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As Conflict Continues, Activists Try To Rebuild Ukrainian Civil Society

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Saturday, July 5, 2014.
Dmitry Lovetsky
Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Saturday, July 5, 2014.

Conflict and suffering continue in Ukraine as pro-Russian forces in eastern regions of the country continue to fight with Ukrainian soldiers. The violence dates back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. Despite the ongoing hostilities, a small group of activists is working to build civil society in the country.

Katerina Tsetsura, a professor of public relations and strategic communications at the University of Oklahoma and a native of Ukraine, visited the country this summer as part of a consulting team for a USAID fact-finding mission about Ukrainian civil society engagement.

“It’s a small group of activists right now. But I think that it’s very energetic,” said Tsetsura.

Russian-backed separatists continue to hold Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, or regions, in eastern Ukraine, though some small cities in Donetsk such as Kramatorsk and Slavyansk are under Ukrainian control.

Tsetsura says there is a lot of effort to rebuild life in those cities.

“So for example, some very small but active group of civil activists who are trying to work with local government and with the government in Ukraine to really kind of rebuild the infrastructure, but also rebuild the civil activities and actions,” Tsetsura said. “And there are some independent regional media that help development on the eastern side and helping to tell the story of what's happening now in those locations.”

Tsetsura says there are several foundations from the United States and European Union that are funding civil engagement and road, school and infrastructure projects in Ukrainian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, in territory controlled by Russian-based separatists, the Kremlin is helping fund reconstruction and infrastructure development as well.

“People who live in those territories, they still are very flexible. They can move back and forth and they do travel quite a bit and they see what's happening in terms of rebuilding infrastructures in each of those sides and they share those stories,” Tsetsura said.

Tsetsura says there has been increased interest in a unified national Ukrainian identity. Two years ago, she says, Ukrainians were disillusioned by their government in Kiev and many were looking toward Russia for help. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflicts in the east, Ukrainian are now disillusioned with Russia as well.

“I do think that there is a bigger sense of the national identity in Ukraine and it keeps having this idea of cohesion as a very fragile and yet very moldable identity of who you are as a Ukrainian,” Tsetsura said.

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Suzette Grillot: Katerina Tsetsura, welcome to World Views.

Katerina Tsetsura: Thank you.

Grillot: Thanks for joining me here. Ukraine's kind of dropped off the front pages lately. For the past few years. It was all over the news in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and then the war began in the eastern part of Ukraine. That seems to have kind of been frozen for a little while, although it sounds like things are still happening there. But give us your perception having been there recently, having come from this country. What is the latest in Ukraine? What can we know about? What's happening there with the conflict?

Tsetsura: Sure. Even despite the fact that Ukraine has gone from the front pages here in the United States there is still a lot going on there and of course the conflict by no means is over. The eastern part of Ukraine, which has been battling back and forth, and there are two sides really there: the Russian side and the Ukrainian side that battle each other is still very much in a war zone, and in many ways it's still very much a conflict that is ongoing despite the fact that it's not only news right now. Now it's very important to emphasize that it's only happening in certain places in the eastern part of Ukraine. In much of Ukraine, also is just as detached from that conflict as some neighboring countries.

Grillot: Could I just clarify one thing, Katarina. When you say there are two sides. OK so Russia. Are they Russian troops? Or are they are Ukrainians that are of Russian descent that are of that are supporting kind of maybe breaking away and joining Russia, or supporting the Russian dominance in the region. Can you kind of clarify that for us because clearly there's a lot of real understanding about who is actually fighting in this conflict?

Tsetsura: It's a really good question and it's a very difficult question to answer and I think there are several discourses about this true story of what's happening here. But we can certainly say with some certainty that there are some Russians who come from Russia, or Russian speakers who come from Russia, and other areas including Ukraine who are fighting on, so it's called, the Russian side and the idea is to have this territory of Donetsk and Lugansk as the independent territories from everybody, from Ukraine and from Russia. They are very heavily supported by the Russian government, and that's the idea behind the Russian side I think. On the other hand, it's the Ukrainian troops ATO, who are fighting and protecting really the land. At this point they are not necessarily trying to get back the Donetsk and Lugansk, they are just trying to keep the front line and protect the Ukrainian base territories and east. Over the past 12 months or so, there were some territories around along the border in eastern Ukraine that were be captured. So among those smaller regional towns of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk. And what is happening right now is that there is a very fragile civic engagement and civic development happens in those regions along the border, and there's a lot of interest and a lot of effort that is put there by Ukrainians to really rebuild the life as it has been before in those territories.

Tsetsura: There's a lot of interesting elements happening there. So for example some very small but active group of civil activists, who are trying to work with local government and with the government in Ukraine to really kind of rebuild the infrastructure, but also rebuild the civil act activities and actions. And there are some independent regional media that help development on the eastern side, and helping to tell the story of what's happening now in those locations.

Grillot: There was a wonderful New York Times piece, a significant one a few months ago, calling this conflict the "frozen conflict" and how many people have left the region. I mean you just mentioned how Ukrainian forces and government are really kind of ceded the territory. I mean they're not trying to get the territory back. They're really just trying to contain, right, the conflict from spreading further into the country. So there's this this zone of just you know it's kind of is it Ukraine is it Russia? I mean you know who does it belong to? And that kind of flood of people that have left right that there's there really aren't you know working class people there. So what are, or what is life like in this part of the world? I know you've mentioned these very interesting cases of small towns in particular with local activists are people trying to take these you know these places back or are they just fleeing?

Tsetsura: That's a very good question. I think there there's two sides here, or two parts that I would want to emphasize. So there is a territory that is not controlled by Ukraine. So this are the Luhansk and Donetsk territories. And those territories are kind of over the limit. So they have their own governments right now that is supported by Russia. Now there is a gray zone so to speak. The Gray Zone truly is between those Lugansk and Donetsk territories and the Ukrainian controlled territory and people still live there, but there are very few of those. Most of the people left either one for the East or back to Ukraine. And then the Ukrainian territory. But there are lots of IDPs, displaced people in the region, and many people who used to live in Donetsk and Luhansk and chose not to stay there but moved back to Ukraine, are now living in this territory along the front line or moved even farther west in Ukraine, and some of them really are not trying to stay, but many of them also came back to the places where they originally were like Kramatorsk or Slovyansk. We also see a lot of activists in Kramatorsk in Slovyansk who actually have lived in Donetsk before and left and chose to stay with Ukrainians and those are the people who are now making their new life as IDPs in those locations. And now they are the ones who want to see the activities of civil engagement for the future.

Grillot: I haven't spent much time in Ukraine. You know in the past many years but spent a lot of time there back in the early days of their independence. And one of the things that I recognized was that there was a pretty strong sense of identity of being Ukrainian. There's a pretty strong sense at that time again, early former Soviet period of wanting to move away from Russia. We saw that change over time and particularly with certain leadership in Ukraine and kind of you know going back toward the east as perhaps the West wasn't welcoming enough to Ukraine. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall they weren't going to become EU members or anything like that anytime soon. So, how are the Ukrainians handling this situation today? How do they feel about themselves today as Ukrainians? Are those in the east that are now under Russian control really just saying well OK we're just we're just Russians? Or is there still some sense of national identity in Ukraine?

Tsetsura: Very good question and I think the one that really gives us a glimpse into what's happening in Ukraine. I think you're absolutely right that the national identity of Ukrainians has always been around them and as has been a very strong identity defined as opposed to Russia, or as opposed to somebody else. Right now we see that that strong national identity of Ukrainians is still very much there, and especially in the last 12 months, we've seen in 12 to 24 months, we've seen an increasing interest in having this cohesive national identity even among the people who live in the east, regardless of the ethnicity. So it really becomes the civic identities, civically defined idea of I am Ukrainian because I belong to this to this country. And the reason for that, among others, that I have seen and have been talking to the experts in Ukraine just in June, is that a lot of people in the east are now disillusioned with the idea of this frozen conflict, and the longer the conflict continues the longer people die in the territories there, the more people realize that Russia is not going to come in and help them and they are going to support them and they start looking at the ways of understanding how they can make their lives better. And that's where now where you know maybe two years ago a lot of people were really disillusioned with the Kiev government, and they were looking up to Kremlin to help and save them, and now they just disillusioned that everything and just making a life for themselves in the places where they are. But I do think that there is a bigger sense of the national identity in Ukraine and it keeps having this idea of cohesion as a very fragile and yet very moldable identity of who you are as a Ukrainian.

Grillot: On this issue of identity and I want to follow up on that but you also mentioned having looked to Russia to help and that they've realized that the Russians are going to help them. I mean who is helping them? And is that perhaps maybe underlying the sense of a greater sense of Ukrainian identity because nobody else is coming to help them either. Right? I mean if the Russians aren't helping it you know the U.S. isn't helping the West isn't helping, there's really no one that's responding to this crisis. So who else do they have to turn to but themselves?

Tsetsura: Yes it's a very good question. I think there are different levels of help that we can talk about so in some level we can say nobody is helping. And certainly in the sense of you know providing lethal weapons for example nobody is helping Ukraine at this point. But I think there are other ways to help that are happening in the region and that we see and that mostly deals with civic engagement and rebuilding infrastructure. And there are quite a few foundations from the European Union and then actually from the United States that are present in the Ukrainian-controlled territories that are not themselves there but they help financially to support the civic engagement initiatives. So to support NGOs, or support leadership and activists who want to do something good for their territories and in Ukraine. And this very similar thing in terms of engagement and infrastructure development that's happening on the non-Ukrainian control territories in Donetsk and Luhansk where the Russian government is helping to rebuild the roads and to kind of rebuild the schools and help people find the ways to live their lives again in the territories that are not controlled in Ukraine. And I think you can safely say that these two rebuilding infrastructures - one on the side of Ukrainian-control territories and the other one on the non-Ukraine-controlled territories, are kind of competing against each other because people who live in those territories they still are very flexible. They can move back and forth and they do travel quite a bit and they see what's happening in terms of rebuilding infrastructures in each of those sides and they share those stories.

Tsetsura: So in the sense of who's helping I think it's a very difficult and yet complex question. And the more what I've seen at least on the Ukraine control territories is that people tried to help themselves. People helping others within their communities. And it's a very specific target of help. So the idea of the law and justice above all the idea of making sure that your local government is responsible for the roads that are broken or are they helping you to build new schools or medical facilities. There's a lot of the interest and hope that people themselves can do that. It's a very small group of activists right now. But I think they very energetic. They very much want to build up and that's how you usually see engagement that civil society starts building. And when you have a small group of individuals who are really passionate about the cause and who are ready to go all the way and to really make things better.

Grillot: Well I have to end on that notion of hope because you know we've got we've got to find some way to have hope here and so you yourself have been involved in some of these projects. As a professor of public relations, strategic communication. Your background in media. What are those things that you're hopeful about since you've been there. I mean you've mentioned some of these small projects and you know the number of activists and leaders that are coming up and and that they're being supported by external funding maybe but but what is it that provides you hope about your country.

Tsetsura: I think one of the most important things is the durability and the resilience of the Ukrainians as the folks as the people and the idea that we always see the positive side and try to take care of your own neighbor and take care of your community is one big thing. And the other really big notion and change that really provides hope for me is the very fact that still despite the fact that Ukraine is out from the front pages there is still a big interest in Ukraine and understanding the essence of fight for independence and freedom that exists in the European Union and the very fact that for example Ukrainians now can travel to European Union countries visa-free is the big step forward to really demonstrate the positive and of the reforms in Ukraine. Because they are the biggest challenge right now is to make reforms that Ukrainians try to pass in Kiev. Right. The government is to demonstrate to the people who live in all different places around Ukraine how reforms really help you and I think the more specific reforms can become the better of Ukrainian I hope will will be.

Grillot: Well thank you Katerina for reminding us the importance of this country in the Crossroads right there between Europe and Eurasia. And two very important parts of the world so thank you very much for being here today and shedding some light on that.

Tsetsura: Thank you.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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