A Berlin Perspective on Ukraine: The war has not been won, but battles are being won

What Should Ukraine Do in a Rapidly Changing World? Democracy Promoter Michael Meyer-Resende’s advice: go back to the basics of liberal democracy and make lots of friends

Show hosts

Bohdan Nahaylo


Michael Meyer-Resende

A Berlin Perspective on Ukraine: The war has not been won, but battles are being won
A Berlin Perspective on Ukraine: The war has not been won, but battles are being won

Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling. Your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine, with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news.

FOCUS INTERVIEW: Democracy Reporting International Director Michael Meyer-Resende Puts Ukraine in a Global Comparative Perspective




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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Democracy Reporting International Director Michael Meyer-Resende Puts Ukraine in a Global Comparative Perspective

Nahaylo: Welcome to our new program of Ukraine Calling. This is Bohdan Nahaylo, standing in at Hromadske Radio. And today my guest is the Director of Democracy Reporting International, based in Berlin, an international NGO that supports democratization in various countries. But I guess Michael Meyer-Resende will explain in a second whаt they actually do. I have the honour of representing this organization in this country, as some of you know. And today we’ll be talking with Michael about how the process of democratization, the process of democratic transformation in Ukraine is perceived from the outside, what are the main challenges that are perceived at this point in less than auspicious international conditions, and generally, an assessment of where things are moving. So Michael, welcome to our studio.

Meyer-Resende: Thank you, Bohdan.

Nahaylo: Tell us first and foremost, where was DRI (Democracy Reporting International) founded? Why? With what purpose?

Meyer-Resende: Well, we were a group of people from different countries in Europe, and a bit more than ten years ago we thought that we would like to have an organization that is quite flexible and that can also speak quite clearly on issues of democracy. Most of us had worked in the OSCE, or the European Union, and we felt we wanted to be part of something that could be faster than international organizations, and more flexible and also speak up clearly for democracy where we saw the need.

Nahaylo: And where was that need initially?

Meyer-Resende: Initially we focused a lot on the Arab region, North Africa, on the Middle East, because there were very few linkages between European groups. And that became very important in 2011, obviously. We then had good networks and were very busy during the transitions in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Libya, and these places.

Nahaylo: And how did you end up in Ukraine?

Meyer-Resende: Ukraine, we followed of course, the whole Maidan development and we felt, as a European group, that this was particularly important to us. First, because many of us knew Ukraine and had worked here before. Second, because the thing we do is to think about the day after revolutions and big changes. And this was happening here [in Ukraine]. And we have seen it after the Orange Revolution, which then went nowhere, and we thought if we can make a little contribution here, to support this revolution, to support real changes in Ukraine, this would be satisfying to us. And, as a European group, we also felt there’s a European aspiration to all this transformation, that we were in a good position to link up with Ukrainian friends and partners on this.

Nahaylo: Listeners will always want to know where does the money come from, OK? You say a European group, but who is supporting this effort of DRI in Ukraine at present?

Meyer-Resende: That’s the German government, the Foreign Ministry of Germany, and generally our funding comes from them. Sometimes from the EU, sometimes from Switzerland, or the United Kingdom, and it’s all based on particular projects that we do.

Nahaylo: And in two or three words, what are we [DRI] concentrating on in Ukraine?

Meyer-Resende: In Ukraine, I think we saw the risks that the Orange Revolution story would repeat itself. You have a big upheaval on the street, but in the end institutions do not change. And we felt that we want to make our contribution. We have a lot of good technical expertise on things like election laws, separation of powers, checks and balances, judiciary, to monitor how these changes would go and to support Ukrainians who monitor these changes. To see that it’s really translated into a new institutional set-up of the country.

Nahaylo: And of course DRI doesn’t just act in a vacuum. It acts in partnership with other players in this area. Do you feel that in Berlin and in Brussels there is still an adequate understanding of the situation in Ukraine, of the needs of Ukraine today?

Meyer-Resende: Yes, I do. I meet policy-makers of course, from the EU and from the German Foreign Office and other Europeans. And I think at that level it’s well understood. They follow very closely what’s happening in Ukraine. I’m a bit more worried about public opinion. We already saw the problems in the Netherlands, and I feel there is a bit of a Ukraine fatigue, or even an element of not following it at all anymore, because now it’s less spectacular than it was around the Revolution.And now we are more in the grey days of making it happen, which is less exciting. And I do feel that there is still a problem with many people who think that Ukraine is still the old Ukraine, and it’s all about corruption and oligarchs, and there’s a sense of why are we, middle-class citizens of Europe, paying taxes that then ends up in the hands of Ukrainian oligarchs? So of course I am arguing against this opinion. That we must stand with Ukrainians to push back this political economy of Ukraine, but that’s still the biggest PR problem I think that Ukraine has at the internationall level. I’m not talking about the Russian role, of course.

Nahaylo: Is it simply a question of the slowness of reform, or is it also a kind of PR inadequacy, a failure of Ukraine itself, not just the Foreign Ministry or civil society to get its message across, to keep, to sustain interest outside the country?

Meyer-Resende: Failure is a strong word. I think some symbolic action would be useful, and of course the easiest way to expose this problem of oligarchs is, and you are told this all the time, well the President still kept everything and he has his chocolate empire.And that’s the one fact that people know about, and you cannot refute that. That’s a fact. And that of course, doesn’t make it easier to show the more nuanced reality of Ukraine, I would say. So it needs a bit this symbolic element, I would say, to make the case stronger. And otherwise, yes, I think Ukrainians should be very, very active to showcase all the things they are doing. You know, in Europe we are sliding into a democracy crisis and Ukrainians can tell us a lot about it. But this has to be developed more, that people understand there are lots of people who work here with a lot of passion and very high professional skills to turn this country around, and I would be happy if we saw more of that in the rest of Europe.

Nahaylo: Well the issue I think is not that the President is a businessman and an oligarch and President. I think it’s a question of the transparency that’s involved and the extent to which he runs the country as a president and statesman, or the country as a business, or the principle of business interests, and this is why there are doubts. My own feeling is that there is a lack of proper, adequate communication with the people. The President seems to be very effective when he speaks to CNN, or Al-Jazeera or Bloomberg or at Davos recently. And yet, he doesn’t seem to be able, or willing even, to invest the time to explain things to his own population,which is very concerned about what’s happening.

Meyer-Resende: Yes, you are closer to the action of course. You understand Ukrainian, but that is a big problem in transitions because in the years after revolutionary events, you need to explain why things are slow, why you cannot change the state within months or even a few years. This is a long-term undertaking and it needs constant explanation I think, and leadership to get through that period.

Nahaylo: And one of the problems here, of course, is that people are so preoccupied with what’s happening in Ukraine itself and what’s going to happen tomorrow, that they neglect the comparative perspective. They don’t see things in context, whether historical or geographical. If you were to pause for a second and say, look at some of the examples that history has provided us with recently, which countries would you point to, do you think from your experience, that Ukraine could learn from, or at least, watch more closely, or study what happened there?

Meyer-Resende: One that jumps to mind, and I think it’s no surprise to anybody in Ukraine, is Poland. I very much remember in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, you know I was quite young still, but how my older relatives, uncles, talked about Poland as being surely the big problem now, having huge agriculture and old mines and how would this country would ever get onto its feet.

Nahaylo: And corruption

Meyer-Resende: And corruption as well, exactly. And Poland managed that, managed that as one of the leading economies in the region. I lived in Poland for some years. In contrast to East Germans, the Poles really and to a large extent, really did it themselves.

Nahaylo: Was it because they were willing to go through what’s euphemistically called shock therapy?

Meyer-Resende: Well that’s still quite contested in Poland, how good that was. I think it was an element. But I also felt that in Poland there’s a strong middle class willing to do this, to go through this, to have a long-term national interest in mind. I do feel that exists in Ukraine as well, and that gives me some hope. But now Poland, I look at it a bit more critically, because I think what the current government is doing, stepping beyond the border of constitutional democracy, trying to destroy the Constitutional Court. And they were elected by quite a sizeable number of the electorate, I think 37%, and that makes me wonder a little bit about long-term democratic education also. That’s something to keep in mind in Ukraine, I would say. One thing is to get the economy going again, to open up the political system, but really the political culture also, to make a very conscious effort that people have extend on agreement on the past, that not every question can be dragged into extreme polarization, and on fundamental values, and that seems now less strong than I had expected it to be in Poland.

Nahaylo: Poland seems to have had a head start in the sense that it was a perhaps more of a cohesive or united country, I think. I may be wrong, though there were the divisions of the Communist era obviously, between those who had supported that era and the more Catholic, conservative, traditional, liberal, radical. Here we’ve had, as we know, the regional issues, the language issues, Russia’s influence, which wasn’t anywhere near as strong in Poland. But I think you’ll probably agree, that quite a lot of progress has been made in recent years in building and consolidating a political, a civil society here and a political nation, which is something new for Ukraine.

Meyer-Resende: Yes, that’s true. Ukraine is a little bit different from Poland, which is a very homogeneous state. Basically it has no minorities, no religious minorities. I think Poland clearly existed as a nation in 1989, and years before. It was just a matter of rebuilding a state. While in Ukraine, everything is more complex, because this is a period where the nation is being re-built, or built. Of course external shocks like Crimea and Eastern Ukraine may have helped this. I have a feeling that many people have a stronger sense now of being Ukrainian having to stick together to overcome these challenges.

Nahaylo: So, paradoxically, Putin, instead of fragmenting the country, has unified it.

Meyer-Resende: Yes, that’ what external shocks do. That is, I think, happening here. Civil society here is very impressive. They were fighting a little war on Maidan Square. When did this last happen in Europe? We have to think back a long time to find a similar situation.

Nahaylo: Do you feel, as many young Ukrainians feel, that they are now the embodiment or custodians, guardians, of old traditional European values, which somehow are being neglected or forgotten in Western Europe as it becomes preoccupied with new challenges? And the fight here is essentially a continuation of principles and values that Solidarity [Polish Trade Union from the 1980s] and Charter 77 [Czechoslovak Human Rights Group formed in the 1970s] once defended? Many of my Ukrainian colleagues say, “We are the cutting edge of Europe. We are a barrier to non-European values. We are trying to defend them but we are not understood. We are not getting support that we want.”

Meyers-Resende: It’s a bit of a generational thing. When the Berlin Wall fell I was 20. We had travelled to Eastern Europe, had lived in other countries. I had a very strong sense of historical weight in that moment. It shaped my life and that is why I always love doing this democracy work. If I look at younger people, for example, in Germany,things do not look the same to them. They think that global challenges are globalization, organizing global markets, organizing the Internet, maybe using the possibilities of the Internet for new political participation. You feel that they have moved beyond that point, that they moved beyond that part of history. I think that part of history never goes away. It’s an eternal struggle. They re-discovered it now because our country is also polarizing more. We see all the pressure now is coming from the changing situation with Brexit, the election of Trump, and the Russian role. I hope they will re-discover it, and if they do, they will see that in Ukraine they have like-minded people who have gained much more experience by now than many of ourselves have. Because in Germany you do not need extremely strong civil society because the state functions, the media is free and so on. 

Nahaylo: I am talking to Michael Meyer-Resende who is a director of international NGO Democracy Reporting International, which operates in a number of countries undergoing transitional challenges and has been present in Ukraine for over three years now. Michael, if you were to look at the situation in Ukraine on what’s been happening over the last few years in terms of democratic transformation and the state of reforms, would you say a glass is half empty or half full?

Meyer-Resende: I am an optimist. I will generally not look at bad news, I will look first of all at good news. A lot of things have happened here. Public procurement and transparency, e-declarations, judiciary reforms, decentralization. You need to look a little bit closer. It is not easy to fit all of these in a simple news line in a newspaper.   But you see that there is a mighty struggle happening in Ukraine and that battles are won. The war has not been won, but battles are being won. I am not so pessimistic. I think that civil society has shown itself to be very strong, and understood the lessons of the Orange Revolution, that you need to keep going. I meet a lot of Ukrainians who are very energized, and want to make this change happen. The bigger doubt is maybe international picture, because it is clear that the role of the EU and IMF is very critical to move this forward. And with election of Donald Trump we are cannot sure that the international scene remains …

Nahaylo: Let me ask you about the European side because it’s important. People often think that Americans and Soros Foundation are the driving forces. They forget that there are many European countries supporting the democratic process through the EU, OSCE, and any other organizations in regional support initiatives. You mentioned the Ukraine fatigue. Are we in danger, at the time of political change and rise of populism, that Ukraine will fall off the map of Europe, and there will be simply no political and moral support but even a financial commitment to sustaining these reforms?

Meyer-Resende: Yes. There is a risk. Right wing populists… The Netherlands referendum was the clear example. It [Ukraine] is not on their agenda. Look at all their programs and their behavior. They feel close to Russia, to challenge what we thought were consensus in our societies. If they win across Europe, the situation can change quite drastically. Now I am not that pessimistic. The biggest risk perhaps is the elections in France.  If Le Pen wins, we would have a major problem not only towards Ukraine but the EU as a whole. If Fillon wins, the conservative presence would not be ideal for Ukraine either, because he has shown to be quite close to Russia. But he is still a democrat, and a reasonable figure. I think the French elections will be the most important. Germany is also going to vote, and if anything unexpected is going to happen, there is no chance right wing populists will sit in the government in Germany in the end of this year. That risk is lower.

Nahaylo: Good. Because there are fears about what will happen in Germany, the key player in Europe as we know. Merkel’s position has been of paramount importance in the last two-three years both because of Minsk process and support for Ukraine and keeping that European backbone.

Meyer-Resende: It’s worth mentioning that Europe is supporting this process a lot. I know more about Germany,because we are Berlin based. But many other European governments, like the Scandinavians, and Switzerland, traditionally support democracy, and do so strongly here. UK as well. I hope they will keep doing that. It is still the oldest democracy. We really hope to stay with our British friends in this. 

Nahaylo: Michael Meyer-Resende, director of Democracy Reporting International, based in Berlin. These are hard times for democracy as such. We’ve spoken about populism and rise of the right wing, Trump’s election. How do we get around this? How do we convince people in Ukraine and in Europe not to become cynical, not to become apathetic, not just hold the arms and give up?

Meyer-Resende: That’s a good question. I think because we took this triumph of liberal democracy so much for granted in 1989, that it took us too long to understand an opposition that was building up to it. Now we are riding on this wave without realizing that it’s about to break. It strange now. For me it means to go back to basics to liberal democracy. I do like to frame it as left versus right or political ideologies. I am a democrat, and I have no problem with conservative government, or a left wing government. I may have personal preferences, but as a democrat I can live with all of them if they respect the rules of the game. This is in question now in several countries.  We will see how it plays out in the United States. For me, this is the biggest worry. How many people have conviction to say, “As a democrat I can live with everybody else, but let’s really defend together against whoever would violate democratic principles.” We have to talk much more, to make an effort again. We took it for granted. But we have now a big divide between cities and the countryside all over the world, especially in the democratic countries. There must be much more engagement with each other, talking with each other. We started talking to conservative parties. There are many sentiments I can understand. The question is how we can rebuild a common ground for this kind of agenda. Fundamentally, I am very convinced with Churchill’s statement that it is not a great form of government, but there is still nothing better than democracy. 

Nahaylo: Thank you, Michael. Because we are running out of time, if you were going to give some recommendations or words of friendly advice to listeners in Ukraine, in particular younger people, what would you advise them to do? What are the priorities they should focus on in a short term?

Meyer-Resende: If we look at democracy…  They should absolutely continue what they are doing now. Young lawyers, political scientists, psychologists, whoever is involved keep this agenda up, look at the details. It is very technical how you configure court or judicial council, but these are all nuts and bolts of the democratic system. People are on it and they must keep on it. Only that way you can slowly push back the oligarchs and the political economy that we have here. Otherwise, I think, Ukrainians should be proud of themselves, extraverted and go to Europe, invite friends and make lots of friends. Europe should discover this country. Many people do not know Ukraine. It has been somehow lost not only in translation, but also in transition.

Nahaylo: Sadly, many Ukrainians do not know their own country.

Meyer-Resende: That is perhaps true.

Nahaylo: It is a tragedy, but also a potential resource that can be tapped to…

Meyer-Resende: This country is full of European history. It should be inspiring to all of us.

Nahaylo: Thank you for those words. You have been listening to my discussion with Michael Meyer-Resende, Director of Democracy Reporting International. Thank you very much for listening.


EU Ukraine Relations

Ukraine and Russia were not mentioned during the opening of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Tuesday. Ukrainian media reported that Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland did not include Russia, or its aggression against Ukraine, in his speech about the challenges facing Europe. http://www.unian.ua/politics/1740527-ni-ukrajini-ni-agresiji-yagland-v-pare-jodnogo-razu-ne-vjiv-slovo-rosiya-govoryachi-pro-problemi-es.html

The following day, on Wednesday, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on Ukraine. It states that PACE welcomes Ukraine’s ambitious reform programme, stresses that “much progress has been achieved” in changing the legal framework needed for the reforms. But it also warned that progress on combating corruption was still “too slow”. 

EU Court upholds sanctions on Russian defense industry
Also on Wednesday, the General Court of the European Union ruled to keep sanctions against the Russian defense industry in place. A Russian state owned arms company,Almaz-Antey, had appealed to the court to lift sanctions against it. The company’s funds were frozen back in July 2014, after Malaysian Airlines flight 2017 was shot down over Donets’k. Almaz-Antey produces anti-aircraft weaponry for the Russian army, including surface to air missiles, and missile launchers. Russia is accused of supplying these weapons into the war in Donbas. The Court ruled that the European Council “did not act disproportionately in deciding to freeze the funds of entities supporting, materially or financially, actions of the Russian Government which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.” It also noted that Almaz-Antey did not call into question the purely factual information in the case. Almaz-Antey’s general director Yana Novikova called the decision political. We’ll post a link to the report on our webpage. 

The US, the Sanctions Question, and War by Any Other Name

Sanctions against Russia are also a subject under discussion in the US. Donald Trump professed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the US presidential election campaign, and has not indicated that this sentiment will somehow diminish now that he has taken the oath of office. Trump, and others in his camp, have intimated that better relations with Russia will be a “good thing” for the US. This is raising alarms that the US might scale back sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and its war in eastern Ukraine. To keep those sanctions in place Senators Ben Cardin and John McCain introduced a bipartisan bill “The Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017” intended to codify the Obama administration’s executive orders on sanctions. According to the Atlantic Council’s Alina Polyakova,this bill is the best hope for keeping Russia sanctions in place.

Unites States Army Major Amos C. Fox examines the Russia Ukraine war from a military perspective in an article for West Point’s Institute of Modern War. According to Fox, cyber warfare, hybrid warfare, are all just buzz words for shiny new concepts. He argues that Russia has in fact waged rather conventional war in Ukraine, selecting siege warfare as their military modus operandi of choice. Fox uses the battles of Ilovais’k, Donetsk airport and Debal’tseve to illustrate his thesis and concludes that siege warfare in Ukraine is convenient for Moscow because it allows Russia to transfer military power into political progress, while obfuscating the associated cost. Russia has used this same approach in Syria in the siege of Aleppo, using air power in place of the rocket and artillery fire in Ukraine. The goal of Fox’s piece is to raise awareness in the US armed forces to the conventional capabilities Russia has used in Ukraine and prepare accordingly.

War and The 22 Push Up Challenge in Ukraine

As war continues in the Donbas, the 22 Push Up Challenge is going viral in Ukraine. This is a global campaign to raise awareness for suicide prevention among veterans, and to honour military service members and veterans. It started in the United States back in 2011. Last summer it became a social media phenomenon when celebrities began to join. They posted videos of themselves doing 22 push ups for 22 days in a row. Ukrainians also started doing the challenge, but this week it went viral. On Tuesday January 24th, a video of 700 cadets of Ukraine’s National Military Academy doing push ups in formation in the Academy’s quad began buzzing around the internet. Kyiv’s Mayor VitaliiKlitschko also posted a video of himself taking up the challenge. And encouraging others too. We’ll post links to the videos on our webpage. 

This aspect of the war is becoming increasingly important as hostilities drag on. Although casualty statistics are lower than they were a year ago, heavy shelling continues every day. Over the past week one Ukrainian soldier was killed, and nine were wounded. And on Saturday a civilian bus came under fire.

Media Freedom Deteriorates in areas not controlled by Ukrainian government

OSCE reported that the situation with freedom of speech continues to deteriorate in parts of Ukraine not controlled by the government. Over 350 websites have been banned in areas of the so-called Luhans’k and Donets’k Peoples’ Republics. Access to Ukrainian media continues to be restricted. Media workers suffer from continued threats and intimidation. And two bloggers, Eduard Nedelyaev and GennadiyBenitskiy,were recently arrested in the “LNR.” On 20 January Crimean journalist MykolaSemena was indicted on charges of “public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” If convicted, he faces up to 5 years in prison.

Dunja Mijatović, OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, called for the charges to be dropped, and condemned the overall situation, and called upon those in charge to protect the safety of journalists and media freedom.  


This week’s song for you is called “Макабрична візія,” which means, A Macabre Vision. The music is Ihor Solomatin’s, the lyrics/poem by Yurko Pozaiak, written back in 1988. 


On Sunday the French Socialist Party will be selecting its presidential candidate for the April election. And the IMF has once again postponed considering the next loan tranche to Ukraine – this item was not included in the agenda for its February 3rd meeting. We’ll be following these and other stories for you. Tune in next week for a new episode. If you’d like to receive our weekly podcast in your mailbox, or if you have any comments or suggestions, please write to us, our address is [email protected]. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko and Oksana Smerechuk. Headlines by Marta Dyczok and Irena Chalupa. Sound engineers Andriy Izdryk and Anna Kirishun.Web support Natalia Kucheriava.