"Ukraine Calling is worth its weight in gold, even for German society"

"Only those who are familiar with the situation in Ukraine can truly help Ukraine," says Alexander Wöll, president of European University Viadrina. But, to this point, expertise in Germany regarding Ukraine has only been marginal. That is why, together with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, European University Viadrina is launching the Ukraine Calling educational program for decision-makers from the worlds of politics, media, economics, and civil society.
Robert Bosch Stiftung | March 2016

Recently, Ukraine has been very prevalent in the media, but now it has fallen into the media background. How would you describe the current situation in Ukraine, Professor Wöll?

Alexander Wöll: The current situation is just as drastic as in the previous year - if not even more so. This is also part of the very deft strategy of the Russian government, which has managed to push the Ukraine conflict more or less out of the spotlight of the German and European press. Ukraine is still threatened by national bankruptcy - just like Russia, by the way. Not only that, but every day there is still fighting and deaths, and nearly all open questions remain unanswered, despite Ukraine’s signing of the treaty of association with the European Union on January 1. The entire situation in Ukraine is standing on feet of clay.

When we talk about Ukraine today, are we referring to the entirety of Ukraine or, in actuality, only Ukraine without the Luhansk and Donetsk regions?

If anything has changed significantly over the past year, then it would be the relationship that East Ukraine has with the rest of the country. Three years ago, East Ukraine wasn’t entirely on board with Ukraine - to put it carefully. After all of the hostilities, East Ukraine has become more "Ukrainian" than ever before. That is an absurd effect of Putin’s policies: Today, East Ukraine appears to be more nationalist and Ukrainian than ever. If we are speaking about Ukraine then, of course, we are including Luhansk as well as the war-torn regions, the cities, and the autonomous regions. And finally, we are also still including the Crimea, which has not been recognized by international law as belonging to Russia. Officially, the Budapest Memorandum still applies; this guaranteed Ukraine its borders in 1991 under the condition that Ukraine disarmed its nuclear weapons. This agreement applies although completely different facts have been created.

You just spoke about the economic situation and the conflict with Russia. What does the conflict with Russia mean for Ukrainian society?

The conflict is the worst trauma since Chernobyl, since the catastrophic reactor disaster that has been so strongly associated with the awakening of a Ukrainian identity. Since then, there has been no other event that has struck Ukraine at its core like the present war with its thousands of deaths. This also includes the de facto separation of the Crimea and the endangerment of Ukraine’s territorial unity. That is also one of the goals of the war: Important democratic reforms cannot be carried out because the country is in a state of war. Essentially, the Maidan has been stolen from civil society in Ukraine. Lars Kirchhoff, one of the professors here at Viadrina for conflict management and mediation, was at the Maidan in Kiev for the anniversary. People were crying and were completely desperate, because they all knew that the original goals of the Maidan had not been achieved: The oligarchs are once again in power, there is corruption, and the democratic powers have once again been deceived.

What does the current situation in Ukraine mean for the work of European University Viadrina and the Ukraine Calling project, which is being carried out in collaboration with the Robert Bosch Stiftung?

"European University" is a part of Viadrina’s name because it provides academic support to European unification and is meant to educate the next generation of European expertise - i.e. the three fields of law, economics, and cultural studies. So a project such as Ukraine Calling is, of course, another very important facet for Viadrina. Essentially there is very little academic expertise in Germany regarding Ukraine; institutes for Slavic studies in Germany have been reduced by around 35 to 40 percent over the last ten to 15 years. And Slavic studies were always very Russia-centric. Since I became president of European University Viadrina, we have attempted to incorporate Ukraine more extensively. But those are all just minor steps. A project like Ukraine Calling is worth its weight in gold, even for German society. Knowledge about Ukraine in Germany is, to this point, only marginal. And politicians themselves say that there is not enough expertise regarding Ukraine. With Ukraine Calling, decision-makers can receive further development and grow their knowledge on Ukraine. Whether that means employees from the German Federal Foreign Office, economic leaders, journalists, or various institutes: With the project, European University Viadrina wants to offer a good interdisciplinary environment for the development of topics regarding Ukraine.

You also mentioned journalists as potential participants in Ukraine Calling. What are your thoughts on how the situation in Ukraine is currently being reported on?

It is definitely better than it was three years ago. At that time, I would have described it as disastrously bad. Of course, as an expert on Ukraine, that stands out to me in particular. But it was quite disturbing what you could read in otherwise very good newspapers such as ZEIT, Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The reporting has gotten better in the interim. I would say that German society has never known as much about Ukraine as it does now after two years of war and the Minsk Protocol.

How can Germany support the reform process in Ukraine? What can organizations such as Viadrina or the Robert Bosch Stiftung do?

Ukraine Calling is a good start. Training decision-makers from the worlds of politics and economics is important, because only those who are familiar with the situation in Ukraine can truly help Ukraine. Moreover, it is - in my opinion - essential that students do not lose hope in Europe. Excitement about Europe already seems to be waning in many places and approaching the zero mark. Ultimately, we can only help Ukraine if we empower the participants of Ukraine Calling to initiate their own projects with Ukrainian partners. How else can we help than through concrete projects that our citizens implement with Ukrainian citizens? Be they economic projects, political projects of civil society, or the intensification of exchange - for me, individual projects are the strongest and best opportunity to help Ukraine in concrete ways.

(Interview: Ulrike Penk, February 2016)