Jan Sherbin: Ukraine needs U.S. help in efforts to secure democracy

March 4, 2014 

I happened to be in Kiev's October Revolution Square during the August 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup that hastened the Soviet Union to breakup by the end of the year.

There were no barricades or danger. There was a sense of excitement, that a breakthrough was happening, something that might change life for the better. In high spirits, Ukraine declared its independence a few days later. October Revolution Square became Independence Square.

Little planning, little organization. Boom. A new country with a dream but not much notion how to reach it.

Americans may have thought independence would automatically and quickly bring democracy. It's so intuitive to us. But it was not at all intuitive to people in the new country of Ukraine, raised in the Soviet system.

I remember a soulful young father holding his toddler son, Slava. He predicted that Slava, or Slava's child, would be grown before Ukraine would see a functioning democracy. Slava must be grown now, seeing instead his country implode. Kiev's Independence Square is better known these days as the Maidan, a place of protest, violence and another bringing down of government.

Though Americans poke fun at our democracy, from the outside it looks easy and best-in-class. As skiing looks when Ted Ligety does it. But without coaching, practice and tumbles, neither succeeds. Ukraine is short on coaching and short on practice, and it is taking a tumble. This new country still seeks proficiency in democracy, rule of law and ethical free enterprise.

Ukrainians groomed in the Soviet system or its successor tend not to be good at vision and choices. They crave an economy that benefits all citizens who work hard. They chafe at the corruption that powers their political and economic life. They admire our vision and direction, our ethics, our ability to evaluate and choose, the way we make our voices heard.

Congress and the White House have pledged support for Ukrainians in their quest for a democratic nation that works. So how can we lend a hand without being heavy-handed?

For one, we can continue what we've already been doing, highly successfully but somewhat under the radar, for two decades.

Yes, for 20 years, in cities and towns across the United States, Americans have been coaching Ukrainian professionals via education programs sponsored by the U.S. government and implemented by local nonprofits.

The concept is simple: Ukrainian leaders in various business and service fields see how their counterparts operate here, then take home ideas to apply. They see democracy and free enterprise in action, the spirit and values as well as the mechanics.

Ukrainians in greater numbers need this knowledge in order to achieve democracy with civility and rule of law.

They need insights into free enterprise to achieve economic stability, to create a healthy business climate so all can enjoy a decent standard of living, to engage in commerce outside their borders with whomever they choose.

They need to learn how to elect people to represent them, then work with their representatives to shape legislation.

Recent events tell us we need to revitalize our efforts in Ukraine. We need to reach more people, and quickly. Corporations and foundations could pitch in with program sponsorship.

Education programs are effective. They're also far less expensive and far more pleasant than military action or another Cold War. Let's offer learning opportunities to more Slavas, to help them build a well-functioning and peaceful Ukraine before their children grow up.

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