Kateryna Smagliy, Maria Kravchenko 

Internally Displaced Universities and the Prospects of Donbas Reintegration

The war in Donbas has urged Ukrainian and Western experts to look for the causes of regionalism in Ukraine. Many analysts suggest that the residents of the Ukrainian East are vulnerable and susceptible to manipulative techniques of Kremlin ideologists because of the Ukrainian government’s poor focus on humanitarian development policy and no systemic reforms in culture and education.

In the spring of 2017, with financial support of the Ukraine Capacity Building Initiative (hereinafter “UCBI”) the Kennan Institute Kyiv Office implemented the project “Improving the Competence of Displaced Universities.” We organized four leadership schools for students of the displaced universities and delivered 30 lectures at 10 displaced universities. Official meetings and informal communication with the students, faculty and managers of the seven displaced universities of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions helped us make our own assessment of the situation and the role of these institutions for the region. This article is based on our observations, with which we seek to encourage the Ukrainian government and the displaced universities to purposefully use their capacities for the development of Ukraine’s internal cultural diplomacy.[1]

Displaced Universities of Donbas: Contextual Overview

 The counterterrorist operation in Eastern Ukraine has been going on for three years. The hostilities have pushed flows of migrants from Donbas into peaceful Ukrainian territories. These people are referred to as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the official documents. As of May 2, 2017, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine registered 1.75 million IDPs from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.[2] Given the number of unregistered migrants, the figure could reach 2.5 million people, or a third of the prewar population of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. By estimates of the Coordination Center for Displaced Universities, 40,000 students and 4,000 teachers and researchers are now IDPs.[3]

Donetsk National University, named after poet Vasyl Stus in 2016, became the first university to be relocated from the ATO (Antiterrorist Operation) zone. After the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” was proclaimed in April 2014, its faculty and students participated in pro-Ukrainian protests in Donetsk and organized the ‘Save Alma Mater!’ campaign in Kyiv.[4] The campaign broke out as a flash mob in social networks and culminated a few days later into a student demonstration in front of Ukraine’s Government building. In response, the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) issued Decree No.1084 “On the organization of the educational process of Donetsk National University of Ukraine in Vinnytsia”,[5] which laid the basis for relocation of some teachers and students of the largest Donbas university, and later for other higher educational institutions of the region.

In November 2014, there were already nine internally displaced universities. A Coordination Center for Displaced Universities was established. In the absence of any dedicated legal framework it brought together the efforts of the displaced universities to jointly solve their problems. The Center publishes information about all major events in the lives of the displaced universities on its official Facebook page.[6]

To coordinate the activities of the displaced universities of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, the Ministry of Education and Science issued Decree No.50 on January 21, 2016[7] to set up the Council of Rectors of the universities that were temporarily relocated from the area of hostilities. One of the main tasks of the Council of Rectors was to participate in the drafting of bills regulating displaced university activities. Thanks to their efforts, a framework law on displaced universities was adopted on November 3, 2016,[8] which regulated their activities and introduced certain privileges concerning the pedagogical workload for the university employees, favorable in comparison with other Ukrainian universities.  However, this law only declared the need for government aid in the provision of materials and equipment to the schools without specifying a mechanism to provide the aid.













Problems of displaced Donbas universities

Despite the existence of an appropriate legislative framework and almost three years of life experience in a new place, the displaced Donbas universities have been facing a number of problems. The main issues common for all of them are underfunding, poor material and technical conditions, shortage of classrooms, dorms, libraries, laboratories and so on.

Some institutions were in a better situation than others as they moved in with their affiliates within the same region, which greatly simplified the process of finding their new place in the sun though it did not take away all the problems. In the territories controlled by Ukraine within Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, these displaced universities were treated as family members. However, for the universities that had to settle down in new territories far away from their homes and audiences, both in terms of university premises and sophomore students, integration in the new context and new socio-cultural environment was much more complicated. Here they were not just residents of Donetsk, here they were aliens, strangers.

How does this situation affect the educators working at the universities relocated to Ukraine’s regions far away from Donbas?

In a few years, they will run an obvious risk to lose their Donetsk / Luhansk identity, fade away from the radars of Western governments and donor organizations and vanish in the sea of Ukraine’s school problems. Over time, Donbas students who moved to the territory controlled by Ukraine will graduate, and thus the student ranks at the displaced universities will be replenished mainly or exclusively by local young people. The absence of migrant students from Donbas in the displaced universities will undoubtedly hamper preservation of their regional identity.

For the Ukrainian Government, preservation of the displaced universities carries ideological and political components, therefore it does not look good today to publicly suggest the logical steps to be taken in relation to some weaker educational institutions that cannot compete with the local and other national universities. Merging several displaced universities or incorporating them into other local universities would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, if only it was not perceived as an act of surrender to the enemy.

However, dramatic competition for students and uncertain prospects force the displaced universities, their faculty and managers to not only fight for new students, but also to daily prove their value for the humanitarian development of their city, region and country. Now they are not deprived of attention – everybody we met would regularly be invited to international conferences outside Ukraine and enjoy a more or less stable financial aid from international organizations. However, the current interest of the West and donors to the displaced universities may dwindle with time, and they will have to rely only on their own capacities.

In the absence of a clear government policy for the development of displaced universities and the lack of funds to strengthen their material base, the task of saving these educational centers and their identity is in their own hands. The success of self-preservation efforts in the face of increased competition in the educational market will depend on whether professional teams of the displaced universities can offer the Ukrainian society and local communities their new ‘added value’ and a new mission of cultural reintegration of Donbas.

The specific history of settlement and development of Donbas has resulted in the shortage of powerful regional cultural centers, museums, theaters, libraries, etc. As the armed conflict progressed, Donbas areas controlled by Ukraine found themselves cut off from the leading cultural art centers that remained on the other side of the demarcation line in Donetsk and Luhansk. The government had never paid much attention to the country’s humanitarian development, so innovative cultural projects and contemporary art centers were traditionally scarce in Donbas. The vast majority of Donbas cultural institutions worked in the old Soviet way and were actively used by the regional “elites” to promote their political interests.

Displaced Universities of Donbas and Internal Cultural Diplomacy

Today the Ukrainian government seems to underestimate the role that the displaced universities can play for the humanitarian development of the country’s East. These education institutions have now acquired public importance not only as providers of education and science, but also as centers of culture and civic activities, social dialogue fora, and innovative platforms for policies to overcome conflicts between citizens of different identities. The development of related services that may be provided by the displaced universities to local communities could transform them from recipients of central and local government aid into providers of new services, and creators of a new content and a new Ukrainian reality.

Cultural initiatives have always been an essential foundation for overcoming conflicts and bringing out changes in the community agenda, promoting an open dialogue on the values of open society, democracy and human rights. It would be particularly important at this stage to involve artists, cultural figures and intellectuals from all over Ukraine in the dialogue and cooperation efforts.

Since the undeclared war started in the east of the country, Ukrainian artists, educators, civic activists, and business people have organized many cultural events in the communities affected by the armed conflict. Urban initiatives have been launched in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, and public spaces have been created. These projects became possible through volunteer efforts and support from donor organizations, businesses and enthusiastic citizens. At the same time, one does not see any government focus on cultural problems, while its support of the humanitarian sector is quite chaotic and inconsistent not only in the region but in all of the country.

When we arrived in Severodonetsk, the locals eagerly told us about Serhiy Prokofiev Music School that, despite the conflict, made people’s life bright and joyful by staging concerts and other artistic events. The only “Window to America” in Luhansk Region was working in the small and distant town of Starobilsk. The provincial town of Pokrovsk was to be visited, the following day, by celebrated Ukrainian writers Serhiy Zhadan, Andriy Kokotyukha and others.

As cultural platforms and powerful art centers are missing in Donbas, the displaced universities have a chance to go beyond their traditional educational role and become a driving force behind the cultural revitalization of the entire region. Importantly, the students and the faculty of the universities are gradually coming to realize it and begin launching local cultural initiatives. In the small town of Pokrovsk, a free language school is running on the initiative of Donetsk National Technical University. Since March 2017, the university has been hosting the Youth Hub of Pokrovsk for anyone who wants to participate.[9]

In Severodonetsk, the current regional center of Luhansk Oblast, the students and professors of Volodymyr Dahl East-Ukrainian National University join hackathons for the development of socially relevant IT-projects, put imaginative colorful murals on the drab post-Soviet buildings, plant trees in the University Park of Mutual Understanding, and participate in national environmental campaigns.[10]

At the same time, the displaced universities of Donbas continue to perform their primary educational function. In addition to the standard process of training future professionals, the displaced university teachers have to compete for the minds of their future students in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

The displaced universities have proven their loyalty to Ukraine, and today they are not only educational institutions but also a powerful weapon fighting the information war with the Russian propaganda that is still influential in Donbas. Without exaggeration, they are the proverbial ray of light in the dark realm that can enlighten the intoxicated minds of many local residents who are still opposed to the Ukrainian government.

Finally, the displaced Donbas universities are already acting as agents of national cultural diplomacy by helping Ukrainians from different regions develop personal contacts and see with their own eyes that their basic values and aspirations are no different. The training model DonNU-UN Model-2016, the National School of Public Policy and Administration, the Young Civil Servant School – these are just a few of the programs supported by Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University that broaden its cooperation with the local community in Vinnytsya.[11]

What other internal cultural diplomacy projects can the displaced Donbas universities offer? They can launch and support book and art festivals, open lectures or third-generation universities for local residents, movie discussion clubs, psychological trainings for the prevention of stress disorders, and mobile schools for visual education, they can invite Ukrainian writers and hold musical concerts and theatrical performances. Good partner relations with the country’s leading universities and academic institutions will promote exchange of students and faculty, enhancing regional mobility and understanding among the inhabitants of different parts of this country.

No doubt, the displaced universities of Donbas play a key role in the humanitarian rebuilding of eastern Ukraine, consolidation of the nation and strengthening of the State. In the long run, they should be the drivers of reintegration in the occupied territories, the platform for establishing communication between the East and West of Ukraine. The problems of mutual understanding between the regions can be overcome through the organization of joint projects, summer schools, lecture courses, workshops, exchanges, etc. The internal cultural diplomacy of the displaced universities of Donbas is the bridge that can help unite the Ukrainian society. It remains only to implement as many projects as possible to develop such a dialogue.

[1] During the regional visits, the visits were made to Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University (relocated to Vinnytsia), Horlivka Foreign Languages Institute (relocated to Bakhmut), Donetsk National Technical University (relocated to Pokrovsk), Donetsk State University of Management (relocated to Mariupol), Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian National University (relocated to Severodonetsk), Taras Shvchenko Luhansk National University (relocated to Starobilsk), and Pervomaysk Industrial and Pedagogical Technical School (relocated to Rubizhne).

[2] More than 1.98 million internally displaced persons were registered with the regional headquarters of the SESU //State Emergency Service of Ukraine – May 2, 2017 [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: http://www.dsns.gov.ua/ua/Ostanni-novini/61342.html.

[3] Coordinating Center for Displaced Universities // A post on the official Facebook page of March 23, 2016 [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: https://www.facebook.com/kcpvnz/posts/736256649808955:0.

[4]  Displaced universities: 18 Ukrainian colleges are exiled in their own country // Euromaidan Press. – February 2, 2017. [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: http://euromaidanpress.com/2017/02/25/displaced-universities-how-18-ukrainian-colleges-from-donbas-and-crimea-are-living-in-exile-in-their-own-country/#arvlbdata.

[5] The Ministry’s Decree 1084 “On the organization of educational process at Donetsk National University of Ukraine in the city of Vinnytsya” // Ministry of Education and Science. – September 30, 2014 [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: http://mon.gov.ua/content/1084.pdf.

[6] Coordinating Center for Displaced Universities // The official Facebook page. [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: https://www.facebook.com/kcpvnz/.

[7] Decree No. 50 of the Ministry of Education and Science “On the Establishment of the Council of Rectors of the Universities Temporarily Displaced from the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone” // Ministry of Education and Science. – January 26, 2016 [Electronic resource].  – Access mode: http://old.mon.gov.ua/ua/about-ministry/normative/5013-

[8] The Law of Ukraine “On amendments to certain laws of Ukraine on the activities of universities and research institutions relocated from the temporarily occupied territories and from locations where the state authorities are temporarily not exercising their powers” // Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. – November 3, 2016 [Electronic resource]. – Access: http://zakon2.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1731-19.

[9] The official opening of the Youth Hub of Pokrovsk in DonNTU // Donetsk National Technical University. – April 13, 2017 [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: http://donntu.edu.ua/studentu/oficijne-vidkrittya-molodizhnogo-xabu-pokrovska-v-donntu.html.

[10] Institute of Economics and Management, Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian National University (SNU) // Official Facebook Page. – Posts as of March 30, April 21, May 5, 2017 [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: https://www.facebook.com/pg/IEU.SNU.EDU.UA.

[11] O. Matskevych. DonNU in Vinnytsya completes the school of politics and starts training young civil servants / O. Matskevych // Vezha – 6 February 2017 р. [Electronic resource].  – Access mode: http://vezha.vn.ua/donnu-u-vinnytsi-zavershuye-shkolu-politykiv-ta-pochynaye-hotuvaty-molodyh-posadovtsiv/.

Internally Displaced Universities and the Prospects of Donbas Reintegration

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