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6 November, 2018  ▪  Roman Malko

Ukrainians abroad: The ties that matter

How Ukraine might come to an understanding with its community abroad

“Blooming all over the world” is how Ukrainians like to pride themselves. And so far it has been like that. How long this bloom will last is not clear, however. Although it has one of the largest and most organized immigrant communities in the world, Ukraine is at risk of losing it, in whole or in part. What’s more, this could prove in favor of Russki Mir, the Russian World.

It’s hard to say exactly how many Ukrainians live outside the territory of their homeland, but there are millions for sure. As of 2004, the official numbers ranged from 10 to 15 million. Some, like Iryna Kliuchkovska, director of the International Institute of Education, Culture and Ties with the Diaspora at the Lviv Polytechnical National University, even talk about 20 million. But a 2017 study by Expat Insider came up with only 8 million. It’s not clear, though, just how accurate this lowball figure is, either. It’s possible that it does not include earlier waves of immigrants as the organization generally tracks current migrants, many of whom are illegals.

If this number is compared to those approximations that are talked about among experts, 8 million is clearly far short of the real figure. In Russia alone, apparently 4.4mn Ukrainians live today, although there are no accurate figures. 1.2mn live in Canada and Poland, 1.5mn in the US, and roughly about half a million each in Kazakhstan, Brazil, Argentina, and Moldova. Ukrainian migrants in Italy are variously reported as 300,000-700,000. In Germany and Israel there are about 250,000, and somewhat less in Belarus and Romania. These are only approximate figures based on various censuses, official statistics and projections, but they already add up to around 12mn. Moreover, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin claimed that in 2017 alone more than 1 million Ukrainians left the country. Experts worry that this number could well increase by 35% in 2018.

The disappearing diaspora

All immigrant communities suffer from assimilation. Born in the second, third, and even fourth generation, their children feel less and less of a tie to their ethnic homeland. Still, today this process seems to be accelerating like never before. Where the first three waves of immigrants tried in every way possible to preserve their roots in a foreign land, the fourth, post-soviet and current wave appears to be the least resistant to assimilation and to very quickly lose their ethnic ties. This is not so much true of migrant workers, who generally intend to return to Ukraine and have very close ties there, but to those who have emigrated for good.

For the most part, this new wave doesn’t reject its past or break off ties with their homeland but they do everything they can to merge with their new home and to let down deep roots. Their children are less and less likely to speak Ukrainian in order to avoid being treated like second-class citizens. They spend less time getting together with their countrymen and are less inclined to participate actively in the existing Ukrainian community. Worse, they often fall in with fellow former soviet immigrants where they much more easily become bounty for those collecting scalps for Russki Mir.

As the Ukrainian World Coordinating Council Chair Mykhailo Ratushniy explains, Rossotrudnechestvo, an RF federal agency for coordinating Russian migrants abroad, has become much more active across Europe recently in its efforts among Ukrainians. This imperial agency does not shrink from working with Ukrainian communities abroad by appealing to a certain commonality of all former soviet citizens, playing the “fraternal peoples” card, and so on. This kind of active campaigning has enormous influence, given the considerable resources and opportunities it enjoys, and the fact that most of the fourth wave emigrants speak Russian. It also resorts to some very sneaky tactics. For instance, many RF embassies have set up quality schools for the children of diplomats, to which they make a point of attracting the children of Ukrainian migrants as well.

Abortive attempts at caring

Yet another important reason is that communication between Ukraine and Ukrainians abroad was always fairly bare-bones and this hasn’t changed at all. Despite the rare exception, the government has not learned to work with its citizens despite more than a quarter-century of independence. Sometimes it even seems that things are murkier today than they were in the gloomy 1990s. Under the country’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, there was talk of a repatriation program that was never ultimately launched. Among others, the proposed program included interest-free loans and housing in northern Crimea. Had it been launched, the occupation of Crimea might well have been prevented altogether.

In 2004, the Law “On Ukrainians abroad” was adopted and amended slightly in 2012. Among others, it provided a number of places in domestic post-secondary institutions for Ukrainians abroad to gain a degree: initially it was 500, today it’s down to 300 per year. Ukrainians from, say, Kazakhstan could come to Ukraine under this program, get certified as teachers of Ukrainian, and go back to work in local schools where they had emigrated. Today, these quotas are effectively gone. On paper they still there, but in fact nobody is going anywhere: in order to enter a post-secondary institution in Ukraine, the person has to get a certificate stating that they are a Ukrainian abroad, which is not easy to do. Government red tape sometimes drags out the process for years.

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The law also provided for a separate government agency that would specifically work with the Ukrainian community abroad and Ukrainian migrants. But this also never happened and so today no government agency is especially interested in these millions of Ukrainians. “They are served by the Foreign Ministry... sometimes tangentially, sometimes sub-standardly, but they are effectively left in the margins,” says Oles Horodetskiy, president of the Christian Society of Ukrainians in Italy. “We need an agency that will focus on the problems of emigrants and help coordinate them, depending on the country, the duration of the emigration and their needs, and resolve this things in Ukraine. What we face is a situation where there is no one to even address a proposition or a complaint to. This kind of agency would work both practically and politically. The country would demonstrate to its citizens that it really cares about what happens to them.”

New programs in a new spirit... sort of

This is just a brief sketch of the situation but it’s enough to make it clear that the obliviousness of their homeland follows Ukrainian emigrants everywhere and slowly but inexorably eats away at the links between the two. After the Revolution of Dignity, the situation improved somewhat. While Ukrainians at home were busy making a revolution, the diaspora organized similar revolutions around the planet. They travelled home, donated money, and offered political support.

The war Russia then embarked on against Ukraine further mobilized Ukrainians abroad and they began to be more interested in what was happening at home and to help in every way possible. Stories about lost sheep returning to their folds. People who had been used to call themselves khakhol, the Russian pejorative for Ukrainian, suddenly became real Ukrainians. The dream emerged that the state of Ukraine and emigrant Ukrainians would finally find a common language. After the Sixth World Congress of Ukrainians in 2016, President Poroshenko even promised that a proper program would be launched. And some steps were actually taken in that direction. A concept was drawn up, and on May 10, 2018, the “Program for Cooperation with Ukrainians Abroad through 2020” was approved and over UAH 105mn in funding allocated. Initially, Ukrainian activists were thrilled that the government was finally doing something significant to support its emigrant communities by funding projects and activities.

However, it turned out to be, like so many initiatives, just another nice piece of paper. For instance, if you want to invite a Ukrainian artist, go ahead. But you can’t pay their travel, hotels, per diems or fees out of program money—only promotional materials and rent for an exhibit or performance venue. The rest of the costs are up to you. There’s money for Ukrainian language books and schools in Germany really need them. But Germany can’t buy them directly in Ukraine, only through a distributor—at many times the original cost. Supposedly the money is supposed to be spent abroad because Ukraine is fighting corruption, so it seems. It’s not surprising that there are such conundrums, either. In the past, such initiatives were prepared with some sense of responsibility: information was gathered from associations, societies and community groups, and the Ukrainian World Coordinating Council was consulted about funding needs. This time nothing like that happened.

Unfortunately, Ukraine’s efforts towards its emigrant communities look particularly inadequate when compared to the attitude of other countries towards their diasporas. Hungarians started an international kerfuffle just over minor changes to Ukraine’s law on education that they claimed were oppressive towards their ethnic minority in Ukraine. Poland also supports its own: the Polish community in Kazakhstan is many times smaller than the Ukrainian one, but Warsaw sends entire shifts of teachers, equipment and textbooks there. Of course, both Hungary and Poland have greater resources available, with their growing economies, but the critical factor is not money but motivation. This kind of work does not, in fact, require big budgets. Moreover, the Ukrainian government’s program could work effectively even if its budget were one third of what was allocated: just UAH 5-7mn for school purposes would already yield results.

To be fair, the program also funds support for the Ukrainian school in Riga. Not so long ago Education Minister Lilia Hrynevych announced that the Government had allocated money to develop materials for Ukrainian Saturday and Sunday schools abroad and that they would soon make an appearance. This is excellent, but a comprehensive approach would be even better.

The right to vote

“Too often when I’m abroad and meet with Ukrainians, I have to admit that even very solid communities are completely assimilating, slowly but surely,” says Ratushniy. “People can see that there’s no living link with the country and feel that Ukraine is ignoring them. In some places the Church is still doing its job, but that’s about all. People have no influence over their political leadership, although they love their country and are its citizens. They can’t even get involved in governing through elections, so they slowly begin to lose interest, to distance themselves, and to take out citizenship in other countries. This has really affected the newest wave of Ukrainian emigrants, most of whom are still citizens of Ukraine and hold Ukrainian passports.”

“We all still live in Ukraine, we’re considered residents and we pay utilities,” notes Horodetskiy. “Legally, we are residents of Ukraine. Only a very small percentage has left for good and changed its permanent residence to Italy or the US. But the government treats this opportunistically. If it’s convenient, you’re a resident of Ukraine. If it’s not, then you’re a resident of Italy.”

That’s why it’s critical to settle the issue of exercising the citizen’s right to vote. The Ukrainian Constitution guarantees that all citizens of Ukraine are equal in their voting rights, regardless of religion, race or residency. But in practice, those who have moved abroad to work cannot properly exercise their constitutional rights. Part of the problem is that, outside the country, Ukrainians can only vote according to party lists, as they don’t have a riding. In many cases they can’t get to the polling station and vote at all. In Spain, for instance, where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians live, there are only three polling stations: one at the embassy and two at the two consulates. The polling stations in Madrid and Barcelona can handle at most 3,000 voters. There were cases where people stood in line to vote the entire day only to have the station closed in their faces.

In this context, it also makes sense to distinguish between Ukraine’s eastern and western communities abroad. They have much in common, but there are even more differences. For one thing, the eastern diaspora is far larger and is effectively dedicated to the preservation of Russki Mir, which dominates where they are. “At one time we were proud of our schools in Tbilisi, Baku and Astana,” says Ratushniy. “They’re all closed now. In Russia, where there are millions of Ukrainians, our organizations are now banned and our libraries have been shut down. Our leaders have lost the right to their professions. In Belarus, we did not manage to appoint an ambassador for many years. In Kazakhstan, there was no ambassador for three years. Similar things happened in Moldova and the Caucasus. With this kind of negligent attitude towards Ukrainians abroad, it’s hardly surprising that we are losing them.”

Looking for new recipes

“There’s no need to invent the bicycle,” says Horodetskiy. “We just need to look how things are done in Italy or Poland. For starters, all we need to do is implement the law: set up an agency to work with Ukrainians abroad and get it to work. Once the laws are in place, the programs and so on, Ukraine has to start taking their interests into account, more than just good wishes from officials on Mykhailivska Ploshcha. The new election law needs to be passed and give migrants the opportunity to influence the government through the ballot box, to elect and be elected as the Constitution states. For instance, the Italian legislature has a broad representation of Italians abroad, both in the lower house and in the Senate. Earlier, they had an entire ministry.”

“This is a kind of controlling share that can very often determine who comes to power, the right or the left,” says Horodetskiy. “When there is a representation of the diaspora, it gains the interest of both those in power and the opposition. Then the chances that the community will pay attention and do something meaningful become far higher. If there were some representation, then there would be competition to appeal to the emigrants and that would spill over into real deeds.”

After all, embassies and consulates shouldn’t be the only place where people can vote. There are honorary consulates and many communities have homes. If three representatives from various parties are sent from Ukraine, the community can organize the rest. Yet another option is e-voting. All that is needed is political will.

Last but not least, notes Horodetskiy, there’s the important matter of reviewing, improving and adapting consular legislation and having consuls carry out their normal functions in terms of defending the interests of their citizens. “Many rules are either outdated or are too open to interpretation,” he says. “The result is that too many decisions are up to the consul’s discretion, which means that in the same country different consulates might interpret the same issue in opposite ways. We’ve seen instances, where the foreign country does more to accommodate our citizens than their own consulates. This includes issuing permits and identification papers, and other matters that make life a little easier in a foreign country. Diplomatic missions also need to work together more with their migrants. This has become particularly noticeable since the Maidan. There is no coordination. The embassy lives its own life, emigrants live their own.” Clearly, Ukrainian missions need their staffing to be beefed up especially in Europe since the visa free regime was instituted.

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Times are not easy for the Ukrainian community all over the world. The older immigration is fading away while the new one is just getting its feet, although in some cases, such as in Europe, it’s already starting to establish its own politics. Ukrainians will continue to migrate because Ukrainian specialists and students are in demand abroad. But they need to know that they can go home any time and feel welcome. That means Ukraine has to be giving an unambiguous signal that it awaits them and will welcome them back.

“In Germany, we have an interesting situation with those people whose parents took them away when they were little children,” says Natalia Kostiak, a Ukrainian activist in Hamburg. “Not all of them adapted well and it wasn’t their choice. Now, many of them would gladly return to Ukraine or even live in both countries, which has become fashionable. Of course, there’s the problem of dual citizenship, which Ukraine may have to resolve, one way or another.”

In fact, the emigrant community doesn’t need that much from its homeland, just a little attention and respect. But Ukraine does need them, and not just because they are the country’s main investor: in 2018 alone, NBU data shows that emigrants transferred more than US $9bn. And that does not include money that is handed over in person. Ukraine’s community abroad is a powerful force that a country that is facing so many challenges—a war, occupied territories, a demographic crisis—cannot allow itself to lose. Even if there are only 15mn Ukrainians abroad and not 20, they can serve the country’s interests and Ukraine needs to learn to do so: other countries can only dream of such a powerful ally, lobbyist and friend.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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