt!’, but there is nothing I can do… because that is democracy.” Then Brezhnev said, “Gentlemen, I understand – every day I look out the window of the Kremlin and I see people yelling “Down with Nixon! Down with America! Down with Brandt! and there is nothing I can do.”
So indeed old habits are hard to break. There is a struggle taking place between those who still cling to centralized control, and the younger generation that never experienced the closed doors of the Iron Curtain and understands that the future belongs to those with knowledge, innovation, and a fair share at competitiveness.
The current backsliding in democracy and rule of law in Ukraine is of great concern. Furthermore, corruption is so pervasive that it affects every aspect of life and provokes political and economic instability in the entire region.
Recent attacks on culture and education has become pervasive with a focus on disruptions and manipulation for ideological and political purposes that cause social and political unrest. Culture, religion, education, media, and language have been the direct targets.
Examples of this campaign include a focus on the pressure for unification of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, the illegally passed Law on Language, the rewriting of history textbooks and central control of education promoted by the Minister of Education, politically motivated harassment of non-conforming media, massive financing of Russian language and cultural activities, and illegal changes to the Constitution and national security breaches that other speakers will address.
During the past two years, educational institutions have become political targets. Financing of culture and education is selective and often based on political loyalties and lack of political submissiveness is punished.
Duplicity and a continuous gap between declaratory statements and implementation have become the norm. Such a policy led to loss of credibility both at home and in the international arena. The Ministry of Education proposed a law based on central control of universities that has become a topic of scorn and ridicule in the international academic community, and yet, in Ukraine, less than a handful of university rectors openly opposed it. Others, who privately express disapproval with the current policies, are haunted openly by the fear of losing their positions and funding. Such a system prevents serious academic work, innovative research, and blocks the country’s economic growth and competitive position.
A change in leadership in the Ministry of Education is essential. National education cannot be left to the mercy of conforming to the worldview of one minister or a president. Serious changes need to be made now. This is not an issue that affects only schools, universities and research institutions; this is an economic and security issue as well, one that will affect future generations for years.
This presentation cannot bypass the mention of the grave threat to democracy related to the criminalization of politics, the pattern of selective prosecutions, harassment and imprisonment of political opponents and their families and associates, and control over the media.
Regardless of these dangerous patterns, there is no denying that the past 20 years have seen the formation of a civil society. There are encouraging signs in the engagement of the private community and philanthropy. Many non-governmental organizations and foundations have been established. Certain universities pioneered innovative programs, transparency in admissions and degree completion, and they are demanding necessary reforms. As a positive sign, Ukraine’s prime minister established a Committee to Propose a New Law on Higher Education, headed by the Rector of the well-respected Kyiv-Polytechnic Institute with experts in the field from National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and other leading academics.
Other positive signs include social media that is creating new conditions. Technology and innovation is breaking down monopolies on information and control over ideologies and censorship. The internet is a tool that civil society can use to engage and protect itself. Surveys by Internet World Statistics indicate that in 2000, there were 200,000 internet users in Ukraine, or .04% of Ukraine’s population. By 2010, there were 15,300,000 internet users or 33.7% of the population. The numbers keep growing exponentially and now the number is even greater. Such numbers bode well for the growth of civil society. Ukraine is strong in the field of Information Technology and in the 21st century, the country can play a leading world role in this sector.
Surveys in Ukraine demonstrate that regardless of political sympathies, ethnic background or geographic location, people seek a better life for their children and grandchildren, freedom from the fear of political persecution, fair and equal opportunities and a system of education that will provide competitive employment, and a quality of life enjoyed by their European peers.
Therefore the people of Ukraine understand that there is something wrong when individuals who have direct control over education and culture, including financing, are the same ones who send their own children to study abroad in the West. This is an unacceptable double standard and the people of Ukraine know it.
As I close, I must state that the Government of Ukraine needs to release Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuri Lutsenko and all political prisoners. And if I could nominate a candidate for the position of Minister of Education of Ukraine, it would be a person who has in mind the best interests of his or her own country, not a neighboring country, an individual who cares about young people and their potential, not just the interests of a select few, a person who is proud and not ashamed to be a citizen of Ukraine and is happy and eager to speak the nation’s language, Ukrainian. It would be a person who respects the Russian language, and the languages and cultures of all the citizens of Ukraine, including the language and culture of the Tatar people who are also Ukrainian citizens, without denigrating the Ukrainian language, as is being currently done. The new minister will be someone who will not hesitate to collaborate with the best educators in the world, whether they are in the East or in the West, a uniter, not a divider, and someone who respects the dignity of all the citizens of Ukraine. The new minister will be one that will conform Ukraine’s educational system to international norms so that Ukraine’s students can later enter foreign universities for study, rather than returning to Soviet norms of secondary education that were incompatible with those of Europe and North America. The parents and children of Ukraine deserve no less.
And, the rest of the world deserves no less, as well. It is in the interest of Europe, the United States, the people of Ukraine, and the people of the region to support a stable democracy in Ukraine, to avoid conflict in the region and to avoid a return to repressive authoritarianism with control and power in the hands of an elite, self-chosen few.