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Even during the all-out war, reforms in Ukraine are continuing — Michael Druckman

This is Ukraine Calling and our guest today is Michael Druckman — Director of IRI Ukraine (International Republican Institute),

Even during the all-out war, reforms in Ukraine are continuing — Michael Druckman

Andriy Kulykov: Hello everybody who joins Ukraine Calling for this time, and our guest today is Michael Druckman. He is Director of IRI Ukraine, which stands for the International Republican Institute, rather reputed organisation in many countries, and one that’s been working in Ukraine since 1994. Together with the country, the International Republican Institute Ukraine has gone through many changes, reacting to the changing circumstances in Ukraine, but probably the biggest change, supposedly, came on the 24th of February this year. So the first question, quite logically is, how did you have to adapt to what has happened on the 24th against the background of your usual operation, Michael?

Michael Druckman: Well thank you very much for having me today, joining you and your guests. I think, like everyone else on February 24th, there was a day that focused entirely on keeping people safe, on finding out where out teams were, our staff were, and making sure that people were moving to places that they felt were more safe. Work was obviously of a secondary nature. So it was a matter of keeping track of our team, and getting everyone settled and relocated where they felt, again, most comfortable. Everyone of course was assisting family members, trying to keep track of their own families, find safety, move to where it was best. And then of course, moving into that initial phase of the full-scale invasion. We had staff that joined the Armed Services of Ukraine, we had staff that went into volunteering, staff that were doing whatever was necessary to protect Ukraine, and of course, ensure their own safety. So we allowed our team as much time as they needed to do that; that was obviously the priority. Now, within a few weeks of that taking place we shifted back into, what is it IRI can do right now? Obviously we’re not preparing for local elections, we’re not working with political parties or working with local governments on how best to manage public transportation or waste management. It is, what can we do in our small way, not being a humanitarian organisation, but how can we assist?

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So we began focusing on, what is it that we can do to help Ukrainian cities with some material assistance? Something not normally done, but USAID, who funds our programs in Ukraine, really stepped up and was very flexible in allowing its partner orgnisations to do what they felt was necessary to assist. So we began by supplying gloves and helmets for cities like Chernihiv and Mykolaiv to have what they needed to assist in recovering bodies, recovering people, rescuing individuals, rebuilding. We worked to supply several cities with IT equipment, printers, things that had either been destroyed or cities that were overwhelmed by the number of Ukrainians relocating to their cities, not having enough capacity to take in these, what we call internally displaced persons (IDPs). Working with local governments like Khmelnytskyi to provide parapsychology, first aid training for individuals. Many cities have been offering many, many services to IDPs that have had to come from central Ukraine, eastern Ukraine and southern Ukraine — many of these individuals are not able to use those services right away, as everyone’s experienced such trauma – and necessary to provide space and time, and some professional help for those individuals, so they can then go out and help their families and make the most of what services the municipalities are offering. So we’ve shifted our work in many ways over the last few months. We’re still focused on working with Ukrainian cities and governments, local governments, which has been our focus prior to the invasion, and we’ve continued to conduct polling research. We’ve conducted two national public opinion surveys since the war began. And again, this is so that we can help show the world, what is it Ukrainians think of the war –

AK: And what were you asking about?

MD: Do Ukrainians feel confident they’ll be victorious in this war? The answer is overwhelmingly, yes. Do Ukrainians have confidence in their government, do they approve of the activities of President Zelensky, the armed forces, the governemnt of Ukraine? Overwhelmingly, yes; 90% on many of those questions. What do Ukrainians think about the future, the end of the conflict? What does Ukraine look like when this war ends? And the overwhelming response is, Ukraine’s territory returns to its 1991 internationally-recognised borders, including Crimea.

AK: Let me ask, how different will Ukraine be from what it used to be?

MD: I think this would be an excellent topic for a focus group discussions, to sit around with different groups of Ukrainians to look at that. I think we all know that it’s going to be a different place. I think we all know that everyone’s gone through various forms of emotional trauma, physical trauma, that hasn’t been processed yet. Politically it’s going to look very different as well. We look forward to thinking about after Ukraine’s victory, but at the moment, this is a big question mark.

AK: Michael Druckman, Director of IRI Ukraine is our interlocutor in Ukraine Calling, and he’s painted quite a picture of what IRI does. And among other things, you said some things that we normally do. Can you say that you are back to business as usual, back to business as normal?

MD: You can, we are. Our office is open, our team is working. Again, we’ve made some adjustments, but we’re working with political parties that are interested in reconnecting with their branches in the regions. We have Members of Parliament travelling to the regions with us to reconnect with them. And to think about things like, what does a political party do during wartime? We’re working, training local citizens, we have our youth program running. Organising training in Kharkiv, of all places, right now. So we are very much back to normal in terms of our programing, and everyday gives us renewed hope that we can do more of our programing in more of Ukraine. Particularly, we’re looking at what can we do in the newly liberated territories in the East and South.

AK: Do you have enough experience to do this? I mean, the IRI, International Republican Institute is a well-branched organisation globally. Have you encountered similar problems and tasks in other countries?

MD: I would say Ukraine is the best example of where we’ve done this before. I remember back in 2014 when Ukraine began retaking territory in Donbas from the first Russian invasion, and working at that time with the government of Canada to go into those city councils and begin offering training for them. Not just on getting the cities back up and running and exchanging best practices, but bringing them together. So working with almost 90 municipalities from Kharkiv all the way through Kherson, bringing them together. We had a training centre at the time in the city of Dnipro. So working on specific topics, technical skills, but having them work together from different cities. As we know, just until recently it was extremely difficult for members of city governments or, actually, residents of Ukrainian cities, particularly from the East and South, to move around the country. I think many folks in Washington and Brussels have this idea that just like in Europe or the United States, people travel all the time between different states or regions.

But we know that someone who worked in Azovstal in Mariupol was not taking their vacation to the Carpathi, they were going to Turkey or they were spending their time in their dacha – ticket prices extremely expensive; poor quality roads; we didn’t yet have the functioning high-speed rail networks yet. That’s all begun to change, but there’s a huge need to get people to move around, to bring people from city councils in places like Mariupol, Severedonetsk, Pokrovsk, bringing them to western Ukraine or again, from southern Ukraine to eastern Ukraine. So we did a lot to facilitate this. And I think this is something that’s going to be needed in the future, is to, again, looking at what are the shape of those city councils, who’s still there in these newly liberated areas; bringing them out of those territories for a time, having them work and interact with other city governments. And also working with our colleagues and partners in western Ukrainian cities; having them travel to these regions to again, establish contact, come back to their cities in western Ukraine, I think with a really good perspective on the situation there. Bbecause we do know the challenge that those cities will face, in places like L’viv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, particularly this winter with so many new residents there, and potential for issues between those temporary and permanent residents of those cities. So again, unfortunately, Ukraine has had eight years of war, this is the second invasion of Ukraine, but we’re relying upon our history of being here working with partners to respond as quickly as we can as Ukraine, again, liberates these areas.

AK: Forgive me for being so outspoken as I’m going to be, Michael, but it seems to me from what I hear from you that you know quite a lot about Ukrainian’s ways of life and our habits and all this kind of stuff. Isn’t there a danger that you’re going native?

MD: (Laughs)

AK: And how this affects your work as Director of an international organisation?

MD: That’s a great question. I certainly feel very Ukrainian these past few months. I think it’s one of our advantages in IRI, and particularly the team we’ve had in Ukraine, we’ve had a staff and a team that have been with us, in some cases we’ve had some of our team with us for over 20 years. We’ve had very few country directors in Ukraine, and many of them have stayed for many, many years. And Ukraine is one of the most complex places you could possibly work on earth, and it takes – I remember when I first arrived in 2010 it took many, many months, I would say, even over a year to feel I knew who was who, what was going on, what were the differences between cities. It’s a large country, a complex history, so you need that time. And I think one of the advantages we have now is that we know what types of local solutions can work. We’ve never tried to bring the former mayor of Chicago or New York to Ukraine to talk about how to run a city, or what works best when you’re organising a green waste management facility. We’ve always tried to find what’s working in Ukraine, and what can other Ukrainian cities, politicians, or youth leaders learn from them. Because if it’s working in Ternopil then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be working in Severodonetsk if we’re all working under the same national legislative framework. Obviously there are great examples in the near-abroad that we’ve tried to engage with, whether that’s in Poland or partners in Lithuania that can share the experience coming from post-Soviet countries of what’s possible, and that’s more relatable. But we’ve always tried to have local solutions, we’ve always tried to, again, connect best practices in Ukraine with other cities because if we can bring those cities up to the level of how Ukrainians in Vinnytsia feel about their city, then we’ve done a great thing. And so, happy to be as native as possible, very proud to call Ukraine my home for the last 12 years, almost 13 years now, and have lived there with my family, and looking forward to getting back there full-time to continue to do this work.

AK: Michael Druckman, Director of IRI, International Republican Institute in Ukraine, is our interviewee now. And since you mentioned post-Soviet, as a person with a degree in political sciences, how would you evaluate the impact that this post-Soviet nexus has on Ukraine? Is it easily overcome, or even now, 30 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, do you find it difficult to deal with?

MD: I think it’s being rapidly done away with, at the last vestiges right now we’re seeing generational change take place, particularly in southern Ukraine – southern Ukraine, places like Khersonska Oblast, Mykolaiv Oblast, where people are waiting for the shipyards to start working again, waiting for someone to bring solutions from Kyiv to their problems or issues, still seeing the customs union of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus as a better option than the European Union, completely against NATO – that has really shifted over the last few years, but completely accelerated over the last six months. In our polling, we can see that support for joining transatlantic institutions like NATO, support for joining the European Union has gone up, not just a little bit, but we see almost the same level of support as in western and central Ukraine that we saw previously. Putin’s invasion has completely changed, at least at this point in time, the perspective of Ukrainians in those, what we would say, more Russified, more difficult regions of Ukraine, economically more difficult regions of Ukraine; they now see themselves closer to Europe and belonging to the European family of nations. So I think this is rapidly being done away with. I mean you can speak anecdotally about how much more Ukrainian is being spoken, and about all of those things that were already taking place, but things have accelerated so rapidly. And obviously the barbarity of the Russian invasion has really shown to, I think everyone, that there is no future partnership, that there is no potential for any type of economic union with the Russian Federation. So even cities that were very close to bordering the Russian Federation, like in Kharkiv and Belgorod, and Mariupol, and others where it was much easier to transport their products from factories – coal, steel, finished products – despite all that, and despite the distances to get those prodcuts to market in Europe and other markets, people there are very rationally choosing that more difficult but more, again, values-based decision.

AK: Since you mentioned Europe and the European Union, and earlier you spoke of folks in Washington and Brussels. The question is: it’s natural for the IRA, at least in my- oh, IRI, of course, not IRA, IRI- in my perception to sort of coordinate or to listen to what folks in Washington, D.C. say, but how does Brussels come into this equation?

MD: I think it’s come along a lot better in the last few months than before. I think, again, we talk a lot about Germany’s reticence to provide as much military assistance as other NATO member countries or other partner countries are providing. But interestingly Ukrainian public opinion- that’s not reflected in Ukrainian public opinion. Ukrainians still see Germany as one of the top five countries providing assistance to Ukraine during the war. So, there is a bit of two different conversations, I think, happening. There’s the conversation happening internationally, where we have folks in Washington and Brussels kind of comparing who’s doing what, how much is being given, and on the other hand, Ukrainians who are very practical about the type of assistance they’re receiving, of course wanting more and more now. But we’re not seeing that level of discourse, particularly with Germany, taking place in Ukraine. We’re seeing the Europeans come together on a unified energy plan right now. We’re seeing, I think, Central Europe really stepping up and leading right now, whether that’s from Poland, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, but we’re seeing, you know, again, I think, some very positive signs coming out of Europe right now. Of course, it’s going to be a huge challenge for Ukraine, there’s been this perception that when Ukraine is mentioned we talk about corruption all the time, but we don’t do that when we’re talking about Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. And so, this is something that I think for the ministry of foreign affairs of Ukraine, and they’re doing an outstanding job, you know, again, Ukraine has an amazing story to tell of reform, and reform during eight years of Russian invasion. And so, I think this story needs to continue to be told.

AK: By the way, speaking of the stories that are being told, you are a prolific writer for a number of respected Ukrainian media outlets, and would you please describe how you choose the topics of your articles and what do you think the foreign audience has to know about Ukraine in the first term?

MD: Well, obviously I try and write about what I know and that’s what I see through our work and trying to highlight particularly I think what were some of the key reforms after the Euromaidan revolution like decentralization, which was an absolute shift in how Ukrainians organized their lives, having more responsibility at the local level, city governments having the ability- greater ability for taxing and spending, greater oversight of their budgets, really fewer reasons to complain to Kyiv that they didn’t have the resources to fix things and build new schools and bridges. And so, we saw the huge change in dynamic in Ukraine over the last eight years and that’s something I’ve tried to highlight and discuss. You know, trying to identify interesting places in Ukraine where interesting things were happening, such as the election in Mykolaiv of Mayor Senkevych, which was a very interesting moment for a city that, again, doesn’t always receive a lot of attention but has huge potential.

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I was always very interested in what was happening in hard-to-reach places of Ukraine, we were speaking a bit about how travel has really improved but there are still regions that are difficult to get to or, I would say, I even feel that I don’t know them as well so I’ve tried to spend some time spending more time there and writing about it, like Bessarabia, Southern Odesa Oblast, which is, I thought, was a very fascinating area. What do, I think, Western audiences need to know? I think they need to know that this, you know, this is a country that is very large, very diverse, very unified with a lot of diversity; it’s not just Kyiv. Once you get outside of the city you have a number of very interesting things happening, and for people to know that Ukrainians have been working on their democracy all these years despite having territory occupied in Donbas, Crimea illegally annexed, and daily, Ukrainian soldiers being killed or wounded. And you know, whenever we had guests visiting, we would always make it a point to walk by St. Michael’s Monastery to see the wall so that people would understand that it may not be in the news but that this morning, again, another Russian sniper killed another Ukrainian defender and to see this wall stretching from 2014 to the present day and to know that Ukrainians were still finding ways to improve oversight of their city budgets, pass legislation to increase transparency on their elected officials, conduct free and fair elections successively, free and fair transfers of power between the President Poroshenko to President Zelensky.

All of this taking place against the background of what was Russian invasion and occupation of the country and I think that that should give our Western partners a lot of hope and confidence into what Ukraine’s going to do after their victory, which is why they need all the support they can get now, and our continued support after that victory.

AK: Coming back to the 24th of February, I remember that you said that some of the staff went to the front, some engaged in volunteer activity, you had obviously to replace them. How have you recruited new people, what were the criteria used?

MD: Well, obviously everyone is interested in being involved at all levels in Ukraine right now. So, we’ve brought on some new individuals, but we actually haven’t had any that have left. Those that have been in the armed services, some have returned, and wanted to get back to working on their programs in democracy. Others that are volunteering are splitting their time and we’re trying to be really respectful of how people organize their day. We know that, you know, everyone is finding ways to support their country whether through volunteering in their city, helping promote a crowdfunding effort to get more assistance to the front line, letting folks on our team have that space to do that but I think everyone also wants to have something to do and I think feeling that you’re working to support Ukrainian democracy, one of the reasons that Putin could not stand having this type of a country next door, a free, democratic Ukraine, this is also being in the fight. And so, for our team, I’ve been just impressed and very proud of how they’ve really stepped up and gone back to work and find ways to apply their time to our programs right now.

So, I’m looking forward to growing our team even further in the near future but very proud and extremely impressed at their resilience and the fact that we still have our team together, working. You know, in many ways, COVID, the COVID pandemic, prepared us and our other partner organizations who are all doing fantastic work, to be able to operate under such conditions where we’re working remotely, we have folks in different parts of Ukraine, we’ve gotten very used to the fact for the last almost three years that not everyone’s going to be in a central office, so we’re prepared on that account as well. And so again, yeah, just very proud of our team.

AK: Michael Druckman, director of IRI Ukraine, and you’re listening to Ukraine Calling, an English-language, or the English-language podcast on Hromadske Radio. Diversity is one of the words that to my mind characterizes the work of the IRI in Ukraine and presumably, all over the world. When studying what you’re doing now, I paid attention to the fact that you are launching new programs, and one of them is a initiative connected to women’s role in Ukrainian society. Why this focus of attention?

MD: Working in the democracy-promotion space, obviously we want to make sure that all voices are being included. You know, Ukraine has a great record of women being involved in politics, particularly at the local level and that’s an area where IRI has been focused. Working really outside of Kyiv, working in municipalities. So, we’ve tried to make a concerted effort to elevate those voices and make sure that those women that are in politics that, in some regions, in some cases, obviously there is much greater difficulty. Usually, women are also the primary caregiver at home, have a number of other responsibilities, and still they have to, you know, attend those city council sessions, run campaigns, be engaged, and so we try and facilitate the opportunity for those women to come together, to form a network, which is what we have now, called the Women’s Democracy Network in Ukraine, and they help each other, they work with each other to share best practices, support each other, and engage in different issues particularly at the municipal level, where, again, going back to decentralization, city governments had to make a lot of decisions about which clinics to close, schools to close. Again, a lot of inefficiency that was there prior to the decentralization reform.

So, as these cities decided how they would amalgamate with other communities, or hromadas, decisions had to be made on what, you know, what assets were redundant or not feasible to maintain. Those decisions indirectly impacted women far more than men and having women at the table making those decisions is really critical. I do think that this is one of those challenges and maybe an area where the reform was not the most successful in certain areas and an area that we need to really keep our attention on. So, I’m very proud of that initiative, it’s an initiative also that has been supported by our office in Washington. We have many of these types of networks that we’ve worked to set up in different countries around the world but the Ukraine chapter of the Women’s Democracy Network is really outstanding and active now, again, in whatever they can do with the war effort but it’s important that those voices are heard and again we always try and work on Ukrainian solutions so having other Ukrainian women in politics talk to other Ukrainian women in politics is I think the best way to go, and we’re going to continue to support their efforts.

AK: Our bit about the International Republican Institute. When I first heard, or read, about the organization, the key word for me was “Republican.” I was almost sure that you were strongly connected to the “Great Old Party”. But then I read that you are a nonpartisan organization so please, dwell on this a bit. Why are you Republican if you are not with the GOP?

MD: We like to keep people on their toes and asking questions.

AK: [Laughs.]

MD: We are and- yes, it can get confusing at times. We are a nonpartisan organization. We are not composed of party members. We are composed of experts and believers in democracy-promotion and individuals who want to dedicate part of their lives to some service, to a greater cause and sometimes that takes them outside the United States. We do have a board of directors that has a number of prominent Republican members of Congress. Senator McCain was our very long-time chairman and a great supporter of Ukraine all the way up until almost the end of his life, spending again, key moments of his career in Ukraine at the right time. Our colleagues at NDI also are nonpartisan. Their board of directors also tends to lean a little more democratic.

AK: Michael, not everybody is familiar with the abbreviation “NDI”.

MD: National Democratic Institute.

AK: Yes.

MD: Just to confuse folks even more. But when these two organizations were created in the 1980s as part of the National Endowment for Democracy under President Reagan along with the Centre for International and Private Enterprise, which works with small and medium businesses to help increase, again, free and competitive markets abroad, and the Solidarity Centre, which works with labour issues, with unions and workers rights around the world. I think, you know, the typical Washington problem, couldn’t agree on a name so we have two organizations that are how I can describe them since I’m working overseas, is two great partners, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more and work more closely with our Ukrainian partners. So, IRI in Ukraine is very focused working with municipalities, working at the local level and working with survey research. Our colleagues and partners at the NDI have traditionally worked more closely with the national government and more activity in Kyiv. But, we always have a coordinated approach with our funder USAID, and again, it’s allowed us to be far more effective working together this way.

AK: Since you mentioned President Ronald Reagan, it seems to me that it was during his presidency that a famous phrase, “there are things more important than peace” was coined. It was ascribed to the president himself but as far as I know, this was said by one of his foreign policy advisors. Now, we used to mock him for this phrase because as I said it was ascribed to Mr. Reagan himself. Some decades have passed. How do you see this phrase and this message now? “There are things more important than peace.”

MD: Well, I would say in Ukraine, victory is the most important thing right now. And what is- what is a peace that involves compromise with a Russian terrorist state? When you look at the images of the liberation of these villages and towns, in places like Balakliia, Kupiansk, Izium, and the absolute joy and tears these Ukrainians have upon seeing the armed forces of Ukraine finally enter their town, how could we possibly try and force the Ukrainian people to make peace with such occupiers? Yes- it’s a very emotional, I think, response, but you see these images and there’s no question that Ukraine needs to win, and it needs to have all of its territory returned so that all Ukrainians can go about the business of building what’s going to be a- one of the most impressive democratic European states going forward.

AK: One thing is territory, another thing- well, not thing but another phenomenon- is people who lived or live and will live on the newly liberated, formerly occupied areas. And [32:09], who helped me prepare for this interview, she’s especially interested in how, in your view, we will have to deal with the people who lived all these years or for some time have lived under the Russian occupation because, especially among some younger people in some areas of Ukraine, there’s a mood that those people, if not traitors, then they are not true Ukrainians for not resisting the invasion and occupation and all this kind of stuff. Maybe the IRI has some experience again from other countries, but I’m also interested in your personal views as a person who knows our country as well.

MD: I think of course it’s a- I know these conversations that are happening, and I think- it’s very difficult to put yourself in the position of families and individuals that, you know, went to sleep one evening in Ukraine, the next morning they wake up and there are Russian tanks and Russian soldiers knocking on doors in your city. And the difficult decision those individuals have to make about staying there, maybe taking care of family, sick relatives, other commitments, the inability to safely leave, and of course those that did decide to stay. I would say, I think, one of the most important things is, and one of the things that we know particularly people from Donbas, say, in particularly, the level of trust to friends and family is far higher than it is the level of trust to television media. I think it’s going to be so important for residents of these newly liberated areas to see with their own eyes the rest of Ukraine. To see other Ukrainians and for other Ukrainians to interact with them.

The worst thing we can do is treat this area as a special region and throw money at it and build roads and schools but not have the people moving around or engaging. We need to look at ways to have- particularly from those areas that have been occupied the longest- looking at places like- those residents left in Donetsk City, Horlivka, Luhansk, Crimea, in particular, we need to find ways to facilitate them to be able to see other Europeans, meet with other Europeans, and do this, you know, programmatically, have a structure behind it, but I think the greatest thing we can do is to have people see, hear, and feel with their own eyes, again, all of Ukraine, but also Europe. It’s not enough just to tell them, it’s not enough just to spend some money to fix up a school, we need to get people moving around and if I was going to be writing a program or a project it would involve bus and rail tickets for everyone to move around. I think we underestimate that, sometimes, in the development community, look at that as some type of tourism or excursions but I think it’s absolutely critical in this case, that we have to get people moving around and meeting other people sooner rather than later.

AK: It’s no secret that regrettably, in the occupied areas, the Russians and their stooges try to persuade people that it is the collectively West and specifically the United States, the United Kingdom and some other countries which are flaring up the war in Ukraine. And of course, quite a lot of people do believe this for different reasons. Are you planning to go to the liberated areas, or rather when do you plan to go to the liberated areas knowing that your presence there may be used as another justification of the message that Americans or Europeans or whoever are meddling into our internal affairs?

MD: Oh, I could care very little what they say on [36:37] and what Russians are gonna be saying about our presence as, again, partners of the Ukrainian people, having worked in Ukraine now for, again, 25 years now, it’s Ukrainian territory and we’re invited to work with those municipalities. We’ll be there and we’ll do what we can, but the amount of work, I think, is overwhelming and it does feel overwhelming to think about what will be needed for the reconstruction and reconnection with these territories and so we’re very lucky that there’s so many different partner organizations and partner countries that are willing to step up and want to assist. And it’s, again, not just America, but we know that the Greek government is very interested to work with Mariupol, the Danish government is already working with the city and oblast of Mykolaiv, particularly on water supply, so this is an international effort and I think we should all be very proud to be a part of the international democracies that are working to support Ukraine right now and yeah, we could really care less what the Kremlin has to say about that.

AK: Too recently you didn’t have such a possibility but now, the historical name of New York was returned to a small town in Donetsk region. How high to visit there is on your agenda?

MD: I would love to, of course, but there are so many places that I would love to get back to and, again for our team, be working. Because we’ve spent so much time focused on the south and east, whether that was conducting work on decentralization in Henichesk, working in Kherson, a city that before the invasion of February 24th, their own residents had ranked as one of the lowest performing cities in Ukraine, so the room there to really grow and to rebuild and help those residents together, with them- huge potential. Of course, feeling absolutely awful about the situation in Mariupol, a city that I spent many, many, many days over many, many different trips there working with Mayor Boychenko and his team who never missed an opportunity to get involved with opportunities to support and assist his city and turning that city into again, one of, I think, great examples of a Russian-speaking city in a formerly economically-powerful region that was reinventing itself, coming up with new ways to, again, keep young people there, to be an attractive city to raise families and they did a fantastic job and they were really creating a model of what, again, we hoped when former Donetsk and Luhansk territories would have been returned, those residents could have seen Mariupol as a Ukrainian city that they recognized and the example would have been very strong for them, and it’s absolutely just awful what’s happened to that city and I think, again, it tells you everything you need to know about, particularly for those in the West, about Russia’s aims with this war. That instead of being welcomed in a liberated Russian-speaking city, they bombed it to pieces.

AK: As you mentioned Russian-speaking cities and Russian speakers by doing this, and since you know the complexity of relations in Ukraine between Russian speakers, Ukrainian speakers and the controversy that has flared up especially after the all-out Russian invasion, do you see the future for Russian speakers and Russian language and our version of Russian-speaking culture in our country later?

MD: I think this is a very evolving issue right now. Obviously, there are still very many public officials that are using Russian, the governor of Mykolaiv Oblast, Kim, members of the presidential office who use Russian. It is, you know, as an American we always joke that it’s oppressive just to speak one additional language, let alone two languages. However, I understand, and I think we all will need to understand the sensitivities right now around this as Ukraine and Ukrainians make their own decisions around this, whether that’s in the home, where they send their children to school, or how they maybe switch the type of conversations they used to have. I do think one of Ukraine’s greatest strengths is its tolerance and its diversity, and I think Ukraine will find a way through all of this that will, again, be respectful of everyone in Ukraine because it’s that flag and that connection that everyone has in the country that really is the most important thing. And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen such national unity, and we’ve seen this come across not just through the images that we’re seeing on our televisions or as we scroll through social media, but in public opinion polling. It shows Ukraine actually has never been more united than it is right now and I’m sure these different issues and challenges, they will meet them in the best way possible.

AK: Even a podcast cannot last forever, so I am still gonna ask you three or four questions but we’ll have to be short on the answers.

MD: Okay.

AK: Yeah. Speaking of Americans, how would you define the mood prevailing in America toward Ukraine, among those who care?

MD: Among those who care? Never stronger. But I’ve been most impressed with those who probably couldn’t find Ukraine on a map before February 24 that have a Ukrainian flag on their house or have Ukrainian stickers, t-shirts. I was in the United States for a little bit this summer and I drove by a store in a small town that has no connection to Ukraine, there’s no Ukrainian diaspora there, and on the shop window it said “Slava Ukraini.” I’m not sure they even understand what it means but they felt so compelled to put something up and I think sometimes we underestimate this idea of the flags being flown but that takes effort. To go out, buy a flag, put it on your house or your building. That takes effort. That’s not clicking a button on a phone, like or a heart. That takes actual conscious effort. And I was so surprised and just amazed by how many Ukrainian flags and symbol of Ukraine I saw everywhere I was in America. So, it’s an amazing thing but it’s also an amazing brand and this is, I think, very good for Ukraine going forward that you now have so many new millions and millions and millions of supporters around the world.
AK: You actually pre-empted my next question, but I still have a couple to ask you and probably the last, but one question is, some practical advice for those who want to come Ukraine now? And there are such people, and moreover, there are some foreigners who also know Ukraine deeply and one of them, for instance, Andreas Umland, surely you know who this is.

MD: Yes.

AK: He’s published several articles saying that there’s paradoxically probably no better time than to visit Ukraine now. So, some practical advice for those who listen to this advice?

MD: Well, I think I’m required to say, follow the advice of your government and what they’re saying, obviously there’s a reason why so many governments have issued their travel warnings, and this is still- this is still a warzone. This is still the largest land-war in Europe since World War II, and we don’t know what Putin may do tomorrow, you know, one place is as good as the next, whether you’re at a coffee shop in Lviv or you’re in Kyiv, with what the Kremlin might decide to do and where the next rockets may go. So, follow the advice of your governments and keep in mind that yes, this is an active warzone and I think in some ways, especially when you look at the driving on the roads right now, maybe having fewer people that are coming for war tourism is better.

Let the actual professional soldiers and those that are delivering aid, and the World Food Kitchen, and those that are bringing in fuel and petrol for the fuel stations to be there, but obviously there are, I would have to estimate, very, very many foreigners that are in Ukraine, helping whether volunteering with the various foreign legions and otherwise in other capacities, and that’s their decision and I’m sure they’re managing and mitigating their own risk but I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is still an active warzone and I think, be ready and start saving up to come spend a lot of money in Ukrainian cafes and hotels and vacations when the war is over. I think Ukraine- that this will be a good problem they’ll have to deal with, is the influx of tourists and people that want to come and see all of Ukraine. But I can just say, having visited several times since the war began, things have been improving. I was surprised to see in August in Kyiv, it looked like August 2019 with everyone visiting their summers dachas, not as much traffic, but still the city really full of life, everyone out and about going about their lives and really changed since the darker days of March and April.

AK: And finally, what are the immediate plans of IRI, International Republican Institute, in Ukraine? What’s next on your agenda?

MD: Right now, we are actively planning for how we’re going to approach working with liberated cities. We’re looking at what does victory look like in Ukraine, and how can IRI, our own specialized role, what can we do on day one to be of assistance there? We’re looking to conduct another public opinion survey, and this conversation, I think, has also given me some ideas on some different directions maybe to go in with questions. We’d also like to do our next national-municipal survey. This is a survey we’d run for over the last seven years of Ukraine’s 24 largest cities where we look at service delivery, how people view their local government, what are the local issues that people care about, and we’re able to compare what residents in Rivne think compared to residents of Sumy. And it’s, again, many, many, many different indicators that we look at from waste management, street lighting, schools, do you feel safe walking home at night, do you plan to stay in your city, etcetera, but it allows us to inform our programming, to decide where should we organize some of these exchanges and study tours, and for our partners and other organizations, there’s always some information there useful to them. There’s something for everyone. So, we’re looking to see how we’ll run that survey, when we’ll do that soon, but this is something that we’re looking at doing. So, we’re working at 110% capacity right now, we’re looking to add people to our team, and we want to be ready for Ukraine’s victory.

AK: I think you’re underestimating the rate that you’re working at because I would put it at 127%, not one point ten. Thank you. Michael Druckman, director of International Republican Institute, IRI Ukraine, was our interviewee on Ukraine Calling. 

Ukraine Calling — September 28, 2022
Transcribed by Caitilín O’Hare


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