The Platform Ukraine Conference took place between 6th and 7th June and was appropriately held at UCL’s School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies (SSEES), where the project is based. The conference was a culmination of continuous multidisciplinary academic research on post-socialist Ukraine, with a special focus on the crisis that began in 2014. There were a number of speakers presenting their papers from a number of institutions in various countries.
The first panel’s theme was ‘Political Decision Making in Ukraine’ and there was much debate on oligarchs and how much political power they possess. The first speaker Heiko Plenies (University of Bremen) argued that oligarchs do not instigate change but instead act as a catalyst for success, such as during the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan. Moreover, Irina Solonenko (European University Viadrina, Franfurt/Oder) suggested that oligarchs have become more important as public actors in politics just before the Orange Revolution. The power that the oligarchs possess likely comes from their economic wealth and not from politics in spite of many of them seeking formal positions of political power, whether it is in the Rada (parliament) or the government. Peter Duncan (UCL SSEES) chaired the panel and concluded that Ukraine becomes more authoritarian and less democratic when oligarchs have more power, particularly with current president Petro Poroshenko, a former oligarch who is reluctant to give up his business empire and appointed Georgian ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa Oblast.
One of the following panels was centred around ‘War’, focusing on the conflict in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. The first speaker, historian Christopher Gilley (University of Hamburg) spoke about how each of the opposing sides in the conflict have taken inspiration from historical fighters, such as the opposing groups of Cossacks in the Civil War. Another speaker Artem Remizov (LUISS Guido Carli University Rome) focused on foreign fighters coming to the Donbass region to fight and their reasons for fighting, particularly concerning ideology. These ideological reasons may concern opposition to the West, NATO and the so-called ‘fascist junta’ regime in Kiev, may motivate those supporting ‘Novorossiya’. Meanwhile, opposition to the European Union and Communism may motivate those supporting the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ (ATO). Nonetheless, the chair of the panel Peter Duncan argued that despite participation in the war in some capacity, most Ukrainians ultimately have a passive role in politics.
In the closing discussion, Richard Sakwa (University of Kent) remarked that the first step to resolving the issue of the conflict in Ukraine is to open a dialogue between the actors of the conflict, but also to acknowledge that Ukraine cannot return to the status quo before 2014. He even suggested that as part of the solution, Ukraine should become a bilingual state with both Russian and Ukrainian as the two state languages on equal footing, acknowledging the reality of the language issue with the population roughly divided by the two languages.
Overall, the wide variety of speakers with each of their specialisms gave differing perspectives on the current situation in Ukraine. Whilst there was much debate on the legitimacy of the methodology of some of academics, the presentations raised questions and provoked debate on issues in Ukraine and indeed even on perspectives of Ukraine from other countries.