Svitlana Zalishchuk (’11), an alumna of the Draper Hills Summer Fellow Program (DHSFP) at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law reflects on the challenges and motives behind her decision to run for public office in Ukraine. Amidst a transitional moment in her country’s history, Zalishchuk won a seat in Ukraine’s Parliament alongside DHSFP alumni Sergii Leshchenko ('13) and Mustafa Nayyem ('14). Before joining government, Zalishchuk led the Ukrainian NGO, Centre UA, which works to reassert citizens' influence on politics and restore freedom of speech in Ukraine.
1) What are the top challenges Ukraine faces today?
Ukraine is currently confronted with challenges on two fronts. The first is in the east of the country – the war with Russia. The second challenge is with the old system of government against corrupt and rotten institutions both struggles are an attempt to break up with Ukraine’s Soviet past.
There is an essential interdependence between these two battles. With the war in Donbass (in the east of Ukraine) it is much more difficult to implement the reforms. At the same time, without reforms it is impossible to win the war in the East.
In the end, Putin’s aim is not to control two Ukrainian regions, but to make the European idea a failed idea in Ukraine. The reunion of the Ukrainian territories in the long-term will be based on the people’s wish to live better lives in a free and democratic European country. Reforms are the most powerful weapon against this post-Soviet front.
2) How has civil society responded to the new leadership under President Petro Poroshenko?
President Petro Poroshenko was elected with more than 50 percent support of the voters. But to be a leader of a country, which has a military conflict with one of the biggest powers in the world and is going through one of the most difficult economic crises since its independence, is a monumental task.
Ukrainian society has high expectations of the new president, government and parliament – institutions that represent the shift of the political elites after the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv. But it is almost impossible to meet these expectations. The country’s decision to move toward democratic development has been made at the expense of thousands of Ukrainian lives.
Currently, the government has been facing harsh criticism for countless mistakes, a slow reform process, and lack of effort to combat corruption. Society continues to live through unprecedented self-organization. Groups of volunteers have formed across the country to perform various tasks that the state sometimes is unable to execute - such as the creation of volunteer battalions, the financing of the army, and the construction of housing for refugees.
Still, it is a bit early to answer this question. Society is still waiting for the results of this leadership: reforms and a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
3) What challenges do you face, currently, as a member of parliament? What kind of changes do you hope to implement in your current role?
The biggest challenge is to justify people’s expectations that a new generation in politics will be able to change the country. People need to realize that real changes do not come with new faces in the government - and not even with newly adopted bills - but with well-functioning institutions. Building these will take time.
Nevertheless, we have to show that reforms are possible even in times of military conflict and economic crisis. New anti-corruption policies and measures; judicial and police reform; deregulation; constitutional reform that decentralizes the country to allow more power to local communities – these are the first steps of a long journey toward our European goal.
In the long-term, politicians with roots tracing back to the Euromaidan protests have to build their political identities alongside new political parties. The legacy of the Euromaidan protests has to be institutionalized.
4) What prompted you to run for parliament? How would you describe the transition from a journalist to politician?
Having experienced censorship for many years in Ukraine, we have chosen to fight for the freedom of speech. This meant doing a little more outside the normal responsibilities of a journalist.
We have been advocating for the Freedom of Information Bill for five years. We were demanding reform in the media sphere for ten. We were fighting against corruption not only by writing about it, but also by initiating nation-wide civic campaigns. We were on the frontline of both revolutions – Orange in 2004 and Euromaidan in 2014. After this, pursuing a career in politics seemed like a logical next step to transform this fight into a constructive continuation of reforms.
5) How has the Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program contributed – if at all- towards your new role in government?
One of the most important experiences from the Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program was the recalibration and transformation of my local way of thinking into a global way of thinking. I was able to move from only seeing a national (Ukrainian) perspective on the problems with democratic and economic reforms to seeing an understanding of how all these challenges have been faced by many countries in the world.
6) Do you have any advice for alumni members who are seeking to run for office?
I have three personal conclusions. First, politics is a team game. It is important to build or find a circle of trustworthy and like-minded people. Second, goal-oriented strategy is essential for long-term political journeys. And finally, cooperation with civil society, continuous engagement with voters and communication with people is crucial.
Pursuing a career in politics was a difficult decision for my friends and I. But life proved that there are no right decisions. You make the decisions and then you make them right.