While the world celebrates and mourns Nelson Mandela, another great drama is playing out in Ukraine, Europe’s largest country. While South Africans throng the streets of Soweto to honor the man whose moral courage overcame the brutality of apartheid, thousands of young (as well as not-so-young) men and women brave winter weather and the security forces to stand for democracy in the streets of Kiev.
This fall our office was privileged to host as an intern a leader of the young Initiatives of Change team in Ukraine. Lena Kashkarova is among the many young professionals in Eastern Europe who have been trained by the IofC program Foundations for Freedom. Based in Kiev it fosters the values of honesty and personal responsibility that are essential for free, democratic and just societies.
Lena leads the House in Baranivka project. With their own hands she and her colleagues are building a meeting place and establishing a community of people who are working to improve society. Few countries suffered more than Ukraine in the last century. Millions of Ukranians died under Stalin and under Nazi occupation. Lena is a facilitator for an important project called Healing the Past.
In November, Initiatives of Change and Open Ukraine Foundation jointly led a forum for 51 young professionals from 13 countries of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. Held in association with Chatham House, Britain’s Institute of International Affairs, it drew people working in government, academia and civil society on the topic Towards the European Union through Good Governance. Participants were selected through a competition for the best policy papers on good governance.
Last week, as the protest movement in Ukraine grew, Lena cut short her internship in Richmond to fly home to be with her colleagues. Before leaving she shared with us her feelings about the growing demand for change in her country: “It is about dignity, being treated with respect and feeling responsible for what happens in your country… This is not about economics and trade agreements. It’s about honesty, accountability, rule of law and democracy. Young people are not scared. They don’t have the experience of the Soviet Union and they feel they can really change something.”
South Africa had the good fortune of transitioning to democracy after the collapse of Soviet communism. But as Chrystia Freeland writes in the New York Times “The struggle that seemed to be over in 1989 is still going on...Russia and the former Central Asian republics developed a new, post-communist form of authoritarianism; China never dropped the original, communist version, though it finally figured out, at least for now, how to combine it with robust economic growth.
“Meanwhile, back at home, free-market capitalism is feeling tired. Europe is economically sclerotic, politically fragile and flirting with xenophobia. The United States is still struggling to recover from the 2007-9 recession. The neo-authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow are, by contrast, increasingly confident… What is important about the demonstrators [in Kiev] is their certainty that democracy matters, and that it can be made to work.”
When I first visited South African in 1977 it was hard to imagine how the country could transition from the grip of apartheid to a non-racial democracy or how horrific bloodshed could be avoided. Yet South Africans surprised the world. Paying tribute to the man who made this possible, President Obama said, “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world -- you, too, can make his life’s work your own.”
People like Lena and others in the Foundations for Freedom network embody Mandela’s spirit. They are the best hope for Ukraine. Maybe they will also inspire Western Europeans and those of us in the USA to take our democratic responsibilities more seriously.