Stefan ROMANIW, Secretary General of the Ukrainian World Congress and Chairman of the International Committee for Holodomor Awareness, visits Ukraine several times a year. This time around he is taking part in a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC). We spoke to Romaniw on the eve of Independence Day, so the first thing we asked him was what this date meant to him personally.
“UKRAINIANS ACROSS THE WORLD MUST THINK HARD ABOUT WHAT THEY COULD DO FOR THEIR COUNTRY”
“This is a stage in Ukraine’s history when we can celebrate the gaining of independence. Independence Day is also a time for Ukrainians across the world to think hard about what they could do for their country. Obviously, we need to remember that the war is going on, there is an aggressor out there, and we must preserve what we have gained.”
Why do you think Ukraine is lagging behind the Baltics and Poland in the mater of European integration and NATO while it had better economic figures as of 1991?
“Ukraine is a very specific country when it comes to Russia, which has always treated Ukraine as a little brother which it would never let go of. Yet Ukraine is breaking loose from Russia, and that is why today we need to talk about what awaits us in the future, rather than what happened before. The situation in Ukraine used to be much worse politically. And now, after the programs of decommunization and Ukrainization of Ukraine I think that the European integration progress will gain speed, notwithstanding Ukraine being at war and constantly having to defend itself.”
“OVER THE RECENT YEARS THERE HAS BEEN MUCH MORE APPRECIATION FOR THE DIASPORA, AND UKRAINE’S GOVERNMENT IS USING ITS EXPERTISE”
We saw the Baltics extensively involve their Diaspora into state-building. Some of these countries had presidents from the Diaspora. Maybe it was one of the drawbacks of the Ukrainian government that it did not use the Diaspora’s expertise?
“Over the recent years there has been much more appreciation for the Diaspora, and Ukraine’s government is using its expertise. The Ukrainian World Congress, in talks with various presidents and governments, made it clear that there is a great human resource and expertise, as well as access to all manner of programs and politicians who could help Ukraine. And today we see the results.
“The UWC and other similar organizations offer their assistance to Ukraine. We advised to introduce an anti-corruption body in Ukraine, similar to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. It is a totally government-independent structure which is only accountable to the parliament. Its representatives have the right to walk into any ministry at any moment. By September all our ministries and government agencies must report to the parliament about their activities.
“Any ordinary citizen can turn to this organization and say, hey, there is a problem and I want it to be investigated. It is important for the people to trust in government and know that it is overseen by someone.
“Not less important for Ukraine is the healthcare reform introduced by Dr. Ulana Suprun, former Humanitarian Initiatives Director for the Ukrainian World Congress. Ulana, with whom I have been working together since November 29, 2013, made a very good presentation in Washington, D.C. After the Verkhovna Rada’s failed vote on the healthcare reform she addressed Ukrainians saying if there are elections, please remember who voted for the reforms, and who against. And if the US, UN, UNESCO and others support these reforms, a question arises why they are being blocked, even in the Verkhovna Rada Commission for Healthcare.
“Another question: why Ukraine is so afraid to repel the Kivalov – Kolesnichenko language act? An official language is an official language, while the matter of official language and the language of schooling are two separate issues. I do not believe that there is someone in Ukraine who forbids people to learn foreign languages.
“The language issue is very important to me as I myself am a teacher, but here it is far too politicized. Indeed, you have minorities, Hungarian or Russian, but who prohibits them from speaking Hungarian or Russian? However, everyone must realize that Ukraine has an official language. And for us, the Ukrainian World Congress, the language question is crucial. Also, there is the problem of teaching Ukrainian outside Ukraine, in countries with Ukrainian communities like Portugal, Spain, Greece, or Italy.”
“IN THE COURSE OF REFORM AUSTRALIA COULD HELP UKRAINE IN MANY WAYS”
What can we expect from the new Australian Ambassador Melissa O’Rourke, who is arriving in September?
“We have already met, and we have also met with your wonderful Ambassador Mykola Kulinich. And in our conversations with all ambassadors, Australian and Ukrainian, we say the following: you do not act as a non-governmental organization, and we won’t act as an embassy. Yet we are going to cooperate. A new Australian-Ukrainian parliamentary group has already been created, and there is a new Australian ambassador. We have agreed to draft a new strategic cooperation plan and see what we could do.
“It addresses the following issues: education, economy and business, Ukraine’s image, assistance to Ukraine during the war, and sanctions against Russia.
“As far as education goes, we have a program called Endeavor Scholarship sponsored by the Embassy. It used to be meant for Asian countries. Now Ukrainians can apply for this program, too. A young Australian woman has received such a scholarship and is now studying certain disciplines. This program is very important as it gives young people an opportunity to study abroad.
“Concerning economic development. Last year we were planning to hold a business forum here, but we are postponing it because we need to find proper Australian business owners who would be interested to participate. And most importantly, such business forum must bring forth concrete results.
“We are starting from a low base. Our countries lie 20,000 kilometers apart, and we can help in every way we can. At the same time we believe that Australia could help Ukraine in many ways.”
“WE WANT TO SET UP THE HERITAGE ASSOCIATION WHICH WOULD INCLUDE THE DESCENDANTS OF HOLODOMOR SURVIVORS”
In Canada many Ukrainians become MPs or even members of government, and what is the situation like in Australia? Also, what is the Ukrainian community there doing for the recognition of the Holodomor as the genocide of the Ukrainian people?
“We have a legislator Matthew Guy who has a Ukrainian background and is the opposition leader in Victoria (and might become the next prime-minister in this state). He has quite good relations with the members of two parties on Ukrainian affairs. It is noteworthy that in the time of the Maidan Guy appeared in the parliament with the Ukrainian flag. We are also trying to expand our network to have supporters in various parties.
“I work in the Holodomor Awareness Commission, and we are starting on the preparations to the 85th anniversary of recognition of the Holodomor. Before the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor we launched the Everburning Candle action in Australia, which traveled to 32 countries. 17 countries have now recognized the Holodomor as genocide. And now we will extend our efforts beyond Australia. We are going to ask our communities worldwide to again raise the question of recognizing the Holodomor as genocide. For instance, last March such a decision was passed by Portugal: the Holodomor of 1932-33 in Ukraine was recognized as genocide by ‘Stalin’s totalitarian Communist regime.’
“We have discussed the Holodomor – genocide awareness issues with Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN in order to jointly coordinate several aspects. We want every country with a Ukrainian community to have a Heritage Association, which would include the descendants of Holodomor survivors. If we succeed in creating such a group next year, it will have the right (as descendants of survivors) to propose a resolution on recognizing the Holodomor as genocide to the UN. Together with Ivan Vasiunyk and Volodymyr Viatrovych we are working on the completion of the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv.
“In Australia we have already discussed with the government and the opposition a proposal to allocate a site for a memorial where anyone would be able to commemorate and pray for the victims of the Holocaust, Holodomor, Pol Pot regime, terrorism, and the downed flight MH 17.”
“THE UWC’S STRENGTH COMES FROM THE MANY PEOPLE IN UKRAINE WHO HAVE COME FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE”
How would you in general evaluate the cooperation with Ukraine’s government?
“Some time ago the UWC signed a memorandum on cooperation concerning the Holodomor with President Yushchenko. It was an experiment, but I like to work systematically. My approach is, tell me what you are doing and we will tell what we are going to do. You will oversee us, and we will oversee you. And this joint work on the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor was a great success because we worked systematically, we had a memorandum and an action plan.
“Today we have signed a memorandum and action plan with Prime-Minister Hroisman. Some time ago we proposed that Ukraine appoint its merchant representatives, but outside its diplomatic corps. They could be Ukrainians, but it would be better still if they were some influential Australian business people. We hope that First Vice Prime Minister Stepan Kubiv will accept this proposal soon.
“It is good to have an agreement about such systematic cooperation. We have quite frequent meetings with Mr. Kubiv here to discuss and settle all sorts of matters on this level.
“I would like to mention the following episode. Some time ago Australia and Ukraine were engaged in a lawsuit over tobacco. Through the Verkhovna Rada Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Hanna Hopko, and through our embassy we settled this matter. But it was possible due to systematic cooperation. We do this, you do that. I think that the Diaspora’s expertise is very important for Ukraine.
“Now there are lots of people from the Diaspora in Ukraine who are busy helping. The newly arrived try to join in the projects under development. But I have always stuck to this principle which I always try to share with my colleagues: do not solve Ukrainian problems from abroad, be it New York or Melbourne. We need to listen to the people who are working here, on the spot. And I keep saying: if you want to know about Australia and how things can be done, you can come to me. If I want to know something about Ukraine, I will not ask everyone in Australia what they think we could do. After all, it is necessary to know the local peculiarities. That is why I believe the UWC’s strength comes from the many people here on the site in Ukraine who have come for permanent residence. Some already have Ukrainian passports, and for us they are a very good indicator what needs to be done and how, and what must never be done.”