What the Young Have to Say

28 November 2011, 14:00

The Kyiv-based International Youth Debate held this year included the winners of competitions among 2,300 students from over 140 schools in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine. The event was organized by the Goethe-Institut, Hertie Foundation, the Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future Foundation, and the Central German Authority for Schools Abroad. The 2011 finals took place under the patronage of Vitaliy Klytschko. German Ambassador Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, Deputy Ukrainian Culture Minister Viktoria Lisnycha and other guests attended the final round. Hermann Otto Solms, Vice President of the German Bundestag, had planned to visit as well, but cancelled his trip in light of the political situation in Ukraine.

This debate is similar to school competitions popular in Ukraine. In addition to exercising participants' foreign language skills, the debate encourages students to learn democratic values. Defending opinions that are not necessarily one’s own, trying to understand and listen to others while offering one’s own arguments, and reaching compromises and convincing everyone are all crucial skills. It is the lack of these skills which are critical for democracy,that leaves many problems in the Ukrainian political establishment unresolved. Public discussion could facilitate faster progress.


“These finals were possible due to the fact that the participant-schools train their students in debate culture and rules intensively beginning in the eighth or ninth grade,” Elke Kiesewalter, coordinator and advisor for the Germany Central Authority for Schools Abroad that deals with specialized schools in Ukraine focused on the German language, said. “We arranged four regional competitions for schools in eastern, southern, western Ukraine and Kyiv. Two winners from each region travel to Kyiv to represent Ukraine in the finals.” Two Ukrainian students, Kateryna Komanchuk from Kryvyi Rih and Oleksandra Petrova from Kyiv, progressed to the final round.

The teachers who accompanied and supported their students at the competition are the key proponents of debate competitions in Ukrainian schools. “The debate should turn into a regular activity for senior school students in Ukraine,” says Valentyna Orap, Deputy President of school 239, which focuses on the German language. One girl taking part in the finals attends this school. “Our school has been in this project for just two years. It was a great success for us to win first place in Ukraine. Debating in German is very challenging of course, especially for pupils who don’t even do it in Ukrainian. So we held similar debates in Ukrainian last year and our colleagues supported us. The topic was 'Is Ukraine my future'? The process has certain rules and time limits. This is great for training school graduates and developing their skills. In Poland and the Czech Republic we see that every senior school student knows the rules in their native languages. They have either participated in or watched debates at some point, so it comes naturally”, she comments. 

Germanyhas also borrowed the debates, but has been integrating them into their education. “The culture of debate began to evolve in Germany ten years ago,” says Ms. Kiesewalter. “They are really popular but are not practiced in every school yet. Historically, schools in the UK and USA have a much deeper tradition of debate. Germany has just started on this path.”


Some debate topics were taken from school life as their role for different countries varied. Among other things, the participants discussed the need of an “anonymous CV” when applying for a job that gives no name, age, nationality, sex or photo, but only lists education and working experience. This could prevent discrimination by age, sex or ethnic background. Other points included the right for disabled children to go to the same schools as healthy children and the ban on drinking alcohol for children under 18. Some topics were integrated to look for a single solution within Europe. Hypothetically, such decisions taken in the EU do not cover Ukraine automatically and this could not but come up in arguments from Ukrainian participants. The debate trained Ukrainian students to think in terms of the future in a united Europe. Meanwhile, Western neighbors and diplomats involved Ukraine in the European debate. “For me, Ukraine is not that far,” says Gabriella Vashatova from the Czech Republic. “We learned about your country in school. I don’t care that much if Ukraine is in the EU or not. EU issues are global and affect the whole world.”

“I think it’s all about the nations,” Ukrainian student Katia Komanchuk notes. “If the law bans Ukrainians from doing something they won’t care a lot while Germans will think about it. We’ve discussed extremely interesting political and social things, such as whether all schools need a uniform or whether countries should authorize homosexual marriages. We even talked about selling chewing gums in schools. Sometimes, the issues seem quite petty, yet they still improve language skills. I love it. The attitude is totally different. At a school competition you just come and answer the questions while here you look at them from every possible perspective.”


Gabriella Vashatove, a 19-year old, is a member of an organization that implements an anti-alcohol campaign yet has nothing to say against nuclear power. “It’s no big deal for me,” she says. “We have two nuclear power plants in my country and have never had a problem with them. There have been some protests from the Austrian side as one plant is on the border. But no protests in the Czech Republic.” The sensitive nuclear power topic  was in the final debate, too. One of the discussion points was whether all European countries should give up nuclear power as soon as possible via legislation.

The issue is critical for Ukraine. Chornobyl is the first thing most Europeans think of when they hear Ukraine. The participants in the final often referred to Ukraine's experience when debating the issue. “We had something similar at the Kyiv final,” Oleksandra Petrova recalls. “We debated on whether Ukraine should invest more into alternative energy sources. My opinion is that countries should quit nuclear power. But we’re only talking about the near future. And that is impossible, especially with countries such as the Czech Republic or Finland investing in it.”

In Ukraine, public debate on Chornobyl normally intensifies closer to the anniversary of the tragedy while some crucial events, such as the construction of two reactors at the Khmelnytska nuclear power plant, never get more than local publicity.  Decisions on other construction that is no less significant and often just as controversial, such as the central nuclear waste storage in the Chornobyl zone and the nuclear power plant in Kirovohrad Region, are made in top offices with hardly any debate. But these things must be discussed. Consequently, a debate among young school students could be a good example for the entire Ukrainian nation. I asked Gabriella whether she changed her opinion on nuclear power after the final debate. She said she did not.


Last year, The Ukrainian Week wrote about German teachers who worked in Ukrainian schools and failed to get accredited by the Ministry of the Interior. Sadly, the problem remained where it was a year ago. Today, Ukraine has no single German speaking teacher left out of 15 who had been previously working in schools.

“The Interior Ministry wants these teachers to act as everyone else does which means coming to Ukraine and getting through all bureaucratic procedures,” Valentyna Orap says. “These teachers are not here for bureaucracy. They are here to fulfill their high mission under the International Treaty on Cultural Cooperation. They have fantastic houses, cars, families and top professional opportunities at home. This should make the difference and it did for the previous 16 years. Now the Interior Ministry has told them ordinary teachers in ordinary schools were not entitled to its accreditation.”

A common foreigner needs to get through all layers of Ukrainian bureaucratic hell, i.e. get a job license, a special visa and registration. To give that license, the employer must get the status of a company that can employ foreigners which means extra bureaucratic drag. “The procedure is very burdensome and costly,” says Ms. Kiesewalter. “It’s tougher than in any other country. That’s why the teachers had to leave Ukraine.”

“They were sent to other countries immediately,” Valentyna Orap comments. “They have no problem with licensing while Ukraine seems to need to have native speakers working for free. When an expert comes to a private school, he is paid a huge salary. And private schools do have experts. Officials must think ordinary schools don’t need them. This is the attitude of the government towards teachers. It’s an insult to them.”

Perhaps Ukraine is not interested in training students well in foreign languages to keep them from going abroad and staying there when they grow up. Yet this strategy only leads to self-isolation and lack of competitiveness. A person who speaks foreign languages has a better chance for building a career and a better understanding of other cultures in addition to being able to present his own more effectively. Good language skills could improve Ukraine’s chances in the future. Ukrainians who speak several European languages and share European values will likely be treated as equal Europeans in Europe, let alone future politicians whose ability to come to terms with foreign colleagues will be crucial.

The winner of 2011 International Youth Debate finals was Annett Lymar from Estonia. “I enjoyed the debate, but it was very stressful. I had to prepare every single day. Still, I regret it’s over. I’d say everyone should participate in it.”

Ukrainian politicians themselves occasionally debate, but they clearly lack experience in this sophisticated intellectual activity. Our advice is to arrange this sort of competitions and trainings for adults, as well as teenagers.

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