Title

Title

First Person: Faces of Ukraine
Monday, November 19, 2018

By Rachel Bauman,
Policy Advisor

In the ongoing war in Donbas, now entering its fifth year, most of the people on the front lines—in some cases, literally—of Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty go unnoticed. Minorities like Roma also often have special challenges that must be comprehensively addressed in Ukraine as well as Europe more broadly.  To meet some of these Ukrainians and hear their stories firsthand, I, along with my colleagues Mark Toner and Alex Tiersky and Dr. Cory Welt of the Congressional Research Service, traveled to Ukraine to gain a more nuanced understanding of war, politics, and everyday life in Ukraine.

We were up before dawn for our first working day in Ukraine to make our way from the Kiev train station to Kramatorsk, a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian-led forces in the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Kramatorsk and its surrounding regions are home to many internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by frequent shelling along the contact line separating Ukrainian government-controlled areas and Russian-occupied territories. 

Our first meeting that day vividly illustrated the destruction this senseless war has unleashed on the lives of average Ukrainians.  Together with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which receives generous support from the U.S. Government, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, we heard stories of struggle, tragedy, and resilience from some recipients of this aid.

One man told us that the cash-based assistance he received helped him make vital repairs to his car and house and buy clothing and food for his six children.  Two sisters expressed their gratitude for the small business grant they received, which allowed them to start anew when they realized they could not return to their home in Horlivka.  A tearful single mother recounted her struggle to subsist after her house was destroyed.  Another woman described the terrible nights spent in her basement seeking shelter from shelling.  All of them talked about the difficulties they faced—from long lines in harsh weather conditions to landmines and shelling—when trying to visit their families and homes on the other side of the contact line. 

Despite these traumatic and life-altering circumstances, the support of the United States and international and local religious programs have enabled these IDPs to start a new life in another part of Ukraine.

Our meeting with IDPs in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch

We learned more about the conditions of IDPs in Kramatorsk from city representatives.  The group expressed their concerns about the high rent and limited housing opportunities in Kramatorsk that make it hard for IDPs to live there permanently. 

Of the 70,000 IDPs registered in Kramatorsk (a city of originally 120,000), only 50 percent live in the city. The other half are registered for benefits but continue to live in their homes along the line of contact or in the occupied zones. Those who live on the Russian-controlled side of the contact line must endure the arduous task of monthly travel to the other side to collect their benefits, including pensions.

Crossing the line has become so dangerous and stressful that some of the IDPs we met earlier said that, although they had friends and family on the other side of the contact line, they have stopped trying to cross it. We were as impressed by the resiliency of these displaced people and the NGOs that have sprung up to help them with their legal and humanitarian needs as we were struck by the bleak outlook so many of them have for a peaceful, prosperous future.

I also visited a small town about two hours from Kyiv with a sizeable Romani population to hear from the people themselves what it is like to live as a minority group in rural Ukraine. 

The brisk weather and overcast sky mirrored the gloominess and poverty of the town compared to Kyiv.  Since we arrived early, a Romani woman invited us into the small house where she lived with her partner and nine children.  She explained that she was having difficulty securing government benefits for her children, who were already living in poverty.  She watched over the house and children, and her partner had a chronic disease which rendered him unable to work, so they survived thanks to the charity of several religious organizations and the government payments they received. 

I heard similar stories about troubled relations with the regional and national governments from other members of the Roma community.  We met in the town library, a small, worn-down Soviet relic with no indoor plumbing that also serves as a local government office.  A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian trident adorned the wall behind the desk in the room. 

A group of local Roma, some with small children, came in and sat down, speaking among themselves in Russian and Ukrainian.  A colleague from the U.S. Embassy and I introduced ourselves and began to ask questions about life for Roma in the town. 

Everyone in the room insisted that they had no problems with their non-Romani neighbors, but noted that unemployment was a persistent problem; most adults in the group were illiterate or had only an elementary-level education.  Women generally tended to the children and the home, and the men foraged for mushrooms and berries or picked through trash for scrap metal and empty bottles. 

They said that all their school-age children, in spite of their difficult circumstances, were enrolled in the local school.  Some mothers complained of discriminatory treatment toward Roma children in schools but emphasized that this meant slightly preferential treatment for non-Roma children rather than outright abuse.  They vehemently denied experiencing any incidents of nationalist violence in their isolated village, like those that have occurred in and around larger cities like Lviv and Kyiv.

One of the Romani women that we met with invited us into her home, which she shares with her partner and nine children

The group became visibly agitated when discussing their relationship with the government and their attempts to receive social services.  To receive these services, they need to file a declaration of income; since their incomes are typically irregular, government officials will write in a higher income than exists in reality, affecting their social payments. 

Those who are illiterate are easily taken advantage of by regional officials (“they laugh at us,” one woman said), and often must sign documents they don’t understand.  Demands of some government officials for bribes also impede equitable access to social services for those who cannot afford to pay, one person mentioned. 

There were mixed responses about healthcare access.  One man said that he had been denied hospitalization three times, but most others claimed they had no problems, and all the women who were mothers had given birth in the nearest hospital. 

The village library where we met with members of the Romani community

This group of Roma has a great advocate in the form of Valentyna Zolotarenko, who accompanied us on our visit.  She lives in Kyiv and serves as a liaison between Roma communities and the national government, representing their interests with care, understanding, and firmness. 

Local government has also done a good job of ensuring that members of the Romani community have citizenship papers and proper documentation.  A local official who is particularly invested in the community told us upon departing of her personal concern for Roma in her town. 

“I imagine how it would be if I were the one being treated this way,” she told us in Russian.  “I cannot simply do nothing—these people are people just like you and me.”

Throughout our trip, we met numerous such people who are invested in the fight for Ukraine’s future, whether through civic activism, politics, or business.  We saw victims of a cruel and unnecessary conflict instigated and perpetuated by Russia, but we also saw courage, resilience, and a sense among civil society that there could be no turning back on human rights and other reforms.  It was an honor to witness the good work that Ukrainian NGOs, many supported with U.S. assistance, are doing to make a clear difference in the lives of others.

Relevant countries: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • The Crisis in Chechnya

    This hearing discussed the human right violations conducted by the Russian government against the civilians of the Chechen Republic. The horrendous human rights violations, the war in Chechnya brought to the fore all the underlying fissures in Russia’s political and economic structures, as well as highlighted the tensions in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the international community. Chechnya confronted Russia’s Government, and by extension, all OSCE governments with the key issue of self-determination. Though Principle VIII of the Helsinki Final Act guarantees the equal right of all peoples to self-determination, the international community has never worked out rules and mechanisms for pursuing that right. Since many countries face actual or potential separatist movements based on demands for self-determination, governments have tended to side-step the issue.

  • Electoral Reforms in Russia

    John Finerty from the Commission was joined by Richard Soudrette, representative of the International Federation for Electoral Systems, in leading a discussion on the possibility of reforming Russia’s electoral system.  Soudrette focused on the changes that were seen since the previous year’s parliamentary elections and future prospects for change. Panelists - Catherine Barnes, Robert Dahl, Terry Holcomb, Connie McCormack, and Richard Soudrette – spoke of their individual experiences with the Russian electoral system. The highlighted the successes of the International Federation of Electoral Systems programs in Russia, which focused on legal and institutional reform.

  • Status of Media Freedom in Democracies

    This briefing detailed the progress of media freedom in newly democratic states, especially within Eastern Europe. The role of the media in the democratization process and methods for promoting freedom of the media were examined as well. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including David Webster, Chairman of the  Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on European Broadcasting and Sandra Pralong, President of Democracy Works – detailed several major values that a free media promotes in the democratic process, including peaceful social change, education of the democratic electorate, dissenting opinions about the government and society in general, and transparency of political corruption.

  • Nagorno-Karabakh

    In this briefing, which CSCE Staff Director Samuel G. Wise chaired, the focus was on the conflict that had then recently transpired between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. More specifically, the two countries had had a territorial dispute regarding the area of Nagorno-Karabakh. This dispute had manifested itself into all-out violence that had claimed around 15 million lives at the time of the briefing, as well as creating well over a million refugees. The briefing was the fifth in a series of briefings and hearings that the Helsinki Commission had held since 1988 regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Fortunately, also at the time of this briefing, there had been very few armed clashes for a couple of months, and the warring factions had observed an informal cease fire. Actually, just three days prior to the briefing, the Defense Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh jointly noted the success of the cease fire and looked forward to a more comprehensive resolution of the conflict. With this decrease in violence, attention had shifted to the international diplomatic plane. The CSCE and the Russians had put forward at least somewhat similar cease fire plans, albeit with competition for adherence. The ultimate end of both approaches was a broader agreement about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and making peace in the region. The purpose of the briefing, then, was to discuss the possible framework of a political settlement.

  • Crime and Corruption in Russia

    The rationale of this briefing, which Commission Staff Director Sam Wise presided over, was that of a marked increase of crime in Russia. At the time of this briefing, crime had become the dominant subject in Russian politics. Unsurprisingly, the extent of crime in Russia had significant implications for its society, specifically for hte viability of the state. In fact, President Yeltsin had called crime the Russian state’s gravest threat. A question that Wise brought up in the briefing was the possibility of criminals taking over the Russian Federation’s government. Another possibility that Wise mentioned was election of authoritarian, repressive leaders who would make Russia safe. Witnesses in the briefing included Dr. Louise Shelly of American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Society, and Stephen Handelman, Associate Fellow at the Harriman Center of Columbia University.

  • Doing Business in Russia and the NIS: Opportunities and Obstacles

    Jane Fisher, Deputy Staff Director of the Helsinki Commission, presided this briefing focused on trade and doing business in the Newly Indipendent States of the former Soviet Union. It was the third in a series of briefings by the Commission on NIS. The Helsinki Accords cover human rights, security, and economic cooperation, and when the countries of the former Soviet Union were making the transition to democracy, the Commission put a greater emphasis on trade and economic cooperation. Russia and the Newly Independent States had a great potential market. They had enormous natural resources, large consumer markets, and a huge potential for trade and investments. Ms. Fisher was joined by a distinguished panel of experts who have been directly involved in business development in the formet Soviet Union: Dr. Richard Rahn, President and Chief executive officer of Novecon; Edward Chow, Director of International Affairs for Chevron Overseas Petroleum; and Joseph Barker, Vice Presidentof Ryland Trading. They described their experiences and shared their views on the opportunities and hazards of doing business in Russia and the NIS.  

  • Russia and its Neighbors

    Dennis Deconcini (D-AZ) and other legislators discussed Russia’s relations with its neighboring countries. More specifically, concerning democratic reform, the hearing contrasted the economic criteria of privatization, the rate of inflation, currency emission, and subsidies to enterprises with Moscow’s policies vis-à-vis its neighbors. Of course, Russia’s neighbors are referred to as the New Independent States, and, as Deconcini argues, it is problematic when Russia militarily or economically coerces its neighbors to enter into unwanted, yet inevitable, political, security, or economic relationships.

  • Focus On Serious Challenges Facing the Ukraine

    David Evans, senior advisor at the Commission, addressed the economic, political, and regional challenges Ukraine faces and emphasized Ukraine’s geo-strategic importance, especially as a bulwark against any potential Russian imperialism.  Evans was joined by Dr. Irini Isakova and Adrian Karatnycky, who highlighted Ukraine’s lack of economic reform and its continuing economic decline since claiming independence in 1991. The panelists focused on Ukraine’s regional issues and domestic and foreign regarding internal divisions, including serious challenges for Ukrainian-Russian relations regarding Crimea.

  • Russia and NATO: Moscow’s Foreign Policy and the Partnership for Peace

    This briefing examined what role Russia would play in the Partnership for Peace and NATO. It also looks at human rights concerns as well as military, security, and economic relations bewteen Russia and the West. Several complexities of this situation in the context of the post-communist period were addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Lawrence DiRita, Deputy Director of Foreign and Defense Policy for the Heritage Foundation and Dr. Phillip Petersen, Principle Researcher for the Potomac Foundation – evaluated the Partnership for Peace Framework, which worked towards establishing partnerships with a number of European country, including those of the former Soviet Union. The role of Russian policy in this partnership was an especially debated topic.

  • CSCE to Examine Repression against Evangelicals in Former Soviet Union

    Chris Smith, ranking Republican on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed both the opportunities for democratic, economic, and social reforms in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the difficulties of achieving these reforms presented by renewed tensions based on nationality and religion. The rise of extreme nationalism was cited as a key factor in the rise of religious intolerance in this region. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Boris Pechatkin and Edward Zawistowski of the Russian-American Institute for Adaption, and Lauren Homer, Director of Law and Liberty Trust – addressed the difficulties that have been encountered in ending religious prosecution following the fall of the Soviet Union. The impact of a breakdown of law and order in the countries of Eastern Europe was evaluated as a mechanism for religious injustice.

  • Russia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum

    This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation to Russia to observe the December 12, 1993 parliamentary election and constitutional referendum. Because of the importance of the event, and because charges had been leveled of improprieties and unfair access to the media, the Commission sent five staff members to Russia to observe the process for a period of more than two weeks. Michael Ochs and Orest Deychak went to Russia two weeks before the voting to monitor the pre-election campaign. The Commission's Senior Advisor, David Evans, and staff members John Finerty and Heather Hurlburt, arrived subsequently and remained through December 12, when they monitored balloting in various cities and regions.  Despite a number of problems and irregularities, both during the campaign and the voting, the Helsinki Commission believes that the Russian voters were able to express their political will freely and fairly. The Russians have made genuine progress in bringing their electoral procedures into conformity with international standards, and the election itself represents a significant step in the ongoing process of democratization in Russia.

  • The Current State and Future Prospects of Democracy in Russia

    As its name suggests, this hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, dealt with the prospect for the implementation of democratic institutions in the former Soviet Union. In addition, though, part of the hearing focused on the Russian legislature’s dissolution after the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (i.e. post-Communism), as well as, of course, Russia and its formerly incorporated countries’ courses for the future. Witnesses who attended this hearing were: Michael Dobbs, Resident Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Robert Krieble, Chairman of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation.

  • THE FATE OF THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA - PART 3

    President of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp, Frederick Cuny, and former special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, José Maria Mendiluce, gave testimony in front of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in regards to the civilian populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their testimony, each witness covered the humanitarian efforts on the ground and its effects on the civilian population, obstacles created by the mafia, and the effects of the Bosnian arms embargo. Also the Commissioners and witnesses discussed the different perspectives of sanction use- employ sanctions to deter the foreign government to follow a desired goal or that the use of such particular sanctions only adds fuel to the survival of the regime via nationalism.The hearing concludes with possible U.S. responses with findings and reports to support prospective actions.

  • THE FATE OF THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- PART 2

    President of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp, Frederick Cuny, and former special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, José Maria Mendiluce, gave testimony in front of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in regards to the civilian populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their testimony, each witness covered the humanitarian efforts on the ground and its effects on the civilian population, obstacles created by the mafia, and the effects of the Bosnian arms embargo. Also the Commissioners and witnesses discussed the different perspectives of sanction use- employ sanctions to deter the foreign government to follow a desired goal or that the use of such particular sanctions only adds fuel to the survival of the regime via nationalism.

  • CSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues

    Against a backdrop of savage conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nagorno Karabakh, and Georgia, attendant refugee crises throughout the region, and a wave of sometimes violent racism and xenophobia even in long-established European democracies, the participating states of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Warsaw, Poland in 1993 for the first biannual Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues As specified by the 1992 Helsinki Document, the meeting included a thorough exchange of views on the implementation of Human Dimension commitments, consideration of ways and means of improving implementation, and an evaluation of the procedures for monitoring compliance with commitments. The dramatic unfolding over the course of the meeting of the showdown within the Russian government-- culminating in the shelling of the Russian Parliament building by government troops-- served as a sober reminder to participants of the vulnerability of democracy in transition and the importance of shoring up Human Dimension compliance.

  • Ethnic Violence in Trans-Caucasia

    Chairman Dennis DeConcini addressed rising ethnic violence in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and emphasized this region as more violent than other post-Soviet states. He referred to the continuing violence in Abkhazia, a separatist region in Georgia, and the rising concerns about further deterioration of stability in the region and Russia’s role in the conflict. Witnesses - Dr. Paul Henze, Ross Vartian, Mourad Topalian, Ambassador Hafiz Pashayev, and Ambassador John Maresca - highlighted the conflict between proponents of self-determination and governments insisting on territorial integrity and the difficulty of negotiating with sides that see completely different situations.

  • U.S. Human Rights Policy: Joint Hearing with House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on International Security, international Organizations and Human Rights

    This hearing examined the best ways to promote commitments made in the Charter of Paris agreement. The Commissioners and witnesses reviewed developments in the Balkans and Serbia’s continued territorial aggression.  They also discussed the practice of developed democratic countries selectively applying human right policies. The Commissioners stressed the need for continual assistance to democratically developing countries.  They also highlighted the need for additional pressures on  those countries that disrespect universal human rights to encourage them to change their behaviors.   The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can strength the United Nation’s ability to promote and protect human rights, as well as how the U.S. can make greater use of regional bodies, like the CSCE, in conflict resolution.

  • Human Rights Policy Under the New Administration

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine the euphoria of the post-Cold War age in regards to the lack of confidence and political drive on how to promote commitments made in the Charter of Paris agreement. The hearing reviewed the actions made in the Balkans and Serbia’s continual territorial aggression and also developed democratic countries selectively applying human right policies. The Commissioners stressed the need for continual assistance to democratically developing countries, but to those countries that disrespect universal human rights should have additional pressures applied to change this behavior. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can help play a role in strengthening the United Nation’s ability to promote and protect human rights, as well as how the U.S. could use greater use of regional bodies similar the CSCE in conflict resolution.

  • Situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    This briefing focused on the Kurdish minority, the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East primarily concentrated in the States of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, a CSCE signatory state. The lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms that the Kurdish minority suffers from in each of these states was addressed. Additionally, the principles of territorial integrity, self-determination, and respect of human rights were explored in the context of the Middle East. Witnesses at the briefing – including Ahmet Turk, Chairman of the People’s Labor Party and Barham Salih, a Representative of the Iraqi Kurds – offered descriptions of the historical context and the political framework in which the issue of violations of the human rights of the Kurdish minority has arisen. Mr. Salih presented his personal experience as the evidence of the process of forced assimilation that Kurds were enduring in Turkey at the time.

  • Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (Part 5)

    At the 1992 Helsinki Summit, previously limited references to migrant workers were expanded, and the heads of state or government mandated the newly established Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to convene a seminar on migrant workers.  In the context of this expanded OSCE focus, the Helsinki Commission organized five days of public briefings examining: farm labor economics, demographics and living conditions, health and safety concerns, farmworker children's issues, and possible strategies for addressing problems facing farmworkers, their families and their employers. Those briefings were held on July 20, 1992; October 9, 1992; February 19, 1993; March 1, 1993; and April 8, 1993. The Commission subsequently published the briefing transcripts along with materials for the records submitted by the panelists. In addition, the Commission held a briefing on April 21, 1993, to hear from participants in that first OSCE seminar on migrant workers. The first four briefings were published on the Commission website in May 1993. Sam Wise, staff director at the Commission, was joined by Maria Echaveste, Mike Hancock, and Linda Diane Mull in discussing the issue of migrant workers in the United States. They compared the treatment of migrant workers in Europe to the laws in the United States and mentioned that the United States focused greatly on illegal workers, as opposed to Europe. The briefing drew from the recent seminar in Warsaw on migrant workers and included members of the United States Delegation to the meeting, such as Maria Echavestee, who spoke of their observations. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Pages