THE BLOG

A New Ukraine?

07/07/2015 09:29 BST | Updated 03/07/2016 10:59 BST

After the eruption of a street revolution in late 2013 that saw civilians dodging Molotov cocktails, burning barricades and government snipers, it might be a surprise to learn that young Ukrainians feel surprisingly optimistic about the future of their country. And in the last 18 months or so, life has changed a great deal in Ukraine.

The British Council published a survey this week about the hopes, fears and future aspirations of 1,200 16-35 year-olds across Ukraine. The survey explored attitudes to education, democracy and dictatorship; protest and activism; and culture and studying English. The results show that young Ukrainians are open, tolerant, outward-looking, and wish to engage internationally in spite of the challenges and problems that their country currently faces.

While the survey revealed a strong belief in the value of protest - 80% felt that citizens have the right to express their views through protest and demonstrations - 66% felt that Ukraine does not need a parliament, but rather a 'strong leader', a finding which may reflect a widespread desire among the younger generation to see the past two decades' legacy of entrenched official corruption, stifling bureaucracy and inadequate social investment turned around.

Ukraine - the largest country in geographical terms wholly within Europe - is frequently represented as a nation divided in terms of religious faith, language and cultural customs. Yet 69% of respondents viewed bilingualism (Ukrainian and Russian) as a positive factor in Ukraine's development. This counters over-simplistic discussion in the media, on all sides, about a "conflict of languages".

Ukraine has a well-educated workforce, and clear drive and ambition amongst its young people. Over half of young people in Kyiv and the west of Ukraine are optimistic about the future of their country. The survey also showed a strong interest amongst young Ukrainians in UK culture, such as cinema and music, and the UK was voted the number one place to study abroad, ahead of the US and Germany.

The young people surveyed for 'Hopes, Fears and Dreams: The views of Ukraine's next generation' will provide the engine for Ukraine's future prosperity and stability, and will determine the country's democratic direction. Their views and opinions matter. Indeed, given the numbers of younger political and civil society figures who are now playing an active role in the country's development, the 'next generation' is increasingly the 'now generation'.

At the same time there is a lack of some of the technical skills and capacity needed in order to achieve reform and change, both in the public and private sectors, whether for improving public service provision, tackling corruption or growing business and the country's economic output.

The people of Ukraine have made a decision over the last two years that their future lies with Europe and the West, rather than with Russia's claimed sphere of influence. After the Revolution of Dignity, the government fell in early 2014. This led to the contested annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the start of fighting by separatists in the East. Even though there's now a truce in force, there are still skirmishes going on with soldiers dying every week.

Society has gone through massive trauma with great hardships at family and individual levels. As a newly-arrived foreigner working for the British Council in Kyiv, I often need to remind myself of this.

Kyiv is a lovely city. You don't feel like you're in a war zone but you do feel in a different country ... a different Ukraine from the past (which I experienced in 1995-2001during an earlier assignment). Superficially, for example, I've never seen so many coffee shops and coffee vans on the street!

But then I think that's symbolic of a more relaxed and open society which feels itself part of Europe. What you also notice is a much greater sense of national identity - you'll see many people wearing t-shirts with the national flag or a 'vyshyvanka', the traditional embroidered shirt. Ironically, young Ukrainians are more positive about their future than ever before, because they're more determined to create it for themselves, and the old cliché of unsmiling, ex-Soviet dourness has gone.

Ukraine, Russia and the wider region are important for both the UK and the world, and are at a crossroads. As well as macro-economic and international political support, the future success and stability of Ukraine also depend on strengthening its civil society, reforming its education system, expanding the use of English and supporting the growth of modern skills needed for the economy - all areas the British Council is working in.

There is a real opportunity for the UK to invest in, support and develop closer international partnerships with this wonderful country.