Eppinger Shares Connection to Ukraine
As the political unrest in Ukraine continues to make international headlines, SLU LAW Assistant Professor Monica Eppinger has a special interest in the ongoing developments.
Eppinger lived in Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv, for a total of nearly four years over two separate periods and has made several other trips to the country for both diplomatic and research purposes.
Her first stint living in Ukraine was as a commissioned Foreign Service Officer for the United States diplomatic service at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and Eppinger was there between 1995 and 1997 during a period when the Ukrainian parliament was drafting its constitution. As part of her duties, she served as a liaison to the Ukrainian Parliament.
“My job was to make friends with the parliamentarians,” Eppinger said. “There were a lot of cold war suspicions. Part of it was to just be there and put a face to the former enemy…to alleviate suspicions and build goodwill.”
Eppinger said another point of befriending the parliamentarians was, upon their requests, to connect them with technical advisors if they ran into deeper questions while drafting the constitution.
“We worked in cooperation with our European allies so that they [Ukrainians] could hear different countries’ experiences,” she said. “It was just to have some idea when they were doing these fundamental restructuring projects the wealth of options that were working for other democracies so they could decide which routes they wanted to go.
“Our interest was trying to support their democratic aspirations in concrete steps that would be less reversible in case their neighbor ever had a change of heart.”
In addition to making friends in parliament, another major part of her job as a Foreign Service Officer was journalistic in nature. It was her responsibility to report back from Washington any new developments in the parliament.
The goal was to facilitate communication between policy-makers in Washington, D.C. and different sectors of Ukrainian society. “They [Ukrainian parliamentarians] knew who I was,” Eppinger said. “My identity was never a secret to anybody. They knew if they needed to get word to the U.S. government, what they said to me in an official capacity was going to be a message back to Washington.”
Eppinger’s second stint in Ukraine was academic in nature. Having been such a close observer of the drafting of the Ukrainian constitution, she returned between 2006 and 2007 to study the relationship between legal change and social change.
“I had been there before working on the policy side of things, and they took our advice on a range of fundamental post-Soviet reforms,” she said. “I went back as a scholar to find out what had happened. We had all these predictions that everything would be better, but I wanted to go back and see.”
One of the major findings of her study was that people can be active participants in a private economy and support a multi-party democracy without being individualistic.
“In America, we think freedom and individualism go together,” Eppinger said. “Socialism didn’t completely die in people’s hearts in the way they treat each other or behave. There is something that Ukrainians get that I don’t think we quite get as well about collective organization.”
Eppinger said Western advisers assumed that people wanted to own and manage their own property, and they felt poor because they didn’t own property. The standard policy model proposed that if Ukrainian law gave people rights to own their own property, they would be better caretakers of it than the state.
“Within two and-a-half years of the land being parceled out, a majority of recipients had abandoned their holdings,” Eppinger said. “When I asked people ‘Why did you leave?’ the summary finding was, they were lonely. They missed the collective, and they came to the city looking for some sense of a collective to be a part of.”
Throughout the protests this past winter, Eppinger said she has seen numerous examples of the Ukrainians’ ability to organize collectively and work in groups. Kyiv’s central square, known as the Maidan, turned into a mini city of sorts during the protests. Within the Maidan, the Ukrainians organized food and donation drop-offs, a soup kitchen and medical services.
“Americans are good at organizing things, but we have organizations like the Red Cross that would come in and tell volunteers what to do,” she said. “With Ukrainians, there is a sense of a collective and how to make a collective organism work - how to come up with divisions of labor with flows and circuits.”
A major turning point with the situation in Ukraine, according to Eppinger, was when president Viktor Yanukovych ordered the Ukrainian special police, called Berkut, to open fire on protesters, resulting in somewhere between 80 and 100 people being shot. Following the shootings Yanukovych fled the country and was eventually deposed by parliament.
“When he ordered use of lethal force against the demonstrators, I think that was his fatal mistake,” Eppinger said. “Once the shooting started and nobody knew where that was going to stop, his own party members started to defect.”
The outcry against Yanukovych and his role in firing on his own citizens, Eppinger said, is another example of this special sense of collective Ukrainians possess.
Ukrainians of different political leanings banded together. “The general reaction was, ‘We don’t know what Ukraine is. We don’t know if it is European, or something else. There are a lot of things we don’t know. But what we do know is that we don’t kill each other,’” she said.
With a cloud of unknowns hanging over the political future of Ukraine, Eppinger has heard from friends, before the invasion and Russian annexation of Crimea, that they were encouraged at a chance of a new start of sorts.
“It’s a very mixed sense. Some of it is starting from scratch. A lot of Ukrainians feel energized by that,” Eppinger said. “There is not a strong sense in the last five or 10 years that the system had been serving its citizens very well. They have a shot at trying to learn some lessons and restructuring at least the political governance. There is a thorough sense that they are done with corruption and want to have clean and transparent governance.”
Since the invasion and annexation of Crimea, however, the mood in Kyiv is serious. Russian troops are massed along Ukraine's eastern and southwestern borders and the future military intentions of the Russian government towards Ukraine are unclear. With the invasion of Crimea, Ukraine lost one-third of its southern coastline in the span of two weeks. Hope, however, is not lost. Ukrainians are optimistic their new government can stabilize the internal situation and win citizens' confidence in spite of catastrophe and further external threat.
"The situation remains unbelievably fluid," Eppinger said. "I need the tools of all of my academic training, in law and in anthropology, as well as my diplomatic experience, to make sense of what's evolving in Ukraine and what it means for Europe, for Ukrainians, and us."
Eppinger recently provided commentary to St. Louis Public Radio regarding the situation in Ukraine.