Ukrainian Visitors Find Beauty In East Texas

TEXAS, USA -- In a country that is questioning its election process, worrying about the quality of its schools and often complaining about the intentions of its public servants, a group of Ukrainian visitors found beauty.

They found beauty in electronic voting, in elected officials committed to serving the public and in schools that offer opportunities to meet the needs of students — with different levels of classes, electives and career training.

They also found beauty in the wilds of East Texas — Caddo Lake, to be specific.

"We're also impressed by your nature," said Oleksandr Kochurin, speaking Thursday through an interpreter.

"We went to Caddo Lake ... and everything we saw there was so impressive."

Kochurin, a deputy mayor of the Mariupol City Council in Ukraine, and five other Ukrainian delegates were in Longview this past week as part of the Open World program, an exchange program administered by the Open World Leadership Center in Washington, D.C.

The program brings leaders from countries "of the post-Soviet" era to America.

The group specifically met with people this past week to learn about city management, lobbying, ethics requirements, schools and the judicial system.

Ukraine marked its 25th year of independence in August, but there has been unease and fighting in sections of the country since 2014.

That's when the country ousted its former president, whom many believed had interests that were too closely tied to Russia.

Russia has annexed a part of Ukraine, Crimea, and there has been fighting with pro-Russian separatists. 

"We have great difference between Ukraine and the U.S.A," election system, said Kateryna Minkina, whose work in Ukraine includes monitoring elections processes.

The delegation met this past week with Kathryn Nealy, Gregg County's elections administrator. 

"Ukraine is still using paper voting. You have an electronic system. It's so interesting and new for us," Minkina said.

"I think it's more useful and more positive practices we can use, we need to provide Ukraine ..."

She and other members of the group described a paper ballot system in which votes must be counted by hand, leaving open opportunities for mistakes and fraud.

Minkina also said different laws govern different levels or types of elections, which lead to "violations" during the election process.

"It takes so a long time, hours and days," to count ballots, said Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, advocacy and anti-corruption policy expert with Transparency International Ukraine.

The organization is working to reduce corruption in Ukraine while promoting transparency, accountability and integrity in public officials and society.

"The main goal of our delegation is find out how you are effective in fighting corruption" in different areas, Yurchyshyn said, explaining that another area they're interested in changing is in selection of judges.

After an initial five-year appointment, judges are appointed to serve for life from the national level, he said.

"Because we don't elect them locally, they appoint from Kiev to local level, they're not dependent on citizens. They feel themselves dependent of who appointed them," Yurchyshyn said.

It's a holdover from Ukraine's days in the Soviet Union, when government was centralized.

"Now we try to push decentralization," he said, adding it's begun in some areas but not in the judiciary or in prosecution.

The group's tour of Longview High School this past week showed what they hope will be the result of a law signed just this past week about education in Ukraine, Kochurin said.

"I was most impressed," he said, pointing to the opportunities students have to take classes in different electives and professions, such as welding and culinary arts.

Mandatory classes often are offered at varying levels.

Ukrainian classrooms lack modern equipment and individualized attention, he explained through an interpreter.

He said the school's athletic facilities were impressive as well.

"After what I've seen here, I have a better understanding of what the law wants to accomplish, and I hope we'll be able to implement it accordingly," Kochurin said.

Vadym Zhyhadlo, speaking through the interpreter, also noted that in the group's conversations with state and local elected officials, they found a general commitment to accountability to the people.

"Each of them kept emphasizing (that principal), and it sounded like it's the fundamental conviction of their's that they serve the people and they're accountable to the people," Zhyhadlo said.

He works for the Podilsk Agency of Regional Development.

Podilsk is a city in Ukraine.

The group members also said they were impressed with the open government laws they learned about and what seems to be a general acceptance of those practices.

Members expressed confidence they'll be able to help make changes in their country, based on what they learned on their trip.

Some reforms have been made in recent years, Yurchyshyn said, but they're not irreversible.

That's why it's important to continue working, he said.

"People must be changed in the political process and must be interested in some reforms. That's what we stand for," Minkina said.

Source: Longview News