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Glenn College faculty witness Ukraine democracy’s rise, siege

Ohio State assisted with transition to independence, sovereignty

Early in their careers, three Glenn College faculty members witnessed and assisted the building of a democracy. Now, they watch as the world fears that democracy could fall.

Charles Wise, faculty emeritus and founding director of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, initiated and directed the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Parliamentary Development Project in Ukraine from 1994 – three years after the country declared independence – to 2013. Dean Trevor Brown was the program’s U.S. project manager. Rudy Hightower, a senior lecturer, was a project associate who served as a resident director of the International Affairs Department’s Ukraine Study Abroad Program at Ohio State.

Their task: to provide assistance to the country’s nascent Parliament. They helped the parliamentarians set up legislative and budgetary processes and procedures; develop executive oversight and legislative and executive government branch relations; establish citizen access and constituency relations; and determine staffing and administrative operations.

Nearly a decade later, as the Russia-Ukraine war intensifies, they carry hope for a positive outcome for Ukraine based on their experiences in the country and with its citizens.

“Fundamentally, the situation in Ukraine is heart-rending – innocent people, including defenseless children, are being murdered,” Brown said. “At the same time, the resiliency of the Ukrainian people and their commitment to a sovereign democratic nation is inspiring.”

When the Parliamentary Development Project first started, newly elected Ukraine parliamentarians came to the United States to see examples of how a democratic government operates. At the time, Wise headed up the project from Indiana University, where he was a professor and Brown was a graduate research assistant. After they moved to Ohio State – Wise as director of the then-John Glenn School of Public Affairs and Brown as an associate professor – the project operations were relocated here in 2008 and supported by the university’s intellectual infrastructure and world-class Center for Slavic and Eastern European Studies.

Wise remembers a telling moment at the end of one of the visits, when a Communist Parliament member, who had barely said a word during the entire two weeks, commented during a debrief session.

“He got up and said, ‘When I came on this trip, I was convinced it was going to be a propaganda exercise. I have to tell you it was exactly the opposite. This was the most informative, useful trip that I could imagine,’” Wise said.

Soon after, the parliamentarians requested more specific technical assistance in the new government’s formation, so the Parliamentary Development Project headed to Ukraine.

“We witnessed the parliamentarians make remarkable progress in fostering a representative government, which is now under threat from the Russian invasion,” Wise said. “For me as a political science and public affairs guy, watching the birth of a new government was a unique experience.

“They were wrestling how to formulate basic legislation. They wanted Ukraine to be modern. They didn’t want it to be backward. They wanted to be part of the panoply of modern nations,” Wise said. “They saw the comparative information we provided as a way to be able to make these kinds of choices. I thought that was pretty gratifying.”

When Brown first traveled to Ukraine, he was impressed with how the parliamentarians addressed the task before them.

“It was a very complicated one: building democratic processes and procedures in a country that had very little experience with not only democratic governance but also with independence in sovereignty. They were serious about it and well aware of the challenges before them,” Brown said. “I also was aware that while a relatively small group, liberal reformers, were very excited and eager to move forward with changes, a significant and larger portion of the legislative body was very skeptical and outright oppositional.”

Over time, he said, those in opposition became active participants, gaining confidence through the assistance from the Parliamentary Development Project. The project’s approach was not to tell the parliamentarians what to do or what shape their government should take. Instead, Wise and Brown provided comparative information on democratic governments around the world.

“We assured them, ‘We’re not going to tell you how to do this. Instead, here’s the world’s experience. You all own this, and you get to pick it,’” Brown said. “I am proud that was our approach and think that was the reason we were there 20 years. We were able to deliver results, but we were highly trusted.”

“Their motivation was they understood they had been isolated, and they needed to improve their systems and way they did things,” Wise added. “They wanted to know about the best practices in the world so they could inform their own decisions. They wanted to know what the advantages and disadvantages were.”

The project also started working with regional legislatures and parliamentary bodies in late 1990. In addition, it had an operation in Crimea, which was part of Ukraine but was granted much more discretion in its own governance.

As the program progressed, and the Parliament developed its own basic processes and systems, it became much more connected to civil society. Phase two of the Parliamentary Development Project moved toward working with political parties, interest groups, citizen organizations and the press.

“Our job was to not only work with Parliament but also work with those groups to help them present the information that would influence the public policymaking process in an effective way to make their interests known and to advance legislation,” Brown said.

The Parliamentary Development Project firmly planted the seeds of democracy in Ukraine, Brown and Wise said. Wise called the progress “tremendous.”

“They were not and are not now all the way there yet,” Wise said. “Americans have to remember: We weren’t all the way there after our Constitution. We fought a civil war and had slavery after the formation of our Constitution. We went through our corruption period of the Standard Oil and railway trusts. We had decades and decades before we had anything that what these days you’d call democracy.”

Key indicators of democratization success in Ukraine: Voters have turned out incumbents. In 2004, protesters demonstrated against corruption and election fraud; the Supreme Court voided the presidential election of Victor Yanukovich, and the voters’ choice of Victor Yushchenko was declared fair and free. In 2013, the Euromaidan revolution occurred when Yanukovich, who had been fairly elected in 2010, announced he was going to rescind Ukraine’s European Union application; he was eventually impeached.

“There have been several instances when, under strenuous conditions, the democratic institutions of Ukraine have prevailed and the citizens participated,” Wise said. “Now with the Russian invasion, we see the remarkable involvement of the citizens, and the public officials are standing up in the face of horrendous threats and danger to lead their people in opposition of the horrible tyranny being thrust upon them.”

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