Svitlana Matviienko on Ukrainian Radio: “Activists in political parties are a trend”

Should activists go into politics? What will have to be sacrificed for this, and what can be gained in politics, on the contrary? Where do new worthy leaders come from, and do they have to be part of the political process? Svitlana Matviienko, Chairwoman of the Board of the Agency for Legislative Initiatives and Director of the Ukrainian School of Political Studies, talked about this live on Ukrainian Radio.

A recording of the broadcast is available here. And we publish the full conversation:

  • You and your team have been involved in forming leaders for 15 years. How many of your alumni are already in politics?

We have a lot of educational programs: the School of Community Leaders, the Party Innovation Hub, and the Ukrainian School of Political Studies. We also practiced women’s education programs, some seminars for MPs. We do not aim to look for people who will definitely go into politics. Ukrainian School of Political Studies brings together people from very different fields and promotes public dialogue. When these people decide to become political players, we talk to them, we consult. The most important thing for us is for a person to do what they have a vocation for. It is impossible to become a politician without an inner desire. But the most important thing is readiness and understanding of what you will do there and why you are going there. Our Alumni have held a variety of positions since 2005, including mayors, MPs, ministers, deputy ministers, and even the prime minister of Ukraine. Everyone came to power and came out with different indicators. Our task is to show during this studying, communication, discussion, a real picture of what can await them, what responsibility they can take, and what they can share with others for the public good.

  • How do you evaluate the results of Alumni’s work? Can these young people, who have public dialogue and your support, somehow influence policy change in the country?

When we started the School in 2005, the first group included very different people, who then, 10-15 years later, held responsible positions. We saw them grow. We tried to support them and be there where we could. When a person does something all his/her life, he/she becomes a professional. We have good examples at the local level, when our Alumni – mayors, village mayors – test themselves, engage in this activity all their lives, and election to election check how much the community trusts them. There are cases when our people were re-elected 3-4 times. This is a smooth growth. People who fell sharply into what is called politics of national scale, with different losses and gains, came out of it. Reputational losses are insane. Achievements depend on talents, values ​​, and what life plan a person has.

  • Should we move from a sphere of activism, where there is a little less authority, to a sphere where you have more authority and more responsibility?

Just before this local election, we had an exciting project – the School of Community Leaders. More than 200 people from all over the country took part in this program. We prepared people for the local elections. First of all, we tried to convince them: if they are worthy, they should try themselves in the election.

Taking part in the election race and losing is not scary. It’s scary not to get involved in politics later because it will mean that you took part in the elections as a candidate to win, not to work for years to come. People feel it very much. Going into politics is a serious and long process.

We encourage people who are aware of this to try and start with community change. I will say without any pathos: activists are also different. The word “activist” is now very “stale”. It’s like a trend. There was a trend for singers and stars in politics. Now the trend in the local elections is for activists. Why? Because civil society has a much higher level of trust than political parties and political players.

But it is necessary to realize: to be the mayor or the member of the local council – means that people won’t like you automatically. Understanding how you want to build your political career is a determining factor in whether you should start at all.

Compromises are also a problem. Which party to go from? How to deal with your reputation? How to convert it correctly? The fact is that there are no strong parties in Ukraine. Some projects appear and disappear like butterflies. We must move towards building normal parties. I would not envy the activists who are taking part in the election race now. There are two options: either they have a clear plan of what they will do in one term, they know how they will do it, they have a team of like-minded people and professionals; or they go into the unknown – and this unknown can be very cruel to them.

  • Would you recommend them to go into politics?

The question of whether activists should go into politics is wrong. It forms two camps: there are such as “good activists” who go somewhere and try to change something, and there are “bad” ones who stay away and just sit and philosophize. Many of the people we call activists are involved in professional NGO activities. This is exactly the same professional activity as baking bread, cleaning the streets, being a radio host. A lot of people from civil society became officials – so they wanted it and worked for it. Therefore, it is a question of vocation. The person should feel comfortable. You need to be clear about where you are going, with whom, and why. Once you compromise and don’t know how to defend and rebuild yourself, it won’t end well.

I know that many of the activists running in the elections have been offered autonomy in their work and decision-making. But it doesn’t work that way. When voting takes place, everything changes very dramatically.

You can’t quickly switch to another field of activity: here you are engaged in civic activity, and then become a member of the local council – it’s a good story, if it was planned for two years or 20 years, if you were preparing for it, you have your plan, and better – your party, you head its list and lead other wonderful activists, not scattered on the existing map of Ukrainian parties.

In 2014, many young professionals from various fields who were not previously in power became members of parliament. As a result, any attempt to do something together was successful until a certain point, until the party battles began. For example, the project “EuroOptimists”. The Agency for Legislative Initiatives and the Ukrainian School of Political Studies have worked with them for a long time. We believe that these were MPs who did a lot of good, but they also had a lot of transformations. The main problem is not in people. They were good professionals, but they all came from different parties. Did they manage to create something of their own? We see now. Another question is how much support it would have.

“EuroOptimists” have managed to do a lot of good things in lawmaking. But they also showed that it’s not enough to gather a small group of good and motivated people.

It was a good experience for “EuroOptimists”, and we will see these people in politics. The most impress me those engaged in themselves, think what to do, and try themselves in other areas. The main thing is not to focus on the fact that you always have to be in politics.

There should be no end to the world if you are left out of politics due to new elections.

Agency for Legislative Initiatives did a study “Life after Parliament”. We studied what happens to MPs after their convocation is over, and they are not re-elected. Power is a drug that people then constantly need. Understanding your balance – when to go and when to stop in time – is extremely important.

  • Do you agree that sometimes activists should stay in their role and be more effective in the public sector?

Activism is when a person in his/her free time is engaged in socially useful work, protects people’s interests, fights for justice. Often this is not a person’s place of work. It’s hard to imagine a place of work where you fight for a clean square. This is a civic activity. The parties are now trying to attract both professionals from civil society and people who are street activists. Among the latter, there are also many influential people, leaders of public opinion. We are in constant contact with such activists, whose values ​​we share.

If a person feels that he/she can do more being an activist than being an official, then the desire to go to power can be caused only by excessive ambitions or the desire for status.

For example, my work is related to the formation of inter-party dialogue. I am hardly able to join any of the existing political forces. I am responsible to the people for whom we work and that our work will not be politically engaged. I have enough authority. I see many opportunities to work in the civil society sector. Everyone chooses their own path.

  • Where to get leaders and new faces?

I do not think that Ukraine only needs new faces. We see that new faces are sometimes worse than already known ones. Politics should be a professional activity. We need to build strong political parties and educate leaders.

I‘m afraid I have to disagree with the president’s opinion that there is a lack of professionals in Ukraine. There are a lot of good people. And they are worthy not only to hold some positions but also to reform entire areas. But often, these people are not loyal and comfortable for the authorities. The main question is why none of the decent people wanted to go to the second government with the current authorities? The situation will only get worse. But there are professionals in Ukraine. They graduate from schools, universities, engage in social activism, crystallize, seek themselves.

It isn’t easy to plan a national leader. What happened a year ago in the presidential and parliamentary elections is just the journey. We had to go through it. Society had to show its trust in the previous government and give the famous comedian a chance to become president. Volodymyr Zelensky had every chance to go down in history. He probably doesn’t have any anymore. But there was a chance. Ukrainian society can provide these chances.

Then we elected the Verkhovna Rada with 80.4% of new faces. These are often people who do not have the necessary training to go to work every day and perform their duties well. We also live with this now, remembering that the Verkhovna Rada, like any public institution, is a mirror of society.

  • What opportunities does politics open for activists? And which closes?

It is possible to do specific things when you have power. The opportunity to communicate with a much higher level of public trust than politicians is closed. There is a loss of a certain circle of communication. A person can be influential both in politics and in the third sector. The main thing is for everyone to be in their place and do their job well. Opportunities are equal in politics and the third sector.

My advice to those who go from the civil society to politics is just one – not to forget all the campaign slogans and references to the word “values” that they used and will use during the campaign.