Though the protests in Ukraine are half a world away, the director of the Ohio State John Glenn School of Public Affairs and a doctoral candidate at the school have firsthand experience with the conflict.
Glenn School director Trevor Brown said he has been involved for almost 20 years with an initiative funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through the State Department that has helped Ukraine establish democratic practices dating back to 1994, when its autonomy from the former Soviet Union was still in infancy.
Rudy Hightower, on the other hand, is a retired Naval intelligence officer and a doctoral candidate researching national security policy at the Glenn School, with a focus on regional security issues in the Black Sea region that borders the Crimean peninsula, Ukraine and parts of Russia.
The two co-hosted a presentation at Page Hall Thursday evening, in which they addressed the political and economic status quo in Ukraine.
Protests in Ukraine began in November and are a product of East-West tensions, which have pitted those who relate more to Europe against those who are closer to Russia.
In November, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign agreements with the European Union that would have strengthened ties between Ukraine and the EU, which showed he preferred to have stronger ties to Russia.
Russia has a long history of influence over Ukraine, as Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Many Ukrainians have a desire to move away from that legacy and make their nation more like those of Western Europe.
Hightower said during his presentation he had been in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, in December when hundreds of thousands of protesters were demonstrating in the city’s central Independence Square.
“We both have spent a lot of time in country, boots on ground,” Hightower said. “I was there during the Euromaidan demonstrations. Two weeks before, they had some of the violence.”
The Euromaidan demonstrations were protests against Yanukovych’s rule.
Hightower said he “was there walking amongst all the protestors and barricades” during a more peaceful phase of the demonstration process, before the violence resumed in January and the first deaths took place, leading up to a coup at the end of February.
Hightower emphasized how receptive people on the street were toward him, saying that the mood reflected that the Ukrainian people he spoke with “just want to have a normal life.”
Brown said the Parliamentary Development Project he has been a part of is a long-term investment by the U.S. government and that change is gradual, especially after fractious events like the Russian invasion of Crimea, the collapse of the Ukrainian government and the referendum earlier this month that Crimea used to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
“We know from our own experience here in the United States that the democratic experiment goes on. It takes a long time, it takes multiple generations to build commitment to democracy,” Brown said.
Brown and Hightower took questions from the crowd of about 100 people who attended the policy talk, which took place in Page Hall’s Leadership Education Center. They addressed concerns about Europe’s dependence on Russian fuel, the likelihood of Russian president Vladimir Putin invading other surrounding territories and the ramifications that could result from the U.S. imposing economic and political sanctions on Russia.
Glenn School spokesman Hank Wilson said in an email Wednesday the event didn’t cost anything as both speakers are affiliated with the school, meaning there were “no speaker fees or room fees.”
Some students said they expected more detail from the talk in general, but that they liked the concluding Q-and-A portion specifically.
“I thought the question-and-answer session was, I would say, by far the most informative,” said Devin Grammon, a second-year graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese linguistics. “They gave an overview of everything, but I guess what I was expecting was a little more in-depth contribution and kind of analysis, specifically … (about) the options that are on the table.”
Grammon said having studied in Russia about 10 years ago makes him a little more curious than the average student “about the cultural kind of context” of events going on there.
Cynthia Johnson, a fifth-year in OSU’s historical linguistics Ph.D. program, agreed that the forum for public discussion was enjoyable, in addition to hearing about Hightower’s observations in Ukraine.
“I appreciated the look inside, the pictures, the experience he (Hightower) had over in Ukraine during that time. It was great. But I really liked the dialogue between the audience and (the presenters). They had a lot more to say,” Johnson said.
Bill Welch, a third-year in political science, economics and math, said he enjoyed the presentation by Hightower and Brown as well.
“I thought it was really informative overall. I thought it was really interesting, especially with Hightower’s intelligence background,” Welch said. “Kind of a different side to think about the development aspect because usually we just hear, it’s just about Crimea. So I guess I just found it really fascinating.”