When I first started working on dialogue in Ukraine, I sat down with two think-tankers from Kyiv. It was back in 2014, when the war in the East was fresh and European media was reporting on it on the daily. They walked me through the many conflicts they saw in their country, from corruption to a Soviet heritage of authoritarian rule; we drank tea and chatted for about an hour. I explained to them that my interest, and that of my colleagues’, was in dialogue and mediation: “we want to learn who’s doing dialogue and what they’re learning from it.” They looked at me cross and made it clear that “no one is doing dialogue in Ukraine”. We paid the bill and carried on with our day.
Today, that view is still present across the country. Be it because there’s a lack of knowledge about what dialogue is, or because dialogue is not doing a great job of reaching out, most Ukrainians are unaware of dialogue initiatives or how those could help bring peace and stability to their country. I think it’s time to revert this situation.
While it might seem isolated, disconnected, and unheard, dialogue in Ukraine is arguably at the peak of its potential. Mediators, facilitators, and social workers are using it daily to build more trusting communities and to help resolve spurs of conflict. In our work, we have found examples of dialogue work in all the regions of Ukraine; stronger or weaker, public or confidential, professional or amateur, dialogue is there.
For the last three years, at mediatEUr we have been hard at work to learn as much as possible about dialogue in Ukraine. We’ve worked with colleagues from all over the country because we wanted to challenge the all too common idea that Ukraine’s conflicts are all about people being “pro-Russian” and “pro-Ukrainian”. In a country twice the size of Germany, we wanted to turn our ears to local communities to find out what were the issues affecting them – we didn’t buy the argument that there’s “no dialogue in Ukraine”.
That’s why in 2015 we launched the Dialogue Support Platform project with a set of questions: who’s doing dialogue in Ukraine? What are the issues they work on? How can we help overcome challenges for dialogue practice? Two years later, we reflect on what we’ve learned.
1. DON’T STOP AT BETTER DIALOGUES; MAKE DIALOGUE BETTER AS A WHOLE
Most of Ukraine’s dialogue initiatives are motivated by a wish to build cohesion and sustainable peace in the country. They work with Nonviolent Communication, Technology of Participation, Theatre of the Oppressed, and myriad other techniques. Their experience varies, too: where some have been working in mediation and dialogue for over 15 years, newcomers are adopting dialogue terminology to strengthen work that sometimes lies closer to social activism.
Navigating through that diversity can be overwhelming. I’ve seen donors struggle to keep up with facilitators and trying to filter initiatives based on the work that they do. My own colleagues and I spent a whole year building a network of facilitators; by the end of the year we had even less clarity on the number of dialogues going on – it just kept growing. There’s a few networks of facilitators and mediators who offer professional support to their members, and there’s the OSCE PCU and the UNDP organising regular meetups and conferences. Most of these efforts promote better practice, better dialogues: from local organisations to internationals, they focus on exchanging lessons, often through different trainings or workshops. They make existing dialogues better, and help new initiatives adapt to a practice that’s always growing.
To reach greater heights, however, we as dialogue practitioners need to make dialogue better, as a whole. That means making it targeted, strategic, and with a clear contribution not just to its participants, but to the whole country.
To make dialogue better:
- Build a core group of facilitators and mediators to continue developing central principles and practices of dialogue in Ukraine, aimed towards a general strategy for dialogue for peace.
- Establish an expanded group of peacebuilding actors and “newcomers”, where senior and junior facilitators can exchange practices and continue strengthening their work.
- Build a map of key needs for dialogue facilitation and address key needs for dialogue facilitation and promotion.
- Develop a common system for monitoring and reporting on dialogue and peacebuilding that can help streamline the collection of conflict issues, dialogue needs, and peacebuilding opportunities
2. PUT DIALOGUE IN ACTION – A COMMON ACTION
Building better dialogue also means putting dialogue to action. While dialogue alone is a valuable experience for its participants, I’m convinced it must reach out and talk to those who don’t want to listen to it – that’s where our challenge lies. It doesn’t mean imposing dialogue, but it does mean giving it more visibility, and putting its contribution into words and even numbers that can be turned into action points.
I know this is a suggestion that does not gel well with the tradition of dialogue as a long-term, low-intensity undertaking. But if dialogue is to make an impact, practitioners must come together and devise a mechanism for short and medium-term indicators. For the last three years, our suggestion at mediatEUr has been to capture the outcomes of dialogues (minimal as they might be in their early stages) in dynamic maps that can be transferred to decision-makers as quick-reporting devises. These maps allow anyone to see what’s happening where and how different conflicts are related.
What about the war?
A priority made clear to us by most donors is to develop work on “the East”, the areas affected by the war. They’ve expressed their wish to introduce dialogue across the “contact line” and connect people living in controlled and uncontrolled territories. That’s why many of them have centred a good chunk of their programming around the area and headquartered in Kramatorsk.
The work around the contact line is essential, but our advice when it comes to dialogue in the area has always been the same: make sure you don’t neglect the rest of the country by “going East”. It’s a message we have heard from our network of Ukrainian facilitators, who are concerned putting too much effort on the East will create a regional imbalance and defeat the purpose of integrated dialogue.
If internationals want to look to the East, we must do so within a strategy to promote dialogue as a tool for conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the whole of Ukraine (and looking at Crimea, as well), with sustainable dialogues implemented in all regions of the country. Put dialogue in action, but a common one.
For a common dialogue action:
- Appoint a group of experienced dialogue facilitators to work on the development of a plan for the introduction of dialogue across the contact line within a national strategy for community dialogues.
- Appoint a group of local personalities with a reputation of impartiality and access to policy-making processes to champion the outcomes of dialogue.
- Promote new dialogues for peace throughout Ukraine, developing a common programme that can be adapted to different local realities.
- Bring the different dialogue communities together in regular, regional dialogues for peace, an opportunity to engage with local authorities.
- Use existing networks and groups (such as IDP-host communities working on social animation and infrastructural reconstruction) to introduce dialogue in areas where it is not present.
- Use a common reporting system to capture recurring issues and trends, with the help of local political think tanks.
- Collect all issues arising from the dialogues and bring them forward into political discussions.
3. BUILD BRIDGES BETWEEN POLITICIANS, AUTHORITIES, AND LOCAL COMMUNITIES
“Politicians don’t listen; they come to our meetings, give their speech, and leave”.
Okay, I made that one quote up, but I’ve heard many like it in all the dialogue meetings I’ve been to in Ukraine – so have my colleagues and anyone who’s worked on dialogue in the country. The lack of a culture of dialogue, and the prevalence of a culture of debate, is something that challenges Ukrainians at all levels. My colleagues at the Dialogue Support Platform and I have suffered that disdain towards dialogue first hand when trying to engage local authorities in some of our meetings. It’s precisely that gap that we must address; bridging it will prove key to taking dialogue from a self-contained practice to one that can inform good policy.
Engaging authorities and politicians is a titanic task in any field, but it’s particularly difficult for dialogue and “dialoguers”. One, because dialogue is generally a long-term task that requires careful listening and lots of time; two, because dialogue often requires listening to people you strongly disagree with (and with whom you don’t want to be seen).
Once again, it’s up to practitioners to come together and devise a mechanism to motivate authorities to engage in citizen dialogues. Here’s what I’d suggest:
- Transform dialogue into actionable points and measurable indicators, using quick reporting systems.
- Establish an advisory group of political analysts and influencers with access to policy-making processes.
- Provide regular, concise reports from local dialogue work to the advisory group to build a continuous stream of information.
- Encourage the advisory group to provide analytical commentary to those reports and carry the message higher up the ladder.
- Support the advisory group in connecting with political figures, so they may bring forward the reports from the dialogue communities.
So, what’s next?
Since 2014 our message has been clear: keeping dialogue in isolation is depriving Ukrainians of a key tool towards social cohesion. We are convinced that dialogue has much to contribute yet to peace and stability in Ukraine, but we are also conscious of the need for international actors to become more strategic and begin drawing a joint vision of dialogue in the country.
Many people (Ukrainian and international) are doing dialogue in Ukraine; it’s time to do it together.