Ukraine International Youth Policy

“Focus on the support of Ukrainian youth organizations!“ – Interview with Natalia Shevchuk

In an interview with, Natalia Shevchuk, chairperson of the National Youth Council of Ukraine (NYCU), talks about the situation of youth organizations in Ukraine, her message to political leaders in the EU and her personal hopes. The 26-year-old has been NYCU chairperson since December 12, 2021, and is currently interning together with NYCU board member Kateryna Davydkova at the German Federal Youth Council (Bundesjugendring) in Berlin. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Bundesjugendring can thus provide concrete support for cooperation between youth structures in Ukraine and Germany and support the NYCU in its national and international work. The interview was conducted on June 3, 2022, before Chancellor Olaf Scholz's trip to Ukraine. You came to Germany during the first weeks of the invasion. Was it a conscious decision to end up in Berlin?

Natalia Shevchuk: Actually the idea was to set up some kind of office in western Ukraine and try to move around Europe together with the secretary general to organize meetings. But the problem was that men are not allowed to leave the country, so he is still staying in Ukraine.

The Bundesjugendring team was successful to provide quick support for the NYCU team for continuation of further functioning. For other national youth councils it took more time to provide support or it is difficult to do for them as in many countries the youth field is not the top priority for the governments also due to the national security in war in Ukraine.

Are you in touch with your other colleagues from the NYCU?

Yes, we are in touch. For example for Katya [NYCU board member] I found out, that she is already in Germany. I didn’t know beforehand that she will move to Germany. As I understand there was fighting quite close to her place. She left the Kyiv region when fighting there began. Her parents tried to move her to Europe due to the personal security. They themselves didn’t want to move because of the grandparents.

Still many people are staying in Ukraine in different regions, llike Lviv, Zhytomer. One board member is in Warsaw. Many started to return to Kyiv as it is comparably more safe now than before.

Some member organizations of NYCU and NYCU team members have relatives in the army and their parents are living on the front line or occupied territories. They are focusing on local support (and not on the national level with NYCU).

I’m basically in touch with all of my colleagues.

It’s difficult to keep a war-life balance.

What about your family?

They are mostly from western Ukraine, so it’s quite secure. Even though we had some shootings on important strategical infrastructure, like airports and other army objects.

In general my parents are in a secure place. Still, I can feel that psychological health depends on how much TV and how much of the news they’re watching. For example for my mum it’s not so good. She has health problems (connected to post-covid) and because of the news of the war she couldn’t sleep during the night and just medical treatment helped. It’s quite a common problem now for many people, including youth. Even in western Ukraine because still air strike sirens sound. It’s difficult to keep a war-life balance.

You met with politicians both in Germany and in Brussels.

My main message was that it is important to keep bilateral cooperation and also to focus on the support of youth organizations. Because in Ukraine the government continues to push advisory consultancy bodies (so-called by the local youth councils) which are not legal entities and which basically depend on local government because they’re are established via signature of the mayor and decision of the city council. They’re quite dependent on what the mayor and the city council say and can serve as tool for manipulation by young people before elections.

Youth organizations are forgotten

What would your goal for youth organizations in Ukraine be?

To receive as many bilateral corporations as possible, meaning between one organization from an EU country and a Ukrainian organization. So Ukrainian organizations can see how European organizations are working.

And also it’s independent funding. Because right now Ukrainian youth policy doesn’t have any budget.

Mostly if we talk about youth policy and budgeting it can be big projects coming from USA and EU countries for example, or UNICEF or UNDP [United Nations Development Programme]; meaning developing agencies or UN structures, which are also developing agencies. And they have their own interests and priorities, which not always match the real needs of youth organizations and young people at the local level. 

Mostly their approach is to include youth perspective. And very often this youth perspective is like: Okay, we have a problem, we need to cooperate with the government. So, let’s create another program. Let’s hire a secretariat of people depending on the budget. But youth organizations are forgotten. They only remember about them when they need local partners. And to the local partners they don’t give so much financing.

In Ukraine, compared to Germany, we don’t get funding for the secretariat of youth organizations. Basically it comes to the question of the stability of youth organizations. Many organizations that are totally voluntary based, I’m afraid will not be able to survive after the war. That’s the biggest problem. Because young people left the country. Depending on how long the war will be, some of them might get married abroad and stay there due to family reasons. Some might get good employment opportunities or good proposals for universities.

What is necessary to help and support young civil society in Ukraine? What can the Bundesjugendring and its member organizations do?

I would say that first of all it’s important to understand that Ukraine is a different country than European Countries with old democracies. Meaning basically those who have been in the EU for a long time.

In our country a lot of money was invested into civil society, especially in the east of Ukraine. It should be kept in mind that Ukrainian cities were under the process of decentralization. This process didn’t finish as it should be finished. It’s now under threat because of martial law and army administration.

This generation will remember that Russia is a threat

It also should be kept in mind that a lot of organizations right now are focusing on psychological support, work with internal displaced people and general volunteering for the support of the army. This might be the biggest priority for the next years, even if the war will stop; this generation will remember that yes, Russia is a threat. We cannot have dialogue right now. Any reconciliation cannot be kept in mind.

I know that Germany, due to its history especially in WWII, has a huge focus on reconciliation. But it’s not possible to have that as a priority right now and to have any kind of dialogue with Russia. This should be taken into consideration while defining the priorities for bilateral cooperation.

In Germany exist a lot of development agencies like GIZ and also other structures that support Ukraine. It’s probably good to keep in touch with them and tell them: Please keep also in touch with youth organizations in Ukraine. Cooperation with government is important and needed. But organizations have a different reality and different needs.

The biggest supports are financing, bilateral support and mentoring. By mentoring I mean there are many quite young organizations in Ukraine and they need practical capacity building assistance. By that I mean like how structures work in Germany for example. We are learning at Bundesjugendring how a youth secretariat works.

We like the coffee machine, it’s good!

You have an office now at the Bundesjugendring secretariat. Can you describe a typical day?

(Laughing) It’s difficult to describe! I share an office with my College Katya. In May always every day was in a hurry, filled with trips and meetings many different people and not based in the office.

Typically I promise to be on time in the morning. Then we discuss new information, requests and what consultations we need to take. Both for the NYCU and personal. Because I still need to do some legal and bureaucratic work for staying in Germany. Also, due to limited human resource we are forced to combine representative work of Board and administrative tasks.

We like the coffee machine, it’s good. We learned how to use it and our favorite part is actually to have a coffee before starting to do something in the office.

What is your number one priority right now?

We’re working on many different stuff. We’re closing our auditing report for NYCU. At the same time were having tasks to plan for advocacy.

I’m interested in the European integration question. There will be a vote on the candidate member status of Ukraine. With NYCU were trying to make a small info campaign and meet with other nationals youth councils to discuss if they can have some sort of appeal to their governments especially in the matter of skeptical states. For example Germany is one of the skeptical states that says no candidate status can be given to the Ukraine.

When it comes to the war, you have to understand that Russia is a threat for global security. It’s not just a war between Ukraine and Russia.

The prospect of a EU membership is a motivation for Ukrainians to move forward the European integration. It’s a motivation that actually the West supports us. For civil society organizations it’s also the willingness of the Western world to support reforms and the democratic society.

The candidate membership is also important for civic society

Candidate membership does not give any concrete promises or obligations to Ukraine. Will the West invest into Ukraine? Yes they will. Why? Because it’s a question of your security, not only ours. You will not fight on the front lines, our people are dying.

The candidate membership is a huge question for Ukraine. It’s also important for civic society. When we have this status it’s another thing to go to the government and say why you are not doing reforms. Otherwise reforms will be stopped. We don’t have a normal working constitutional justice system.

For European societies it might be a surprise that some laws or legislation in Ukraine are adopted because of pushes from the Western world. But at the same time for us as civil society it’s also another way to influence our government. Because if the government doesn’t receive money from the West, we can say to them: You see, you’re doing it the wrong way!

Is there anything you want people in Gemany to know?

Take a look at what your politicians are doing. In countries with stable democratic systems it comes to the question, yes, people believe in stable institutions and the stable institutions should work well. On the other hand, when I meet with Germans and I ask them, why Olaf Scholz as a Kanzler or a Party are doing certain things, they say: Oh we don’t know. Even those people who are linked to the politics say, we don’t understand. That’s probably also how to interact with your government. What’s their priorities and do they really reflect what the society thinks?

In Ukrainian reality it’s done through protests, like all the Maidan protests. For some people it looks like, oh those Ukrainians they don’t control the government before the elections, and afterwards they just go and protest. But on the other hand it gives a government to be in shape that no matter what, Ukrainian people might protest and we will take it to the government even if they don’t like it. So it gives more space for participation as well.

Also for the EU in general, politicians like to use the phrasing “architecture of peace in Europe”. Like 75 years of peace in EU, so the EU is a great structure. But here already many thought that the EU needs reforms. So the question is, what potential changes Ukraine can also give to EU. Ukraine is not just a threat, because of non-stable economics or corruption. Take a look at other countries that became members. They don’t have big results, but the EU continues to invest in them. The question is what approaches are used to build democracies. Are all the tools good? And what channels of communication are used.

Lots of Ukrainians hope for victory

What do you hope for?

(Pauses.) Difficult question. Lots of Ukrainians hope for victory. Why victory? Because peace is not possible only on the conditions of the aggressor. Because that means that Europe and other states will invest in the rebuilding of Ukraine. And this will happen one more time. Because if you have a system that’s basically Sowjet 2.0, it’s difficult to say that one time there will be democracy. That’s why Ukrainians are saying we need victory, not only peace. Because this peace will be too short. And all the same will repeat and repeat.

So basically I hope for the stop of the war and that Russia will split into independent states, that will actually be ready to fight for human rights and democracy. In my very subjective point of view I believe that probably one of the biggest problems of the West was to invest only in Russia on a federal level. As a huge country that you can control – if you control one person, the president, it’s easy to control everyone.

Minority questions were a huge problem in Russia. And if big countries would invest concretely in small regions, and would show them how they actually can live, that they can make a difference that they can change and they can make school reforms and change their lives and so on, that would be easier.

Ukraine might become a strong and independent actor

The general hope is that most Ukrainian young people will come back and will be ready to rebuild the country. And that we will not see war again, not in our lives at least in the lives of our children and grandchildren for several generations. Ukraine as a country has lived in peace only for… – in my family for no generation. My grandmother took part in the Finish-Russian war. My mother was born after World War II but now she is seeing these times. I also see these times.

I don’t plan to have a family in nearest years. If I had a family now my kids would also see this.

That’s the biggest problem. How can you talk about peace when in Ukraine there is basically no generation that saw peaceful times – for the past two centuries. Even my great-grandparents saw World War I. And this gives huge trauma to next generations.

So the hope is that this will stop and also that the Western world will not be afraid of changing powers around the world. In Ukraine there are also some thoughts if Ukraine will be invested enough in by Western countries. It might become a quite strong and independent actor. And some countries are also afraid of that.

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