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Dr Iryna Friz, Chairperson, Subcommittee on National Information Systems Security, Committee on National Security and Defense discusses a point with Oleksiy Skrpnyk, deputy head of the Rada delegation to NATO.  The parliamentarians were a part of a select group of reformers invited to the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Nov. 17-19, to examine and discuss the nation’s challenges in defense reform, civil-military relations and inter-agency cooperation. (Marshall Center photo by Karl Heinz Wedhorn /RELEASED)

By James E. Brooks,
George C. Marshall European Center Public Affairs Director

(GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY, Nov. 23, 2015) - Ukraine emerged as an independent nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago. 

The transition to democracy hasn’t been easy for the eastern European country.  A fragile bank system and an inefficient tax system are two serious internal challenges.   Externally, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea last year has become a daily threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. 

Ukraine’s future as a democracy will need a whole-government approach to these and other pressures.  Reform-minded Ukrainian parliamentarians will play an important role.  

To help chart a course, a senior-level three-day seminar held at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Strategies, Nov. 17-19, brought Ukrainian parliamentarians and deputy-level agency officials to the German-American partnered center to examine and discuss the nation’s challenges in defense reform, civil-military relations and inter-agency cooperation. 

For several of the Parliamentarians, this was the second such seminar.  The first parliamentarian seminar took place last September.  

“One of the biggest challenges in Ukraine is the lack of culture of parliamentarianism.  We unfortunately do not have a long tradition of the parliamentarian work, or the role of the parliamentary as a representative body and control function,” said Ms Oksana Syroid, deputy speaker of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. 

Planning and holding seminars with parliamentarians from Ukraine and other young Eastern European democracies is the reason why the Marshall Center was created in the first place.  Conceived as an idea more than 20 years ago to create a place where the U.S. could bring together military and civilian defense leaders from democracies emerging from a failed Soviet Union, the George C. Marshall European Center is more relevant than ever. 

“These seminars are not about politics.  We bring a wide spectrum of political representation in the country so they get a chance to engage and interact with each other and to discuss and find best solutions for their own country,” said Dr. Valbona Zeneli, director of the Marshall Center’s Program in Black Sea and Eurasia Studies.  In the last for or five years, we’ve held approximately 20-25 seminars with eastern European nations.  This is an environment where selected senior leaders of the Ukrainian government can come to discuss challenges, understand the severity of the challenges, access options, and learn from best practices.  In this way they can make better informed decisions when they return home.  It’s important to understand it’s not about politics.  It’s about identifying solutions.”

The value of this seminar bridges the relationship between Ukraine, United States and Germany.  The Marshall Center’s efforts here to develop a dialogue with Ukrainian parliamentarians also included close coordination and participation by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev.

“This is a great opportunity.  History in Ukraine is being made by the people in this room.  There is no question about it.  They are finding a path to cooperation and to work together to make the government more functional.  It’s really an honor to be here and it’s good to see them ‘gung-ho’ after meeting like this,” said U.S. Embassy Kiev Chief of Political-Military Affairs Douglas Hoyt. 

According to Hoyt and Zeneli, parliamentarians were selected based upon their reform views.  In fact, no parliamentarians who attended this seminar served in the Ukraine RADA before 2014. 

Like sports, timing is everything in politics.  Director of the George C. Marshall European Center, retired Army Lieutenant General Keith Dayton sat and observed several of the seminar discussions.  He told the parliamentarians what he saw and heard.    

“If we had done something like this four years ago, or even three years ago, we wouldn’t have had any real discussion.  Sometimes the situation seems overwhelming.  When you add your own nation’s internal issues of corruption, inefficiency, bad governance in many cases, we wouldn’t have talked about that.  You’re talking about it now. You’re talking about it intelligently and the fact your talking about it now says that deep down, you can win this.  I encourage you not to forget that,” said Dayton. 

The challenges facing the young Ukrainian parliamentarians and what they have to do to reform their nation is like asking someone to change the oil in a car speeding down the highway.  There will be other Marshall Center senior parliament seminars but they may take on a different form. 

“We will continue to do this sort of thing    We will explore with the US Embassy about doing something like this in Kiev next time.  We will work with you what that meeting will look like,” promised Dayton. 

Dayton shared one other observation and promise. 

“You all see yourselves as Europeans now.  Ten years ago, Ukrainians didn’t see themselves that way.  I don’t know how they viewed themselves.  But I think your country has made a mental change and I think that’s important.  It’s incumbent on places like the Marshall Center to lock that in and make sure no one can take that away.”