Since the explosion of popular protest in Maidan Square, Ukraine has been riven by civil and political strife whose character and shape is often as difficult to discern as its eventual outcome. In this supercharged atmosphere of political protest and martial posturing, what have foundations been doing to help those caught up in events or struggling to reshape their country?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that the situation in Ukraine is an extraordinarily fluid one. Even while this article was being researched and written, things have changed: the country has a new government. While at state level some of the tension has gone out of the situation, fighting still continues in the east of the country between government forces and pro-Russian militias, with reports of people fleeing the rebel capital of Slavyansk amid a worsening humanitarian crisis. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on 12 June that most Slavyansk residents had been without water, electricity and gas for the past week. Even after the ousting of former president Yanukovych, the Maidan is still occupied and many of its occupants still find themselves at odds with the new political leaders.
Two foundations active in Ukraine at the onset of the crisis were ERSTE Foundation, based in Austria and working throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and the International Renaissance Foundation, based in Ukraine itself. Both have found themselves drawn into events to a greater or lesser degree.
Feet already on the ground: ERSTE Foundation
ERSTE Foundation has an education programme involving 12-17 year olds in four Ukrainian cities (the project is also running in 11 other countries in the region) and supports an arts project, the Visual Cultural Research Centre, in Kyiv, primarily intended as an exhibition space for artists. Its target group varies from project to project. As Robin Gosejohann, project manager Europe at ERSTE Foundation, explains, ‘we work with local partner organizations who are active or want to become active in civil society in their area/community.’
What has been ERSTE Foundation’s response to the crisis? Most of the countries in which they work have political issues. ‘We try to react to those,’ says Gosejohann, ‘not by reshaping, redrafting entire projects’ but instead by ‘building on the projects that already exist’. As an example, he says, the foundation ‘made money quickly available to allow for a meeting space in Kyiv. We reacted on the expressed needs of our project partners who changed an ongoing project [the exhibition space mentioned above].’ After the Maidan protests, it became more and more apparent that there were hardly any independent meeting spaces that community groups could use. The exhibition space will now be used for meetings.
ERSTE Foundation also remains alert to the needs of its Ukrainian project partners. ‘We have a higher degree of sensitivity when it comes to project applications from partners from a country that currently has more issues than others,’ says Gosejohann, so ‘specifically Ukraine right now’.
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