Despite the chaos engulfing the East of the country, Kiev today is calm. Circus performers and coffee sellers, not activists, occupy Maidan Square at the centre of the city.
The barricades and banners that in 2014 forced the pro-Kremlin government of Viktor Yanukovych from power have long been dismantled. The Maidan is no longer the centre of a revolution. However, a slower burning crisis persists.
Mounting public debts, a need for fundamental structural reform of an economy long starved of investment, and blatant corruption, are all putting mounting pressure on the government, all while it deals with a major war in the Donbass as its troops fight Russian-backed separatists.
Inna Sovsun is part of the government trying to fix these issues. In 2014, at 29 years old, she was the shock appointment of the first Yatsenyuk government, and became the youngest Ukrainian Minister in history.
This quiet, bespectacled former university lecturer could quite easily be mistaken for a PhD student rather than a government minister. She represents the epitome of the new class of educated, politically mobilised young people, who are looking west rather than east for their inspiration in the advent of the revolution.
“I have spent all afternoon signing papers” she says, “so do you mind if I carry on while we speak? Clearly, not everything in the modernisation was quite going to plan, as Inna was knee deep in government documents requiring her signature.
Inna had first become involved in the Ukrainian Revolution whilst a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “I didn’t do anything on the Maidan itself,” she claimed.
This was perhaps a little understated. Inna, swept up by the upheaval soon found herself running one of the hospital protection groups set up to assist injured protesters.
“People who were being wounded or hurt on the Maidan, during protests, they were taken to the hospitals. But then they were taken from the hospitals by the police, and taken in an unknown direction. These were sick people who needed hospital care. So there was a meeting at the university, and some of the students suggested that we try to help.
Inna was able to use her background organising activists, as well as the office resources at her disposal as a founder of the Centre for Society Research, a Kiev based think tank, to assist.
“The idea came at 8pm in the evening during this meeting and I went home at 8 in the morning.”
She soon had to coordinate between hundreds of activists working at ten different hospitals. “People were there on rotation and people always needed to be there. They had established contact with medical personnel, other activist groups responsible for human rights, lawyers, and all those kind of things. I was on the phone all the time for 20 hours a day sometimes.”
Inna ended up running the group for six weeks until the Yanukovych government fell in late February 2014. However, having been thrown spontaneously into helping to organise revolution, Inna found herself out of the frying pan and into the fire.
She was appointed first minister for education by her former rector now turned minister of education, Sergey Kvit, in March 2014.
“My first reaction was to say I that I didn’t have a single suit! I think that it was lucky I didn’t have much time to think about it. One day I had the suggestion and the next day I went to the ministry. If I had had more time I may even have even made a different choice.”
Having not even dreamed of even a deputy minister’s role, Inna had become responsible for the practical running of an entire government department.
“I was 29 at the time, so the first time I went to the government minister’s session I was looked around and realised that half of the ministers around me had kids of my age. It was a very different experience.”
She was keen to highlight the changes that had come with the new government.
“The first government in 2014, had most of its people from the older generation. People in the old government still found it difficult to believe that Yanukovych was gone and that things really had changed.”
With the new elections in October, the face of the Ukrainian government changed considerably. “The new government was much younger, and not a lot of minsters kept their jobs. Communication has considerably improved. The new ministers actually respond to text messages.”
In particular, what was striking about the new government had been the influx of younger people, in particular young women.
“In this government, there are two female ministers, compared to one in the previous government. But when you look at the first deputy ministers, half of them are women.”
However, Inna was cautious about suggesting that gender played a large role in reducing corruption. “I wouldn’t say the more female ministers results in less corruption, but that it is a sign that there is less corruption in the new government. It’s more of an effect than a cause. Big political corruption was indeed very male. But I think the influx of young women simply shows that the new people in government have not been brought in through participation through the old corruption networks.”
One key change she was keen to stress was at a basic level, how the new members of the government interacted with each other.
“There is simply a different culture in government, even at the basic level of how people are talking to each other. In Slavic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian, you would traditionally address your inferiors using the diminutive form of their names, as a sign of status. In this government, people don’t do this. They address each other on first name basis.”
However, corruption remains a key problem in the education sector. She highlighted in particular, the practice of top Ukrainian universities selling their degrees.
“Some of the top public universities are very entrepreneurial, and not in the good sense of the word. Some of the university rectors would open a private university with a very similar name to those of the more prestigious public ones. These would typically be registered to tiny private flats, with no pretence of a campus.”
Students would not actually do any work at these “universities”, merely being listed as studying on the public record.
“In their last year of studies they would then transfer to the public universities, and receive their legitimate diploma without really studying there. So many people simply bought these diplomas. The biggest problem isn’t even the cost of the corruption. It is the destruction of trust in the system of education.”
The education ministry has been very limited in its ability to shut these schemes down.
“People who are used to earning so much money though these schemes are suing the ministry. Even one of our own MPs, who ran one of these programmes, is suing us. And in a legal system that is not operating as it should, it is really difficult to win.”
Inna was also painfully aware of the high societal expectations that change would come. “If you don’t meet what is expected by the society, you are blamed for it, even if you are simply doing as much as is possible with the current system.”
In particular, she felt that the academic community was not fully committing to change. “People are expecting that they will get higher salaries, which is reasonable because at the moment, they are very low, too low. But on the other hand, it also means that the professional standards should be higher. Professors should work on their reputation, improve their qualifications, learn English and publish abroad. But people don’t expect to do the extra work.”
Indeed, a focus on rote learning, inherited from the Soviet Union was a major structural issue were holding back progress.
“Ukrainian higher education is currently very detached from research, so there is basically no research done in the universities and it obviously really affects the quality of teaching.”
University rectors have not been fully supportive of this move.
“We need to deregulate the system, to give freedom to the universities. But the problem is that when we give it to university rectors, they say I don’t want to decide what to teach, let the ministry decide that.”
Dealing with financial independence had also been a major issue.
“Of course they don’t want financial autonomy. They tell us, you decide what we have to teach, just give us the money. Academic communities are not ready to take on full responsibility for what is happening in their own universities. And this can’t be right.”
However, despite these issues, Inna was certainly not hopeless about the prospects for change.
“I don’t know when we will be out of government in a month or two years or whenever. My husband certainly wants to know! But in four years’ time, I want to make sure that no one will say this.”
Inna is facing an uphill struggle. But the fact that a young woman, who would not look out of place sifting through dusty tomes in the library, is able to play a major role in reforming the Ukraine’s long neglected education system, seems to be a sign that there has indeed been a change of culture in the government.
It remains to be seen whether more young Ukrainians will be able to successfully involve themselves in building the sort of internationally competitive education system that Inna envisions.