This week, Jeremi and Zachary speak with their guest, Nataliya Gumenyuk about the challenges, struggles, and opportunity for democracy in the Ukraine.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Peace; the Privilege, the Chore”.
Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian author, documentary filmmaker, and journalist. She specializes in conflict reporting, human rights, and foreign affairs. Gumenyuk is a founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, aimed at popularizing public spirit journalism and overcoming polarization. Since the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, she has reported on events in Eastern Ukraine. Gremenyuk is one of the few journalists regularly traveling to occupied Crimea. In 2020 Gumenyuk published a book of her reporting, “The Lost Island. Tales from Occupied Crimea’ based on 6 years of her reporting. She is also the author of the book “Maidan Tahrir. In Search of a Lost Revolution” (2015), based on her reporting on the Arab Spring.
- Nataliya GumenyukFounder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab
[0:00:04 Speaker 1] Mhm.
[0:00:05 Speaker 0] Yeah, this is Democracy, a podcast about the people of the United States, a podcast about citizenship about engaging with politics and the world around you. A podcast about educating yourself on today’s important issues and how to have a voice in what happens next. Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. We have another very special guest uh this week we have the opportunity to talk about the state of democracy, the challenges, struggles and opportunities for democracy in Ukraine, one of the United States most important partners and one of the most important countries in europe today. And we’re joined by someone who’s doing some of the most important reporting and writing about this. Natalia Gherman. You’re welcome Natalia.
[0:00:56 Speaker 1] Uh Great to talk to
[0:00:58 Speaker 0] you. Natalia is a Ukrainian author, documentary filmmaker and journalist of great renown. She’s actually visiting the United States now, making kind of a tour sharing her insights with everyone. She specializes in reporting on conflict in Ukraine on human rights and foreign affairs. She is the founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, which I encourage everyone to take a look at really interesting material. It’s aimed at really popularizing public spirited journalism, journalism that really speaks to the interests of the public, not to the interests of parties or organized interest as too much of journalism in our world does today. So she’s a pioneer in this area since the 2014 revolution in Ukraine. She’s reported on events in eastern Ukraine and she’s one of the few journalists regularly traveling to Russia occupied Crimea. I’m sure we’ll talk about that that subject. Into 2020. Uh Natalia published a book of her reporting that I recommend to all of you the Lost Island Tales from occupied Crimea. She also wrote a book a few years earlier, Made in Tahrir In Search of the Lost Revolution, which is actually about the arab spring. So, we clearly have the best person to give us a firsthand account of what’s going on in all of these areas. Uh, before we turn to our discussion with natalia, we have, of course, our scene setting poem for Mr Zachary. Suri Peace The privilege, the chore. The little green men in Donetsk. The missile launcher Grotesque have volunteered for the war. Sebastopol has fallen. Vladimir dreams of Stalin and the angry young man of lore has volunteered for the war in Kiev. They remember the words that they cried from their yearning herds. Indeed, how loud, how lucid the roar. But the dead in the ground. The unfortunate core have all volunteered for the war. Will the Cold Carpathian ground. Except these men in their shroud, will the nipper in its ancient row guide the right dove with its portentous flow for the cargo. The harbor the ore have all volunteered for the war. Peace, the privilege, the chore Zachary. This This is really one of your very best ones. I love the sense the feel for the the land and the historical references. What is your problem about? My poem is really about how in in a country like Ukraine in a conflict that we’ve seen uh in a conflict like the one we’ve seen in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, how everything seems to move towards war, even though no one really wants war, at least, no one admits to wanting war. And how in many ways these systems that are supposed to protect us and prevent war oftentimes break down very fast. That’s really insightful and and a great place to open our conversation uh natalia. If we could go back in a little bit of history, I remember and maybe some of our listeners remember or have read about the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Ukraine attained its independence. There was so much optimism, particularly the United States about democracy in Ukraine. How how did we get from 1991 to 2014? Why has it been such a difficult road in Ukraine?
[0:04:20 Speaker 1] It was difficult, of course. However, I should say, from comparing to, you know, there were 15 Republics in the Soviet Union. Somehow, Ukraine till 2014 has more or less seamless and peaceful wrote to the where we are before the war started. We knew at that time there were conflicts in different areas. However, when we reflect on what happened today, we really understand that in the end of the eighties and early nineties still, Ukraine has quite a strong civil society And the fall of the Soviet Union was something not imposed, which sometimes people prefer, or some propagandists prefer to say, I’m currently working on the project on the 30th years of the Ukrainian independence got its independence in August 20 1991. And when we’re looking at the archives and everything, we saw that in fact, the peaceful uh transformation, transformation, what’s possible also because falls straddles from the society in Ukraine, from the people who suffered from Chernobyl disaster, or from the veterans who come from the soviet Afghan war, or, you know, like the people who were striking, they were all kind of having a lot of hopes. Of course, that was not easy. And for me, the idea of why it was difficult. It’s not just because people were not even, they were quite strong financial interest, quite strong interest of also of the members of the former Communist Party to, you know, have and keep their position in In power. So in 90s, uh it was not like your son have received democracy and some things went wrong. No, that was a struggle which went on when you needed to have the transparent elections you need to have. Also, there was a huge economic crisis and the economic crisis was not really the result of the just the Ukrainian independence. That was also the part of the networking soviet economy system. So I do think that it’s also very important to reflect on these times. Yet the very important thing was still the change has happened in Russia with the Vladimir Putin idea of More or less keeping the Soviet Union alive again and not allowing the other independent states states to choose their own future. So that was an unfortunate moment in history. We can of course talk more about that. But in the end, what was special in 2014 is that like a mighty neighbor wanted just undo something which has been uh which hasn’t happened years ago.
[0:07:11 Speaker 0] Right, right. So so what made this extraordinary moment, which I hope some of our listeners remember in 2014, when so many Ukrainians came out in the streets to protest against a Russian imposed government, a government that was going to do things that ran so against the interests of Ukrainians with regard to the rest of europe. Uh What what made that moment possible? And then of course, we can talk about what happened after that moment to
[0:07:39 Speaker 1] you mentioned uh that Ukraine is important. You know, there are there are hundreds of countries in uh in the world, so why all of sudden one country is is more important? Uh partly also because the Ukraine is kind of an example for the soviet world, things can be different that, for instance, uh compared to, you know, Russia or belarus, that people can come to the street, that could be a fair elections. And uh the moment I reported previously, also the arab spring, there was an interesting moment in the history, but also there was this uh anticipation of the different dictators that really the strongest could fall. Uh So when Maidan where the Ukrainian revolution was succeeding and the Ukrainian president at that time, who had given an order to shut his own people has escaped the country. And the there was a political crisis in a way that what we call revolution has one, there was this moment of vulnerability in which they are the state decided to uh uh to occupy the part of the Ukrainian land by by by which I I I mean the Crimean Peninsula. Uh for me that was the moment of the let’s say, come to revolution because for the Russian state at that time, for the Kremlin, it was very critical to show that the peaceful protests that they are not resulting in the democracy or in the reforms they do result in in war and cares that’s not true. You know, there could be a different development. However, the difference of the totalitarian regime is they want to create the reality. So quite a lot of effort were given propaganda, all kind of the things, but most important the military force to really prove that. And um in something uh partly it was successful. So for the Russian population, uh, they had this example of, I don’t go to the streets you see in case the world would started and if you think the world won’t started, we would start that war. So that for me was the reason, uh, why why it was, you know, popular to grab the part of your neighbor’s land in that moment of history.
[0:10:05 Speaker 0] So you visited the Crimean Peninsula during Russian occupation, as Jeremy said in the introduction. What is it like now? How has it changed?
[0:10:15 Speaker 1] Yeah. What is interesting that’s already seven years had to grasp for Ukrainians that this war is lasting longer than the Second World War. Uh, the most probably striking difference is the area which people won’t know. Uh, that’s a nice part of the land for tourism with a c with a kind of non mediterranean climate. Uh, resort had become a kind of a frozen conflict zone. Uh, many people in the US won’t know, but you might hurt something about like Transnistria or cita or pasta or you know, like this non recognized territories which are cut down from the rest of the world and where there is no really properly uh, interesting enough that it’s true that the Russian state kind of fueling some chunk of money to Crimean Peninsula. But out of this resort style territory it has becoming more similar to the To the area where some of the things are not working, where you you know like where you out of which you can’t really travel globally, which maybe was okay 30 or 40 years ago. But it’s quite unusual for the, for the wooden world. Uh, there are more military there, there are, you know, there is a military base there. So uh, and there is somehow less freedom than in the rest of Russia because there was always the, you know, if you if you grab part of the territory, you need to keep an eye on it. So in this regard is like coming back and bring back the soviet legacy of that territory where the things are more authoritarian then they where then they really are in, you know, like in Moscow on some Petersburg or elsewhere in Russia.
[0:12:13 Speaker 0] And is Russia seeking as you see it, to use Crimea as a model for continued aggression in East Ukraine as well, um because this is something not in the news, a lot in the United States, but there’s there’s evidence,
[0:12:32 Speaker 1] sure, you know, there are two things uh, somehow we we we now can speculate that the later the military aggression in Eastern Ukraine was partly done to destruct the world from from, you know, from the occupation of Crimea. Um, yet after so many years where we have kind of a puppet regimes, uh, this is also the another kind of territory, which is where like up to three million people living uh four million people living, which is the gray zone. But after, you know, if if you do not resolve the conflict, if you don’t do anything that the status quo is not really helpful. So in a way now, uh many many experts would say that Russia didn’t want to really grab the territory. They wanted to have this territory. Because uh you know, every war. It’s it’s toxic. It’s poisoned the society. It’s, you know, create a different discourse. Would I compare to the U. S. To make the your audience understand it better? You understand? For instance, we understand international is that, you know, up to 9 11, for instance, there was a different motives in the U. S. Society. You kind of feel unsecure. There is it’s given the despite the tragedy has happened. It also gives a lot of pretext for the state to you know, to uh give up some freedoms uh to have the public discourse of security the dominance of the preference of the security over the freedoms. So in this case the whole war in Ukraine is used by by by Russia to um and and and the war itself, it’s it’s really not helpful to the Ukrainian democracy. It’s not helpful for the developing of the uh democratic and prosperous society apart from the uh real basic harm which hasn’t done for the Ukrainian economy. Because you know what probably it’s important also to mention that Ukraine didn’t have a word before that, you know, you some people might think about Eastern europe about the place where you know, like there are always kind of strange things happening. No, I mean, our latest war was the second World War. So by then, despite all the problems of the soviet union, uh the society never experienced the case that the people would be killed their minds, you know, or some other things which were brought to the to the Ukrainian soil. Um so in a way that’s that’s the the the complex, the complex issue for the um you know, influencing the card country with the proxy conflict.
[0:15:09 Speaker 0] So how have the Ukrainian people reacted? And I understand that’s an over generalized question because Ukraine is a very diverse society with a very diverse history, east and west and in different provinces of course. But how should americans in particular, who are concerned about Russian aggression and want to support Ukraine and at least the democratic aspirations of Ukrainian citizens? How should we understand How people have reacted to the events of from 2014 to the present? Including as you as you just described, Russian aggression. How do we understand Ukrainian reactions?
[0:15:47 Speaker 1] Look, things have normalized obviously. So there was the actual conflict in within the first year. Uh, it’s the the conflict is kind of far away from the capital. It doesn’t mean that people don’t suffer, but now we have this kind of a frozen conflict where you know, there are sometimes shooting. But if you live in the capital of Ukraine, you, I know it mentioned, you know like it’s like a distant for for americans, you would understand that like uh though it’s happening in the Ukrainian soil, it feels like a distant for for the citizen residents and the people of the rest of the country. It feels like you still have the war, your soldiers are dying, your civilians are suffering somewhere, there are internally displaced. However, the most of the country is just like living the life as you know, any other state in europe yet. Why I think it’s important to you know, support and think about that. Um, Ukraine is again, I would say the great example for the region. Uh and somehow the democracy in a region also depends by the case of Ukraine, Ukraine is one of the biggest countries in europe and the very important country for eastern europe. So later the we understand like if Ukraine is democratic, there are more chances that Belarus may become democratic Georgia, Armenia or multi of all these other countries or even Central Asia countries if Ukraine is non democratic. Um you know, forget forget about the democracy in those places because like uh it influenced the whole region. It’s the the the front line of this, of this fight. Uh So in in the beginning of the war, many Ukrainians went to volunteer, you know, they support the people uh but well, first of all, we need to look at the things we should happen after the revolution. It’s about the really democratic reforms which Ukraine is pursuing. Its about, you know, changing the, you know, like your your court system, changing your um security service somehow make moving the Since then, Ukraine, Ukraine has is ex experienced a number of the different types of reforms aimed at more freedoms, more accountability, more transparency. And somehow we managed to reach the area where, and I think that’s the most important where inputs of its space. It’s usually you see that the state is an oppressor in our case, we have we’re living in this transformation when the state is the service, you know, like when you’re not afraid of your state. Uh It’s a difficult road. Ukraine is not super rich country. Uh, there are a lot of issues around the issues of corruption, there are issues of poor management, but more or less after seven years, we managed to, you know, get into this in a situation where it’s more or less about making the state serving its public and its citizens in all formats. Whether this fight was Covid or whether this like the education or something, you know, reforming the system, which was for a while mismanaged for awhile, misused by the oligarchs, misused by the politicians with their interests. So how should we
[0:19:19 Speaker 0] understand Ukraine’s relationship with the United States in particular? Ukraine has played a role not just in our in our foreign policy, but also in our domestic politics, as we saw with the first impeachment of donald trump. So how should we understand that relationship?
[0:19:34 Speaker 1] It’s interesting because of course, the the for Ukraine us is a strategic partner, it’s a global force. And somehow we just we recently had this summit between David Putin and joe biden. And for instance we understand that of course they would discuss with Ukraine just because Russia wants to kind of play, you know, place this is the story of the you know, spheres of influence. I somehow I’m very I’m not at all a fan of the idea of the sphere of influence. I do think that the U. S. Is in fact trying to kind of uh as a democratic state and a global power to say that like no no no it’s not any longer Cold war. But Ukraine is exactly this showcase of uh bringing back security and democracy to the further from the you know, uh central european countries in after the collapse of the soviet Union. You know, there were little, the frontline was somewhere in Poland Czech Republic. The politics where, you know, those countries were our soviet, they were post socialist, but they were undemocratic. But today they are like not perfect, but the democracies where people are quite quite well off. And that was also thanks to the collaboration of the european union of europe and the United States in this regard, Ukraine today is exactly at this front line where we can move the democracy and the accountability and you know, um in in the uh in the uh further East. And I think it’s not just about our region because non success Ukrainian non success uh you know, the part that like okay a lot of has been done in order to bring on transparency and uh you know, fight with the corruption in Ukraine. I think it’s also might resemble in different parts of the world. Um so that’s why Ukraine is important for the U. S. Foreign policy. Uh the whole uh but can we explain by some historical reason the whole issue with the donald trump or for for instance this um you know, talk between Ukrainian president and donald trump trump and the impeachment trial. Um that’s partly unfortunate for me, you know, because we just happened to be in this very middle of this political crisis, domestic political crisis. I’m very happy that somehow Ukraine managed to um get out of it without playing to one or another party. And we have still this bipartisan support. I’m a bit disappointed and like of course, saddened by the fact that the discussion about the Ukrainian corruption was overshadowing the whole other part of the Ukrainian image. Because to go on, it’s like for instance, covered the last elections in the States. Yeah, I’ve been traveling from the sea to Wisconsin, to Minneapolis to florida. And um, you know, people were talking, you know, everybody heard the world Ukraine, but nobody really cared about was what was going on in the country. Uh, it was just partly a tool of the inside domestic politics. I think that I hope this page is a bit over, but it happened that uh, we can, we as well have had to learn a lot about the US just by this accident, uh, and by this participation of the Ukrainian of the american, uh, politicians in and also, who wanted to meddle in the Ukrainian domestic policy by this. I mean, for instance, Rudy Giuliani,
[0:23:35 Speaker 0] Right. Yeah. I think it’s it’s, it’s ironic that the United States, which I think quite traditionally and consistently has supported democratization in Ukraine perhaps by um putting Ukraine in the middle of this conflict and is becoming so embedded in american domestic politics, that this actually undermined democracy in Ukraine. Um, and I’m concerned that the whole debate over the last 3-4 years and Donald Trump’s activities in Rudy, Giuliani’s activities in the Ukraine actually hurt the cause of democracy in Ukraine. What is that? An accurate assessment?
[0:24:10 Speaker 1] I would disagree that it’s really in the long run in the end, it’s hurt to some extent, but it’s something which could be today healed because it’s a lot depends on Ukraine because look, I think there was a harm not just to Ukraine. The point, for instance, where the because somehow in many past authoritarian countries, a lot of like activists and everybody relied a bit on the Western support in terms of the strengthening that talks about human rights, things like the freedom of speech or fight with the corruption. Within a couple of years, those kind of discussions were not present. We couldn’t expect that the former US President would speak about the democracy in Ukraine or I know, freeing freedom of speech or things like that because it would sound as a bit nonsense. Who would care? You know, like for instance the trump would speak that like oh protect freedom of speech in Ukraine were like, you know, let’s support independent media. So the harm has been done. However, what is interesting because to put things in the contest and despite Ukraine has its problems and things as a reporter, as a Ukrainian journalist, I can write the list and list of what Ukrainian government does wrong or what they haven’t achieved. However, for me it was interesting about the Ukrainian population that can you imagine that in times of war, in times of the conflict, in terms of the, you know, such a polarization globally, when the situation is generally in stable somehow, the society uh in in case of the growing populism nationalism, conservatives in the bad meaning of this world by this. I mean, like it’s okay to be conservative. I rather think in this kind of populist nationalism, which we have globally, and also in eastern europe Ukraine, in the elections we have two years ago, managed somehow to elect the president who has a very moderate approach, you know, which is more about people talking to each other. Getting out of this populistic discussion about the identity about the nationalism, about, for instance, you know, foreigners coming to our country, immigration of things like that. So I do think totally enough, Ukraine has passed its exam and looking at the international environment which is not very healthy. Uh we kind of managed to preserve at least in our public discourse. The whole idea that tolerance matter, democracy matters and take corruption fights matters. It’s very important to to have room of law and and even if we are not still on that stage, the public discussion is that okay? The good things are the good things we we we we we do in a normal public discussion. Were there in the point when the, you know, the the black is not called white and vice versa?
[0:27:13 Speaker 0] Yes. Yes. I really think there’s a strong point of what you said about the long term trends towards free expression and participation and the effectiveness despite all these difficulties of the Ukrainian government that’s tried to preserve those elements with a new president, a surprising president to those at least from outside the country. Someone who is of course more more of a comedian than a politician before, I guess the final question I want to ask and we always like to close natalia on a question that’s positive and forward looking, showing how this historical background that you’ve shared can help us to look forward. What is it that americans who care about Ukraine and care about democracy? What is it that they should be doing? What are the opportunities for the United States to help without harming?
[0:28:01 Speaker 1] Okay, so there is something which the state is doing of course, in particularly because in the end, Ukraine is at war and it really depends on international help today. I’m not speaking now about providing weapons or something, but as I mentioned in the very beginning of the talk that as you understand any conflict long run, it poisons society. It’s make society vulnerable. It’s very hard to make democracy and fight for freedom of speech and the human rights. When there is an actual war going on for a couple of years, the United States, we’re kind of not present in the solution of the conflict. We now have all these talks with the US with France and Germany and the US wasn’t part of it. So we really have the political aspiration that maybe in this conflict which is more political rather than human conflict. It’s really about that the conflict with Russia than the U. S. Can play the role because the U. S. Has the leverage that’s on this level. But on the human level the world is more connected. The now there is also the competitions for the narratives. So for us the country is it comes to the map of the Ukraine of the average american citizens because 20 or 15 years ago who would care Ukraine wasn’t Russia, that was enough now because it was everywhere in the news. I think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the country, looking at kind of developments which are there understand partly what’s going on and maybe also learned some of the things Because you know, we have this discussion in the US. about fake news. I remember very well invented 16 when I was Reporting from Ohio, I need to explain people who fake news are I need to explain to local journalists, how is it that the kind of high level politicians just lying uh that people would vote against their interests or for instance that the things which are just not existing would be presented as the truth in 2020. I didn’t need to explain that Of course, because that’s something we have experienced in 2014 in case of Ukraine. So I think the whole idea of better communication, better understanding of how in the other parts of the world, uh the different societies are searching their ways for a normal life. That’s something to have a bit more empathy, to have a bit more knowledge, have a bit more interest for at least not, you know, buying to the narratives which had been misused for the recent years, that will be already helpful for the Ukrainian society. The most important thing is just like treat it as any normal democratic society. That would be good with its problems. But, you know, every country has its problems. I think that that would be the very important thing in our history.
[0:30:57 Speaker 0] That’s so inspiring and insightful, right? I mean that we should treat Ukraine as a normal country, a country that deserves our respect and our help and not treated as some special case that’s extra bad or that has extra problems of one kind or another to be attentive to fake news and to be better informed Zachary. Is this a set of guidelines that are inspiring for young people like yourself who care about foreign policy and care about democracy? Do you think many young people will pay attention in our society? Certainly I think there has been an increased understanding and awareness among young people that other countries in the world that we think of as troubled because we see them in the news solely from the perspective of conflict are really just as vibrant and have the same civil societies that we value so highly at home. And I think that would mean then that we should not treat them as patients, but more is part exactly well natalia. I think you have shared so much detailed information with us a valuable first hand perspective. You bring together that knowledge of what’s happening on the streets so to speak along with the learning and scholarship that you also bring to the question. It’s really a joy to have you with us and share your insights and your passions with our listeners. Thank you natalia Gherman york for being with us today.
[0:32:16 Speaker 1] Thank you
[0:32:17 Speaker 0] and Zachary of course thank you for your poem and thank you most of all to our listeners. Thank you for joining us for this episode of this is Democracy. Yeah. Yeah. Mhm.
[0:32:32 Speaker 1] Mhm. Yeah this podcast is produced by the liberal Arts I. T. S. Development
[0:32:36 Speaker 0] Studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of texas at Austin Music. In this episode was written and recorded by Harris Komotini. Stay tuned for a new episode every week you can find this is Democracy on Apple podcasts, Spotify and stitcher. See you next time