Independence – the common theme I keep coming across in my interactions with others here in Kyiv. When I asked a local what is the most unique thing about Ukraine, he told me he believes it is Ukraine’s unceasing pursuit of total independence, since, as he pointed out, Ukraine in all of its history has been an independent state for only a short time (Ukraine became independent in 1917 for a mere three years before it fell to Soviet rule in 1920. Ukraine did not see independence again until the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991). Independence is also what I am constantly reminded of every day as I walk to and from work past ‘Maidan’ Square (Independence Square). The price of independence is what I think of when I see memorials across the city, especially those next to ‘Maidan’ Square, commemorating the individuals who had fallen during the conflict in 2014. The pride that independence can bring is what I encounter when I note just how flawlessly the Independence Column now stands. However, its undamaged appearance is deceiving – the conflict did not leave behind a perfectly healed nation, although it is striving to heal by leaving behind reminders of the past in order to never repeat history again. It is evident that independence lingers in the back of everyone’s mind.
Interestingly enough, as the situation in Ukraine (both due to the Crimean crisis and to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which are not synonymous, and the topic of which I will address later on in this blog) is so politically charged, that all UN agencies, including the UNDP and other international organizations, are sensitive to, and specific in, the terminology that they employ. For example, at UNDP Ukraine one cannot say separatists, militants or terrorist – it must be armed groups; Eastern Ukraine, not Donbas; people living in the Non-Government Controlled Area (NGCA), not citizens of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LRP); and so on. I have come to know that this is also a form of healing, resilience building and independence-seeking. Eastern Ukraine now suffers immensely in economic terms and in order to revive the economy in the region, and to encourage investment in innovative projects and trade relations between the two oblasts (regions), the story of the conflict is told with specific, neutral terminology, while highlighting success stories of start-ups. Moreover, the terminology is neutral to disassociate with Russia and encourage Ukrainians in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to once again become more united with the rest of Ukraine.
Returning now briefly to the difference between the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the Eastern Ukrainian conflict – they are not one and the same thing, which many do not realize. The Crimean conflict consisted of the referendum of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. Russia accepted both entities into its Federation on the grounds of self-determination, whereas the UN and the international community condemned the action and called upon states not to recognize any change of status for either Crimea or Sevastopol. This particular matter wrapped up by the end of March of 2014, whereas the Eastern Ukrainian conflict is ongoing and has its origins in armed groups, now with Russia’s support, continuing to fight the Ukrainian Army in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. It is precisely this ongoing conflict that my placement with the UNDP focuses on, as I am assigned to the Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (RPP).
The emphasis on separating the two conflicts is reminiscent of how Ukraine has for decades tried to be separate from the Soviets, and later, from Russia’s influence. The battle for becoming, and being recognized as, an independent nation has been long – just like the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, similar to how Ukrainians did not see independence for over half a century in the 1900s, the end of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is nowhere in sight and Ukrainians are once again left dreaming of the day when they can enjoy true independence. Independence has been, and remains, an everyday topic for this Eastern European state.