The Final Fourth Part of the Interview with Dr. Serhiy Plokhii

Foreword by Nadia K. McConnell

It has been my privilege to interview our great historian Dr. Plokhii on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Independence of Ukraine. I am grateful to the Ukrainian National Women's League of America for organizing this interview. Thank you also to our U.S.-Ukraine Foundation colleagues for transcribing the interview and a very special thank you to Peter Voitsekhovsky for translating and editing the interview in both English and Ukrainian.

In this last of the series Dr. Plokhii shares his great insightful positive predictions for Ukraine's next 30 years of Independence.

Whatever the challenges of the past or present we should be grateful to have been a part of these past 30 years of Ukraine's Independence. A reality that many generations before us could only hope and pray for.

Millions died at the hands of the oppressors and today many still give their life to defend Ukraine’s Independence in Putin's war against Ukraine.

As we have celebrated along with the people of Ukraine let us now commit to keep supporting the people of Ukraine in their history making and ongoing struggle.

We at the Foundation have been in Ukraine for over 30 years – actually since before independence – working on democratic institution building at the national and, very importantly, the local level. Here is Washington, except for Ukrainian American membership organizations, we are the only organization dedicated solely to Ukraine issues and the U.S. Ukraine Strategic Partnership. Drawing others beyond the Ukrainian American to advocate for specific assistance to Ukraine through our Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) and other efforts to maximize U.S.-Ukraine relations.

All that we have accomplished was possible with your support. The work is not done and anything you can do to support our efforts going forward is greatly appreciated.



Nadia McConnell (N.M.): So how do you see the next thirty years of Ukraine?

Serhiy Plokhii (S.P.): I am convinced that a much more consolidated Ukrainian nation will take shape in the next 30 years; the trend of the first 30 years will continue. And I hope that Ukraine will develop a more fair and balanced market economy in the next 30 years that would be more socially oriented. I cannot say for sure that this will be accomplished, but I feel certain optimism in this matter. And I am pretty much convinced that the Ukrainian nation-building will continue in the same direction as over the past 30 years. That is, the momentum of 2014 will prevail.

N.M.: This should help Ukraine gain more support in the world because people want to partner with winners. Ukraine has to build its own internal strength to be an attractive partner for other countries.

S.P.: One has to be at least a reliable partner ...

N.M.: Sometimes it seems that the Ukrainian government does not quite understand or care about this.

S.P.: I think the main problem with Ukraine’s governments - with all democratic governments in general, but with Ukraine’s governments especially - is the tendency to plan only from election to election, and disregard a longer future. This is especially true with young democracies. And in Ukraine, all decisions are made for a short term.

This is a very serious problem: whether they are good decisions or bad - but they are address a short time period. And from this point of view, the only thing that can maintain the democratic vector of the country is the civil society, the nation, because governments in democracies are responsive to the voters. The government will not think about long-term interests of Ukraine if the society does not demand it. This is the main task for the society - to form a vision of where Ukraine wants to go. Without this, the government and the parliament will not work on it.

The Rukh that we discussed at the beginning did have a visionary program. When it came to the parliament, it tried to influence the situation accordingly to that vision. And so, if there is mobilization and there is an idea that seems attractive to others, then the parliament and the executive leaders will take that path. I think this model can be productive for the Ukrainian society in the long term.

N.M.: Speaking of the Ukrainian civil society in contrast to the country's leaders, would you agree that the Ukraine’s strength is in the development of its civil society which has sustained Ukraine through better or worse governance?

S.P.: Clearly, the civil society is the greatest strength of Ukraine. And it is maturing: getting to be more “adult”. Until recently, that civil society used to act in the spirit of a Ukrainian traditional Cossack revolt. We do not like this leader–so we rebel against him; and we make a Maidan one time, then another. We topple off one Hetman to choose another – supposedly, a better one…

But recently it became clear that in order to get a better government, the civil society must go to work in the government. Because the government of the state is an extremely important tool, and people must learn how to use it. It is hard work, but you have to go and work there. And for the first time since 2014, civil society activists did go there. This did not always work well; but for the first time in many years, we see attempts to use the state as a tool for achieving the civil society aspirations. For now, it works in a limited way, in isolated patches, but there are such cases of success, and they show the future.

Traditionally, in the history of Ukraine, the state has been perceived as something hostile to the people, not a part of the people. So, in the Ukrainian cultural tradition, one had to learn to survive outside the state and to live opposed to the state. This is also the foundation of the civil society strength – it stems from that history. But now the history has changed: Ukraine has its own state, and this "anti-statist" society must somehow learn to use this state.

In 1991, there was an attempt by the Rukh to work within the state, but the Rukh was not ready for that. It was represented by romantic idealists, professional writers who were good at inspirational speeches. But let's look at what was happening in the East European countries that successfully went through a post-communist transformation. Havel became a president without power: he remained a symbol. The government needed leaders like Mazowiecki, people with experience in public administration, economic management and so on. There were almost none of them in the Rukh. Very few wanted to work in a municipal government and deal with issues of utilities or public transport.

Only now do we see something like this. I don't know yet how successful it will be - but this is the first time when such new figures have emerged: they are young, but skilled, and they are ready to play this very, very difficult and often ungrateful game of bureaucracy to modernize the government machine. It takes time - years, decades; but nothing will happen unless this gets done. It seems to me that in recent years there have been such people - young people, somewhere between 25 and 40 years old - who go to government positions and try to change something. Some of them get disenchanted, some corrupted by the system. But this is a fairly wide wave, and not all of them will get corrupt or disenchanted... It seems to me that this is the most optimistic trend. Today, it is a little creek that has not yet become a river, but it is a new trend than we can see now.

N.M.: I’ve sometimes said: I understand why Moses had to be in the desert for 40 years, so the generation that lived under slavery was gone because they had that mentality. And I think what you’re saying now is we have a new wave of people who did not grow up in the Soviet system, who have been educated broadly, who know more of the world…

S.P.: The main thing is that these people are willing to sacrifice their own careers to some extent when they go to work in the government, and they are trying to change something there. Because in the past, people would only take such a job in order to get rich. At any rate, a vast majority of them. There had only been some timid attempts by idealists to join the government service, and they did not succeed. But these are idealists of another wave: they are not like the poets of the sixties. These are idealists who have created their own businesses, gained managerial experience, and so on. It’s a very different group of people.

N.M.: It is often said that those who make revolutions do not necessarily know how to govern. Apparently, these are different skills.

S.P.: Yes, I think this is a good division of labor, because without it, we get dictators like Lenin and Stalin, who first carry out a revolution and then build something very wrong. I think this differentiation of tasks is very important.

N.M.: Many people would like to know: who will be Ukraine’s leaders of tomorrow? Can you name some up and coming players that will be the big agents of change, as we like to call them?

S.P.: There is, so to speak, an absolute disappointment of the electorate with the politicians who came from the Orange Revolution of 2004: Tymoshenko, Poroshenko, Yushchenko ... So, there is a clear demand for change, but Ukrainian politicians are not ready to meet it. I expect that this situation will continue for a while: such demand will remain without a response in the form of a sensible political program, a party or a skilled set of government chiefs.

Today, I do not see any political forces or specific politicians who can meet this challenge and this demand. I hope it is only a problem of proper lens, so maybe if I change my glasses, I will suddenly see it. However, I do not want to replace my pair of glasses with pink ones.

N.M.: So in summary, can we be hopeful that Ukraine will sustain itself as an independent, sovereign country? Partially because the strength of Ukraine lies in its civil society, and if you look at the Orange Revolution or the Maidan, the leaders were not on the stage, the leaders were being propelled by the civil society that was in front of them. And I guess that I must then go back to what you were saying that this is in the tradition, the historical tradition, of Ukraine getting rid of the Hetmans that people did not like. So that’s where the strength of Ukraine lies.

S.P.: Of course, Ukraine will continue. I think it will continue to move along the path that was laid in 1991 and 2014. A strong civil society will be a safeguard for it. Since 2014, this civil society has very much matured. It is ready not only to defend itself, but it is also beginning to take over the state as its own tool.

Historically, Ukrainians have been good rebels, but weak statesmen. However, over the last 5-6 years we see the trend that the civil society is trying to take hold of the state as its tool for change. This is extremely inspiring, it gives us optimism about the future. But that process is just beginning.

N.M.: Thank you for a meaningful conversation and your optimistic perspective. Much appreciated by those of us who have toiled in the trenches for so long and want to have that hope and belief in the future.