The international Ottawa Model Ukraine Conference “The Politics of Education and Elections in Ukraine” was organized by the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program (CUPP), the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, the Katedra Foundation, and the CUSF. As implied by the title, the conference focused on education and election reforms in Ukraine. It is impossible to build a model state because even a highly advanced democratic society is divided into classes, with the rich and the poor, and unemployment and crime, however low. In fact, a national government should see its end goal in creating another Utopia. Suffice it to build a balanced system of social protection, secure democratic rights and freedoms, and provide economic conditions in which people could best make use of their intellectual and creative potential while satisfying their material needs. Every country must travel its own road and find its own recipe for reforms, proceeding from historical preconditions, national mentality, and cultural and economic specifics of its people. There are research centers, known as think tanks, that specialize in finding optimal reforms, and whose experts try to model the development of a given country and offer recommendations to be implemented by politicians.
Such an attempt to construct an optimal Ukraine was made at the international conference in Ottawa, the second in a series of three, with the first being held in Washington last February and the third one scheduled for November 2011 in Kyiv. These conferences are meant to discuss priorities in the development of Ukraine in the nearest future and draw up a list of reforms that must be carried out in Ukraine, in the economic, linguistic, cultural, and constitutional spheres.
The Ottawa conference concentrated on education and election reforms.
Iryna Zaitseva, Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, said the strategic priorities include the development of preschool educational establishments and upgrading vocational training. Dr. Phylissa D. Mitchell (University of Richmond, US), who had spent quite some time lecturing at the Institute of Journalism, Taras Shevchenko University (Kyiv), and has first-hand knowledge of the advantages and shortcomings of Ukrainian universities, noted that the Ukrainian system of higher education is in a desolate state. She added that the new government’s desire to discard the reforms started by its predecessor and make a U-turn in the national policy in the education sphere is like a car accident in which the sharp impact breaks the driver’s cervical vertebrae. In her opinion, the only way to make reforms in the education sphere is expanding university autonomy and reducing the influence of central authorities. Although some of the conference participants believed that university autonomy would cause chaos in the education sphere and shift corruption schemes from the center to the local level, others agreed that guarantees of university financial freedom and independent internal policy is a compulsory condition of quality higher education in Ukraine and bringing it into conformity with international standards.
Although Ms. Zaitseva confirmed Ukraine’s desire to integrate into the international and European systems of education, the Ministry of Education and Science doesn’t seem to be taking any noticeable steps in this direction. Expert estimates point to 25,000-35,000 Ukrainians studying abroad. Most of these plan to return to Ukraine after graduation, but each will have to go through the humiliating nostrification procedures that may take months. One of the presenters cited an example when an Oxford graduate had to request an official statement from the British government to the effect that this institution exists.
The presence of the election reform on the conference agenda was explained by an active discussion of changes to the law on local elections and their results in Ukraine and abroad (e.g., resolutions adopted by PACE, Venice Commission, and European Parliament).
A mixed, or parallel, election system used in the course of the recent local elections was recognized by the conference as facilitating abuses of administrative resources and distorting the election results through manipulations of the majority component, making it possible for the government to shape the local majorities as it wishes.
The German mixed elections model, with the results in the majority electoral districts and proportionate systems being interconnected, was recognized by the conference as one of the optimal ways to reform the electoral system of Ukraine. This way, if a political force gets more seats in the majority districts, smaller political parties are guaranteed “compensations” using the proportionate component, so that the number of seats is kept in proportion to the support of this political force by the populace. This system allows to form a representative parliament (with even small parties having seats, provided they surmount the threshold) and make the MPs actually answerable to their respective constituencies. Another way to combine parliament’s representation with the responsibility of its members is the usage of a proportional system with open preferential rosters, in which the electorate can enter the names of the candidates in an appropriate order.
Considering that every election in Ukraine has taken place in accordance with a new electoral law, rather than to form a responsible and effective parliament, the Ottawa conference stressed the need to reduce the room for manipulating election legislation; this can be achieved by complicating the procedures of amending the law on elections.
All told, the debate, involving delegates from more than 30 universities in ten countries, representatives of the Ukrainian government, US media, Ukrainian and Canadian diplomats, proved very productive. Although the presenters were largely graduates of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program (all with first hand experience of the Canadian parliamentary system from the inside as interns, currently enrolled or doing research in Western universities), these young men and women proved they could discuss matters on a par with government officials, scholars, and diplomats; that they knew how to use foreign experience in Ukraine. Above all, they demonstrated their determination to do just that.
Yaroslav KOVALCHUK, Ph.D., Erasmus Mundus scholarship, University of Algarve, Portugal, participant in the Ottawa Model Ukraine Conference