“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.