It may seem like going back way too far, but to understand the complete history of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation you really must recognize the deep seeded love of Ukraine, her culture, her traditions and her very land, that in many ways defined a generation of Ukrainians who fled Soviet rule during World War II.
Irene and Omelan Komarnyckyj were two of those thousands of refugees who left Ukraine as the war was in its final years, but with every intention of returning to their beloved country at some point.
In their case they walked into Austria and found themselves with other refugees near Vienna. Then they learned that a couple at the farm Ernstof in the mountains along the Danube near Spitz would take in a couple and they walked there.
Here, just before the Red Army reached Ernstof while pursuing the Nazis and gathering up anyone who had lived in the Soviet Union to send them back to Soviet lands, the Komarnyckyj’s daughter Nadia was born.
Staying ahead of the Soviet troops they went on to Salzburg and eventually to Igls living as displaced persons and avoiding Operation Keelhaul until their opportunity came for them to immigrate to the United States.
They joined relatives in the Ukrainian ethnic ghetto in Chicago where they were comforted by fellow Ukrainians, their Ukrainian Church and people preserving the Ukrainian language and culture all the while becoming Americans. Nadia began her involvement in the American political system as a volunteer in the 1960 presidential campaign. Continuing to do so every election cycle until the establishing the Foundation.
All this is relevant because at home, in their family conversations, at Church, socializing with friends and family the Komarnyckyj’ were instilling in their daughter a love of all things Ukrainian as well as a commitment to be full citizens of the United States. The food, the traditions, the prayers, the bonds to far off Ukraine were ever present as they learned English and became involved in the greater community and dynamic and welcoming American culture.
How the Komarnyckyj lived was really a reflection on how so many American-Ukrainian immigrate families lived becoming strong Americans while preserving their proud Ukrainian heritage.
When due to her father’s illness Nadia and her family moved to Arizona after she finished high school. She enrolled at Arizona State University. In this new environment there were no students with Eastern European ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, like almost everywhere in the United States “the Soviet Union” and “Russia” were synonyms, and Nadia basically had the option to go along with everyone’s comfort zone of thinking her to be Russian, or taking on the challenge of explaining that Ukraine and Ukrainians were not Russia and Russians; that the distinction was important politically, culturally, and to understanding the entire concept of freedom and what the “Iron Curtain” really meant.
Nadia never flinched from accepting that challenge whether in the classroom with recalcitrant professors or around campus with her fellow students.
The truth of Ukraine and what it meant to be Ukrainians had been instilled in Nadia by her parents, as it was in so many of her generation by families dedicated to preserving Ukraine in the free world and for the time when the “curtain” would come down and Ukraine would return to its rightful place among the nations of the world.
That is why the story of the Foundation must begin with the Komarnyckyjs and their immigrant generation.
At Arizona State Nadia met Bob McConnell who, among other things found Nadia’s story, commitment and enthusiasm for life, US politics and Ukraine all part of a coed who became a very special friend and then later, more than that, the woman he wished to marry.
Over the years Nadia Komarnyckyj McConnell and her husband Bob have had an active interest in Ukraine and worked on various efforts with others. These included activities marking the 50th anniversary of the Famine of 1930-33, the 85th birthday and later the passing of Cardinal Joseph Slipyj, the leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, dealing with the United States Government’s handling of the Myroslav Medvid case (the Ukrainian seaman who jumped overboard twice in New Orleans trying to seek asylum in this country), the effort to get the true story out about the Chornobyl nuclear accident and the malevolent handling of the disaster by Soviet authorities, celebrating the 1988 Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine and making sure it was not claimed and stolen by Russia as the Kremlin tried to do, and the 1989 pursuit of the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. This last effort was rather remarkable in that they secured letters to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from both the leadership of the House of Representatives, the Senate leadership, a joint letter to Gorbachev with the signatures of 75 Congressmen, and individually written letters to Gorbachev from 48 Senators and 131 Members of the House.
But the evolution of events leading the McConnells to the creation of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation really started to come into focus in September, 1989, upon learning about the formation of the Popular Movement for the Restructuring in Ukraine (Rukh). Over 1,000 delegates met in Kyiv demanding greater political and economic sovereignty. Among other things, Rukh’s platform called for political and economic sovereignty, reversal of decades of Russification of Ukraine, protection for the environment and protection of the rights of national minorities and ethnic groups. Interestingly Rukh was made up of a unique and wide range of individuals including reform-minded members of the Communist Party as well as individuals who had served time in the Gulags for opposing Communist rule.
In October 1989, Columbus Day Weekend, Volodymyr Yavorivsky a Communist and a People’s Deputy to the Supreme Rada of the Soviet Union, who was also a member of Rukh came to Washington to speak at the annual conference of the Washington Group. He talked about Rukh and the changes taking place in Ukraine. In addition to other things, at a dinner on what turned out to be Yavorivsky’s 47th birthday, he asked if Nadia and Bob might be able do two things: (a) put together congressional observers to come to Ukraine and observe the upcoming March elections for Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) as that election would be the first genuinely contested election in Soviet times, and (b) Yavorivsky asked if it would be possible to put together a program for Rada Deputies who would be elected in March to learn about the American system of governance. He said they would not necessarily want to copy American governance, but they knew they had never been told the truth about the American system and would like to learn.
These conversations and other information convinced Nadia that something significant was taking place in the Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine. But, she wanted to learn more. She travelled to Ukraine in January, 1990, to participate in Rukh’s Human Chain - a chain of volunteers that stretched around 550 kilometers (340 miles) all the way from the city of Lviv to Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. While in Ukraine Nadia met and began a close relationship with the leadership of Rukh, especially Ivan Drach and Mykailo Horyn. The trip solidified her belief that major changes were underway especially with the strategic leadership of Rukh. She and Bob set about to meet Yavorivsky’s two requests.
First they set about putting together a delegation from Congress to travel to Ukraine as observers to the March election. Although he could not go due to conflicts, Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ) a long-time friend of Bob’s, and then the chairman of Congress’s Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), agreed to “sponsor” the delegation and the Department of Defense agreed to provide transportation for the CODEL (Congressional Delegation).
Eventually Bob had 14 Members of Congress committed to travel to Ukraine as observers of the election and arrangements were made.
Concerned that they did not know exactly what the arrangements for the Congressmen would be in Kyiv, Nadia flew to Ukraine about a week before the delegation was scheduled to travel in order to check out accommodations, let Rukh know of the delegation, etc.
In those days once someone arrived in Ukraine there was very little chance of communicating back to the United States. To the extent there as any telephone service it had to be scheduled in advance and connections were at best iffy. So, Nadia was in Kyiv with a number of other American-Ukrainians who had separately traveled to observe the election, while Bob had stayed behind and planned to fly out of Washington on Friday evening before the Sunday elections, but after the Congressional delegation would have departed from Joint Base Andrews.
However, as Bob was packing to leave for the airport Senator DeConcini called him to say that the Congressional delegation was on its way back to the Capital from Joint Base Andrews. Although the flight had previously been cleared to enter the Soviet Union and land at Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport, the Soviet Union had withdrawn permission at the last minute; the flight would be denied permission to enter Soviet airspace. The McConnells had tried to fulfill Yavorivsky’s first request but a Congressional delegation of observers was not to be.
Bob did fly to Ukraine to join Nadia and together they both observed voting in numerous polling stations throughout Kyiv and spent significant time with Drach and Horyn and the Grand Council of Rukh. A good number of Rukh members were elected to the Verkhovna Rada (Rada) and Nadia and Bob attended and participated in a number of meetings where Rukh’s next steps were discussed.
In fact, Nadia and Bob were witnesses to the drafting and signing of the Grand Council of Rukh’s document condemning the Communist Party for its decades of Soviet governance. As part of the signing of that document by Rukh leadership who were members of the Communist Party, they resigned their membership as well as condemning the Party for a litany of past deeds.
One request from Rukh was whether Bob and Nadia could arrange a high-level visit to Washington for Mykhailo Horyn, now a Deputy in the Rada and a former prisoner of the Gulag, who was second in command of Rukh.
Horyn arrived in Washington in September 1990 and had meetings with five members of President George H.W. Bush’s Cabinet as well as numerous Members of Congress and spoke at numerous think tanks and NGOs. Horyn educated many on Rukh, its approach and principles. He changed many minds about what was happening and gained strong support from, among others, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and influential Members of Congress like Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and Frank Wolf (R-VA).
The McConnells also continued to pursue Yavorivsky’s other request, the bringing of new Rada Deputies to the United States to study our government, an idea that had been by then discussed with others in Rukh as well.
Initially using Mrs. McConnell’s small public relations firm, NKM & Associates, and bringing in Indiana University through people the McConnells knew there, they received a United States Information Agency (USIA) grant for a Program on the American System of Governance. For the two-week program – the first ever to bring representatives of a single republic of the Soviet Union to the United States – they brought over a delegation of 13 members of the Rada which included the top leaders of Rukh and two members of the Communist Party who would both later be chairmen of the Rada.
The tightly scheduled two-week program studied state and local government in Indiana and our federal system in Washington. The delegation met with many state, local and federal officials including federal Executive Branch officials, Chairmen of Congressional committees and Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor as well as many staff people who explained how our system of governance works. This delegation, like Horyn earlier, changed a lot of minds. Officials like Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Lee Hamilton (D-IN), who saw that not only members of Rukh but prominent Communist Deputies wanted independence from the Kremlin and that they all assured listeners that, despite the Kremlin-inspired propaganda forecasts in the media, Ukraine’s independence would not lead to civil war nor divide Ukraine itself, made a 180 degree change in his position on Ukrainian independence.
All of these discussions were further evidence to the McConnells that the Soviet Union was undergoing major geopolitical shifts. Nadia believed that when Ukrainian independence came, the United States would provide aid to Ukraine and to the other former Soviet Republics, and to a significant degree, that assistance would be provided through existing government contractors, who knew nothing about Ukraine and would use their Russia cookie cutter formulas to design projects for Ukraine. She began thinking about the idea of designing assistance programs that would uniquely address Ukraine’s needs and about the need to have a vehicle that could apply for and get some of those assistance funds.
Now, while all of this was going on Committees in Support of Rukh were forming all across the United States. And in Washington the committee formed under the name of Ukraine 2000. Bob was the committee’s director of government relations and Nadia became its second chairman. Ukraine 2000 became the government relations voice for all of the Committees in Support of Ukraine which had formed in many cities – Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Newark, Los Angeles, and many other cities.
The small Ukraine 2000 had an impact because of the experience of Bob and Nadia who had both been engaged professionally in government relations in and out of government for years, and because of other Ukraine 2000 members, like Judge Bohdan Futey and Orest Deychakiwsky who had significant government experience. Among other things, on a consistent basis Bob drafted testimony and other statements and circulated the drafts to others before finalizing them to be included in the record of Congressional hearings, and in a few instances as testimony given at hearings. Bob sent out weekly reports to the Committee in Support of Rukh on what was happening and what was scheduled to happen in Washington related in any way to Ukraine. As part of all this government relations activity Ukraine 2000 initiated letter-writing campaigns on Ukraine issues through the weekly newsletters. The response from the American-Ukrainians in those Rukh support committees was simply exceptional.
Long before the availability of the internet and emails the Committees in Support of Rukh often generated hundreds upon hundreds of issue-focused individual letters to Congress in response to the call of Ukraine 2000.
However, even as they continued to be deeply involved with Ukraine 2000 and the activities of the nationwide Committees in Support of Rukh, the McConnells were moving toward the establishment of a foundation to be the vehicle for seeking and securing grants and carrying out programs. Nadia and Bob along with Katya Chumachenko and George Sierant became the founders and original officers of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, the vehicle Nadia envisioned for future activities.
Nadia used about $20,000 of her earnings from NKM & Associates to open a small office in Washington. She also realized to assure fiscally responsible management of projects you also needed a day-to-day presence in Ukraine. Initially Irene Jarosevich was sent to help with press relations for Rukh.
By early 1991 the Foundation had opened a small office in Kyiv to represent the Foundation in Ukraine. Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union and the Foundation was the only permanent American presence in Ukraine for a time.
When in mid-1991 the United States Government sent Jon Gunderson to Kyiv to have an official presence and to report on developments, the Foundation found him to be an extremely capable and strategic diplomat. After Ukraine’s independence Jon became Chargé d'Affaires in Kyiv.
Early on it was we felt that there should be a companion domestic organization to the Kyiv office of the Foundation that would be governed by different local regulations. The Foundation created the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy (POID). The name was chosen because Pylyp Stepanovych Orlyk, (1672-1742) was a Zaporozhian Cossack starshyna, Hetman of Ukraine who, among other things established a constitution for Ukraine. The Orlyk constitution established a democratic standard for the separation of powers in government between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, well before the publication of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. The Constitution limited the executive authority of the hetman, and established a democratically elected Cossack parliament called the General Council. Pylyp Orlyk's Constitution was unique for its historic period, and was one of the first state constitutions in Europe. In those early years of light beginning to shine into Ukraine from beyond the Iron Curtain the Foundation wanted to send a message that Ukraine did not have to look west to find democratic roots, it had its own proud heritage to build upon. Through its programs and activities POID aims to help revive Ukrainian democratic traditions and to assist in the consolidation of a free-market democracy in Ukraine.
When Rukh changed from the extremely broad-based movement to a narrower political party, Nadia and Bob stepped down from Ukraine 2000 although Bob continued for some time writing and distributing the weekly newsletters. And with the support of people involved in those committees the Foundation played a significant role in having Ukraine’s First Defense Minister Kostyantyn Morozov be the first defense minister from any former Soviet Republic (including Russia), to have an official visit to Washington (the Pentagon), and getting what was originally scheduled as a “working visit” of Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk upgraded to include things like a formal Department of State luncheon hosted by Secretary of State James Baker and a visit with President George H.W. Bush at Camp David. (The latter so coveted within Washington’s diplomatic community caused Russia’s ambassador to register an official protest.)
Prior to independence the Foundation and for a period after independence was continually establishing long-range relationships and – given the extraordinary communications limitations of the times – doing its best to provide timely news from the West to Deputies in the Rada and others. Early each morning for months American newspapers were reviewed and articles about or of interest to Ukraine were typed into a laptop computer (sometimes with explanatory analysis) and emailed (this was before Internet service was available and so-called “emailing” was both complicated and expensive) to the Foundation’s Kyiv office where the reports were translated and distributed. First that newsletter, Window on the West, was distributed to Rukh headquarters and the Rada and then, eventually had a wider distribution.
This continued until the barriers blocking western news availability came down.
And, once independence came, on December 1, 1991, the Foundation began to focus on programs it felt were needed immediately in Ukraine that could receive funding from the U.S. Government and other sources.
In February, 1993 Markian Bilynskyj, a British-Ukrainian who had gotten a Master’s degree from American University and had helped Nadia in her role as Chair of Government Relations for the U.S. Committee for the 1988 commemoration of the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine went to Kyiv to head up the office. Nadia told Bilynskyj she he only had funds to pay him for sure for six months. He has been with the Foundation ever since as Vice President for Field Operations.
John Kun began supporting the Foundation as a volunteer treasurer and remains today as Vice President of the Foundation.
And, as the Foundation was establishing itself it again teamed with Indiana University in order to have a “prime” contractor with experience with government contracts and to take advantage of the expertise of friends at Indiana’s School of Public Administration. Together IU and the Foundation were granted funding for a multi-year USAID Parliamentary Development Program to assist the Rada in transitioning from essentially a Kremlin puppet to a genuine legislative body.
Key to the success of the program was that all Rada Deputies were treated equal. Whether Communist or reformers from Rukh, requests for information or analysis were honored and assistance provided on everything from committee structures to budgeting, and providing comparative examples from other governments.
While knowing there were many significant needs at the federal level in Ukraine, it was determined that the greatest opportunity for fundamental reform was at the local level. As a result in 1997 the Foundation developed a proposal for what turned out to be a 10-year Community Partnership Program (CPP) and, as prime contractor for the first time, the Foundation received funding from the USAID. The CPP brought together 18 mid-size cities in Ukraine and in the United States, each ”partnership” designed and pursued an action plan that would be mutually beneficial though focused primarily on the needs and agendas of the Ukrainian cities.
In addition to the cities directly involved in CPP the program established four regional training centers where over 40,000 local government officials received training on democratic governance.
CPP was a fabulous success. Even an USAID Inspector General’s report reviewing USAID programs in Ukraine included a notation that the Agency had understated CPP’s successes. The partners achieved extraordinary success with their work plans, and beyond that the fabulous unintended collateral successes in the partnerships multiplied those achievements many times over.
In 2004 the Department of State awarded the Foundation funding for its U.S.-Ukraine Policy Dialogue Project. This was a project designed by the Foundation to partner with other U.S. and Ukrainian organizations to advance Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration through collaborative efforts in developing and issuing policy recommendations to both the United States and Ukrainian governments. The project ran from 2004 to 2006.
Among other things coming out of this Policy Dialogue was the Jackson-Vanik Graduation Coalition. Several of the Policy Dialogue task forces identified Ukraine’s graduation from Jackson-Vanik Amendment as a priority for strengthening U.S.-Ukraine relations. As a result, a coalition created by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, was co-chaired by Ambassadors Seven Pifer and William Miller, and included more than 300 businesses and American-Ukrainian, American-Jewish and other non-governmental organizations. H.R. 1053, signed into law by President George W. Bush on March 23, 2006, authorized the Extension of Nondiscriminatory Treatment to the Products of Ukraine.
In 2004 the Foundation became deeply concerned that the on-going presidential campaigns in Ukraine were being conducted in such a way as to taint the entire electoral process. It was not going to be enough for there to be international election observers in country for the election itself. As a result the Foundation approached the Department of State and was able to obtain funding to send Campaign Observer Teams made up of former Members of the United States Congress and former member of the European Parliament to observe the on-going campaign starting in July and report back to the United States Administration and European capitals.
As a result or the observer teams’ multiple trips significant pressure was put on Ukraine to open-up the election process which did occur over the last several months of the campaign.
In 2011 the Department of State awarded the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation a second policy dialogue grant, the Ukraine 2020 Policy Dialogue, which was an initiative to develop an on-going platform for experts and officials in Ukraine and the United States, and Europe to exchange ideas and build a common vision in support of Ukraine’s development as a modern, prosperous and secure European democracy.
As a result of this Policy Dialogue new recommendations for government action were presented, Ukraine: Facing Critical Challenges in September 2012.
Arising from the two State Department-funded policy dialogue projects came the Foundation’s idea for its Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN – which is sustained by private funds today). FOUN is a nonpartisan and voluntary coalition of former ambassadors, subject area experts in fields including Ukraine’s economy, democratic development, national security, and human rights that take an integrative and facilitative approach through expert testimony and policy recommendations.
In 2014 recommendations for sanctions from the Friends of Ukraine Network were submitted to Members of Congress and President Obama in April. The U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Friends of Ukraine Network sponsored a roundtable discussion in May on the prospect of additional sanctions against Russia to address Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on-going war against Ukraine in Donbas
In 2015 additional recommendations from the FOUN, Ukraine’s Ongoing Battle for Freedom – The Risk of Western Failure in Political, Economic and Humanitarian Assist were presented during the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s September 2015 Forum at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, again co-sponsored by the Congressional Ukraine Caucus.
Friends of Ukraine Network Priority Recommendations for U.S. Assistance: Standing with the People of Ukraine are released. https://archive.usukraine.org/pdf/FOUN-Recommendations-PDF0731.pdf.
Friends of Ukraine Network Priority Recommendations for 2020 U.S. Assistance to Ukraine are released. https://www.usukraine.org/priority-recommendations-for-us-assistance-to-ukraine-2019/