“We Maidanists Grew Up”: A New Generation of Ukrainian Reform

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On Tuesday, September 28th, members of Ukrainian Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko, Mustafa Nayyem, and Svitlana Zalishchuk gathered in the crowded boardroom of the National Democratic Institute in order to explain their views regarding the present state of Ukraine’s democratic reform. To the casual observer, one thing stood out about their faces – they were all young, each in their mid-30s. Three years ago, before Maidan and the tumultuous events that followed, none of them would have imagined that they would be where they are today. Back then they were bloggers, journalists, nonprofit activists. Now they were in leadership positions, with real power to shape a new Ukraine according to the vision of the next generation. Nayyem put it nicely: “We Maidanists grew up,” he said. “We are ready to take this responsibility.”

However, the task they faced was a challenging one. At the beginning of the conference, Nayyem set the tone when he acknowledged that the initially high expectations of democratic reform in Ukraine after Maidan had not been realized. However, as he and his fellow compatriots repeatedly stressed, this did not mean that Ukraine was not on the right track. Over the course of the discussion, these young reformers discussed the triumphs and setbacks that continue to define the process of democratic reform in the country, as well as the messages they wished to communicate to the American public.

Civil society in Ukraine is vibrant and growing, but it needs help.

As products of and leaders within Ukrainian civil society before their appointment to Parliament in Petro Poroshenko’s electoral bloc in 2014, each of the panelists expressed a sincere respect for the country’s civil society, attesting to its power to affect true social and political change. They stressed that Ukraine represents a country of vast human resources, which have only begun to be tapped into in recent years. Civil society is each day becoming more active and sophisticated, and is undergoing an unprecedented renaissance in the country’s history. Nayyem expressed his view that Ukrainian civil society had reached a critical point of development, stating that, unlike after the Orange Revolution, civil society after Maidan continues to be one of the single most active and impactful political forces in the country. This furthers the legacy of the Maidan revolution in a very real way, keeping government accountable to the demands of the Ukrainian people who form an active and informed citizenry.

However, despite this impressive progress, the panelists admit that Ukrainian civil society cannot carry the full weight of reform on its own, nor has it reached its final and ideal form. Zalishchuk suggested that the network of civil society should be expanded to new actors and organizations, while legislation such as the electoral law should be changed to be more accommodating to civil society forces. Leschenko argued that watchdog organizations required more support and funding, while Nayyem stressed that more citizens should be brought directly into the political process.

Institutions need to be strengthened to ensure reform regardless of politicking.

Just as civil society needs strengthening, so too do institutions. According to Serhiy Leschenko, progress in reform can only be assured over the long term if key institutions are kept separate from volatile political influences and struggles for power. Svitlana Zalishchuk mentioned that certain independent institutions in need of special protections include the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, Prosecutors Office, and Constitutional Court.

Ukraine needs the support of the international community now more than ever.

The MPs expressed their gratitude for international actors such as the EU and US for their support of Ukrainian reform. However, they stressed that, in order to maintain the momentum of reform and not regress back to business as usual, it is now more important than ever to have the active and involved support of the international community.

This support is needed in many forms. Mustafa Nayyem, himself deeply involved in the work of reforming law enforcement agencies in the country, stressed that Ukraine requires both international experts to provide nuanced advice on this reform process, as well as funds for training the national police force. Svitlana Zalishchuk, on the other hand, underscored the importance of Western partners in helping Ukraine to grapple with the continued Russian threat, and called for stronger international consensus on the use of sanctions against Russia, as well as military aid for Ukraine to deter further intrusion into its territory.

They are the future.

In their presentation, the panelists were very open about the fact that they were new actors working within an old and flawed system. They acknowledged that corruption and antiquated policies were significant obstacles to be overcome before lasting democratic change could be realized, and that they, armed with little experience and good motivations, were as yet little equipped to resolve them alone. However, despite these challenges, they were each truly inspiring in their unwavering optimism and commitment to realizing their vision for their country’s future.

Although none of these MPs occupy a senior post in government at the moment, they stressed that their generation of reformers held true leaders that would one day bring the country out of its current troubles. For the moment, they are biding their time – learning and gaining experience in the political process, so that when they finally reach the highest offices, they will be ready to truly lead.

“There is no question that some day we will come (into higher positions),” promised Nayyem. “We will. It is a matter of time… I am happy to have the opportunity to learn. We will play in this game and become much smarter, not to fight – but to win.”

April Gordon is a first year graduate student in CERES, and a graduate of Georgetown SFS.  She specializes in international development in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.

Event Summary: Central Asian Fighters in Syria

Kate Baughman (MAERES ’18) attended an event hosted by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University entitled “Central Asian Fighters in Syria: Classification, Factors, Scale Assessment” on Monday, September 19. 

On September 19th, Yerlan Karin, Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, spoke about his organization’s findings on Central Asian fighters in radical Islamist groups in Syria at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He began by outlining the sources of information used in the investigation, namely official data disseminated by Central Asian governments, foreign research, radical Islamist groups’ websites and social media, and most intriguingly, interviews with Kazakh fighters who had been imprisoned for terrorism upon their return from Syria. Official data can be suspect, Karin said, as authorities in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are reluctant to admit the presence of their citizens among these groups in Syria, while leaders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan tend to exaggerate figures in order to emphasize the need for increased defensive measures.

Compared to past conflicts in Afghanistan, Karin argued, the radical Islamist cause in Syria is much more conducive to Central Asian involvement. Logistical factors such as sophisticated weapon supply structures, organized training systems and relatively quick and simple travel to the Syrian border have attracted unprecedented levels of Central Asian would-be jihadists. What’s more, many Central Asian governments have debated the merits of restricting the movements of these fighters, preferring that potential terrorists perish abroad rather than create problems at home. Karin argued that these authorities are mistaken in their thinking, as the absence of radicals in Central Asia does not preclude the potential of their presence in Syria to inspire terrorist acts at home.

According to Karin, there are marked differences between the presence and role of Central Asians and those of other ethnic and national origins within radical Islamist groups in Syria. ISIS and Al-Qaeda view Central Asia as recruiting grounds, not as a theater for jihad itself. Central Asians are often more ideologically invested than other groups, and as such are promoted to higher positions in greater proportions. Many Central Asians also attempt to create ethnic substructures within ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The exclusively Uzbek “Jamaat of Imam Bukhari” is one example of this type of subgroup. Lastly, unlike fighters from other regions, Central Asians often bring their wives, children and other family members with them to Syria. This last trend creates a unique set of problems, as the death of fighters in battle leaves many of these family members stranded abroad. Many of the Central Asian women and children left widowed or fatherless by the conflict are then funneled into Islamist training camps in order to become the next generation of fighters.

Interviews with former fighters in Kazakh prisons shed light on the varying motivations and circumstances that lead Central Asian men to leave for Syria to fight. Karin identified three categories of Central Asian men that go on to join ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria. The first two, which he terms “hostages” and “deceived believers,” are the most common types of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria. Hostages are driven abroad due to monetary or legal troubles, most often falling under the influence of radical groups while working in Russia as migrant laborers. Deceived believers are those who flee to Syria expecting to find a fully-developed and unified Islamic society. This is often followed by disillusionment with infighting among Islamist groups in Syria, and many deceived believers attempt to leave for home within weeks or months of their arrival. The last category of fighters, “fanatics,” are well aware of the circumstances of the war in Syria and are committed to participation in the cause regardless of these factors. With very little resources dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning fighters and their families, the increasing numbers of desperate and disillusioned former extremists attempting to return home to Central Asia are already posing problems for governments in the region.

In its unique, multi-vector approach, the investigation outlined by Yerlan Karin provides an important perspective on the motivations, experiences and characteristics of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria.

Interning with the Wilson Center – Heejae Park’s Impressions

This summer I interned at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank which fosters research, study, and discussion concerned with policy in national and world affairs. Specifically, I worked at the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP), which is a part of the History and the Public Policy Program (HAPP) at the Wilson Center.

HAPP has several projects, including NKIDP, the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP). In order to inform policy makers, analysts, and scholars, HAPP facilitates and sponsors academic research in non-US archives about history by translating and publishing primary sources from non-US archives.

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Before I started my internship in earnest, I had a chance to go to the National Archives at College Park on a field trip with all the staff and other interns at HAPP. The National Archives at College Park has more documents, particularly more foreign service documents, than the National Archives in DC. Before heading to the National Archives, I found an interesting document called Russian-Language Publications and Records in Pyongyang and Other Locations in Korea, 10/1956-1/1958 while looking at the National Archives catalog page. Since it takes more than an hour to receive requested documents in the archives, it is always better to print the form of the document you are interested in (see first picture below) and submit it as soon as you arrive. I received several big stacks of documents on this subject, and the second picture below shows some examples of them.

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As an intern at the Wilson Center, my main job was to look at Russian documents written in the Soviet Embassy in North Korea during the Cold War era. For example, in July, I read Russian documents which were written in 1969.

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The documents include the records of conversations that occurred between the Soviet Ambassador and many Korean officials, such as Pak Seung-cheol, Kim Yong-nam or Kim Il Sung. There are also long and detailed reports by Soviet diplomats on topics such as North Korea’s domestic political or economic situation and relations with other communist allies, the Soviet Union and China. I read through these Russian documents, created a basic catalog, and posted them on the Wilson Center catalog website.

This job was fascinating because it is always hard to get reliable information about North Korea. Though we do have access to North Korean official publications, they do not always reveal the full truth. However, these Soviet Union documents and the diplomatic records, known to be reliable sources on North Korea, allow us to get a better understanding of both what was happening inside North Korea and with its international relationships, particularly with the Soviet Union and China throughout the Cold War.

In addition to creating a catalog and posting it on the website, I have had several opportunities to work with scholars directly. For example, Dr. Yafeng Xia, a professor of history at Long Island University, was working on his book on the Sino-North Korean relationship during 1949 to 1975 at the Wilson Center. Since the Russian documents that I read and made a catalog of included material on the Sino-North Korean relationship on that period, Dr. Yafeng Xia asked me to gather some information from the documents that he could include in his book. I discussed with him what might be useful for his book and felt great that I was able to be helpful.

Aside from my work, I learned a lot and met interesting people at the Wilson Center by attending various conferences and events which took place right in the building. For example, there was a film screening event, at which I watched a film called “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” by Mark Jonathan Harris, which described the Ukrainian crisis. Not only did the movie provide me with a deeper understanding on the Ukrainian crisis, but I was also able to listen to Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s talk after the movie. During my internship this summer, I attended a number of interesting events on Russian and North Korean affairs.

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Lastly, another exciting part of interning at the Wilson Center was that, since many scholars and important figures come to the Wilson Center and work for a year to finish their books or do a project, there are amazing people here that I can meet with and talk to. A very good example of this was the former Foreign Minister of Russia, Andrei Kozyrev, who served under President Yeltsin from 1991 to 1996. Having lunch with him was very interesting because I could hear some fun anecdotes from his time as a foreign minister. He will be finishing his memoir at the Wilson Center and the book will be published while he is working there for a year.

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I have enjoyed my summer here at the Wilson Center. I am very pleased that, thanks to my job, I could narrow down my academic interest and could learn a lot by going on field trips, attending events, and having opportunities to meet interesting figures. I think the Wilson Center is one of the best places to learn at as an intern.