People power

Picture of Dr Olga Oleinikova

Pictured: Ukraine Democracy Initiative Director, Dr Olga Oleinikova

It’s now been more than four years since demonstrators brought down the Ukrainian government as part of the Euromaidan protest movement. Since then, Ukraine has grappled with economic and industrial decline in the face of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and conflict in East Ukraine.

While the ongoing crisis may seem a long way from Australia, the UTS-based Ukraine Democracy Initiative (UDI) is proving that the academic expertise and diaspora of Ukrainians based abroad can have a meaningful impact on Ukraine’s democratic future.

“Our donors are very passionate about supporting democracy and creating change in Ukraine.” – Dr Olga Oleinikov

Led by UTS’s Dr Olga Oleinikova, the UDI is an independent research initiative and a dedicated global network of more than 150 academics from 16 countries. Co-hosted by the University of Sydney and bolstered by the vital support of donors, the academic group aims to bring new thinking about the challenges Ukraine faces, while supporting the survival and flourishing of its democracy.

“The Ukraine Democracy Initiative is a multilayered academic initiative with a focus on political, social and economic issues, and on top of that it’s a global network of those who care about democracy in Ukraine,” explains the Ukrainian-born Dr Oleinikova.

“It’s a unique opportunity to move political conversations forward and facilitate cross- border academic exchange that could be a powerful basis for change.”

Through fellowships, joint research projects and international events, the UDI is helping academics and policy makers collaboratively develop ideas, negotiate needs with the international policy community, and disseminate insights on how to address the systemic challenges faced by Ukrainian society.

“There is typically a big gap between academic research and practical action, but we really want to have an impact and transform what is happening in Ukraine,” says Dr Oleinikova.

Without the financial support of its donors, including the Ukrainian Studies Foundation in Australia (USFA), Dr Oleinikova says the work of the UDI would not be possible. “Our donors are very passionate about supporting democracy and creating change in Ukraine. Without their commitment and funding, we could not employ our team, hold international events, and make research initiatives happen,” she says.

In the future, the group is hoping to introduce exchange programs to bring Ukrainian academics to Australia, as well as introduce a mentorship program and PhD scholarships. This year, Dr Oleinikova and 15 UDI associates from around the world came together in Berlin to workshop the book Reimagining Diaspora and Democracy in the Heart of Europe, which showcases evidence of the influence the Ukrainian diaspora has on the democratisation of modern Ukraine. She also visited Ukraine to establish partnerships with Ukrainian universities willing to work together on international exchange programs of students and academics.

Dr Oleinikova says she is constantly struck by the resilience of the Ukrainian people – something that motivates her work every day. “With all the current political, social and economic turbulence that they have gone through, people demonstrate the ability to hope that things will improve and work towards a better future. This drive for change – I think that is inspirational and unbreakable.”