Ukraine’s New Guard. Reformers are reorienting Ukraine away from Russia, and the West needs to take more notice.

Ilan Berman
July 6, 2016

You could say that Serhiy Kvit is a man on a mission. The soft-spoken 50-year-old former journalist may no longer be Ukraine’s minister of education and science, having stepped down from that post back in April as part of a governmental reshuffle that accompanied the resignation of controversial Prime Minister Arsenii Yatsenyuk. But he nonetheless remains at the forefront of the fight for the intellectual future of his country.

That was obvious during Kvit’s visit to Washington, D.C. in late May. In public appearances at several prominent policy institutions, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the American Foreign Policy Council, the former minister communicated a clear and unequivocal message. Ukraine, he argued, is now in the throes of a fundamental ideological reorientation away from Russia and toward the West, but it desperately needs support from the United States and Europe if it is to succeed.

It was a variation on the central theme of his latest book, published last year and entitled “The Battlefront of Civilizations: Education in Ukraine.” In it, he argues that Ukraine’s struggle to find its “rightful place” as an independent nation (rather than a Russian vassal) is now at a seminal stage, and that the country’s long-term trajectory hinges upon a wholesale overhaul of the way it understands and teaches its own history.

That conviction drove Kvit, himself a professor and the former president of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, arguably Ukraine’s most innovative university, to launch an ambitious bid to transform the country’s sclerotic, Soviet-era educational system during his term in office. His vehicles of choice were a new national higher education law, passed in 2014, and a law on science and research formulated the following year, which cumulatively codified an integration of higher education and research, established greater academic and financial autonomy for the country’s universities, and imposed stricter penalties for plagiarism and fraud, among numerous other upgrades. For these efforts, the Kyiv Post recognized Kvit last fall as one of Ukraine’s top reformers.

Impressive as it is, however, perhaps the most significant thing about Kvit’s story is that it is far from unique. Since the outbreak of conflict with Russia in early 2014, Ukrainian politics have seen the rise of a crop of young, dynamic reformers who have set about reshaping the national political narrative and its long-term strategic trajectory. In addition to Kvit, their ranks include Volodymyr Viatrovych, the erudite scholar who heads up the country’s main repository of history, known as the National Memory Institute, and Andriy Parubiy, the opposition activist-turned-politician who now serves as chairman of Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, among many, many others.

These individuals have cumulatively helped spearhead sweeping reforms at virtually every level of national politics and economic affairs. And while many of the initiatives remain conceptual, their breadth and scope is staggering, ranging from constitutional anti-corruption measures to a reform of the country’s civil service to an overhaul of the country’s previously reviled police force. As such, they offer concrete proof that policymakers in Kiev, despite past missteps, now at long last truly understand that their country’s future hinges upon a wholesale transformation of the Ukrainian state.

By and large, however, Western officials and Western publics still do not. To date, Ukraine’s recent reform efforts have garnered little by way of attention in either the United States or Europe. As a result, while the tremendous changes that have taken place in Kiev since the so-called “Euromaidan” protests of 2013 are understood by most Ukrainians, they remain largely unknown to the very audiences whose help Ukraine needs most in order to continue its westward trajectory.

This lack of knowledge, in turn, has fed a palpable sense of “Ukraine fatigue” in Washington and many European capitals. Without an adequate understanding of the scope and breadth of the changes taking place in Ukraine, more and more officials in those places have assumed that the old stagnant and corrupt political status quo still prevails. And, as a result, they increasingly appear willing to countenance a political compromise with the Kremlin over Ukraine as a way of at least temporarily defusing the current crisis, regardless of the ruinous long-term political consequences that would ensue for the country.

Others, however, are paying close attention. Ukraine’s nascent reforms – and their champions – have become the target of a barrage of negative media from skeptical writers and the pro-Russian press, who have accused Ukraine’s new guard of everything from “whitewashing” the country’s political history to aiding and abetting the country’s far-right political forces. The outcry is telling. It reflects fears among many in Moscow of a lasting Ukrainian exit from the so-called “Russian World,” as well as the desire of more than a few in the West to simply move beyond the current crisis, even if it means forcing Kiev into an unequal settlement with the Kremlin.

For Kvit and his compatriots, however, that’s simply not an option. “The war has strengthened Ukraine and unified its people,” he writes in “The Battlefront of Civilizations.” “Ukraine is building a new military structure and a new nation. We do have tremendous challenges with material resources, war and corruption, but we are determined to establish a just nation based on rule of law for all its citizens.”

Against overwhelming odds and historic inertia, Ukraine’s reformers have begun to do so. In the process, they have laid the groundwork for a profoundly different national polity, one deeply inimical to Moscow and friendly to the West. All of which goes a long way toward explaining why Kvit and his comrades have generated such ire from the Kremlin. For, if one is indeed judged not only by the company he keeps but also by the enemies he makes, the former education minister and his ideological comrades-in-arms are indisputably on the right track.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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