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Ukraine’s ‘New Elite’

Leonid Brezhnev would have smiled when President Viktor Yanukovych made public his list of “The New Elite of the Nation” on December 29, 2012.

The 60 lucky individuals who made the list of the “presidential reserve cadres” are overwhelmingly local apparatchiks: directors, secretaries, heads, and deputy heads of the many bureaucratic agencies that misrule Ukraine. There are also two businessmen, one doctor, and one professor, although just what they’re doing there is anybody’s guess.

Each of Ukraine’s 24 provinces is represented, as are the Crimea and Kyiv City. Interestingly, 25 members of the “new elite” hail from provinces that voted for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and 35 hail from provinces that voted for the opposition. The president obviously wants to signal his evenhandedness, but the more persuasive interpretation is that Yanukovych is telling the country that his Regionnaires are everywhere, even in opposition strongholds. Equally interesting is that 11 of the new elite are women and 49 are men. Nothing to crow about, you’ll say, but a bit of progress, considering the Yanukovych regime’s Neanderthal attitudes toward women. 

What’s most striking about the list is, of course, that it’s a list that was compiled by the country’s rulers. Hence my reference to Brezhnev: this is exactly what the former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have done in the bad ol’ days of the Evil Empire. Yanukovych, clearly, can’t quite break the hold Soviet habits still have on his thinking and, needless to say, policies.

Now, everyone knows that the best and, really, only way to produce a truly effective elite is the exact opposite of what the Ukrainian president has done. You don’t trawl among the bureaucrats for the best and the brightest a nation has to offer. Instead, you create educational opportunities that enable everybody to develop their talents and rise to the top.

So it’s “no accident,” as the comrades used to say, that Dmitri Tabachnik, Ukraine’s notoriously Ukrainophobic minister of education, science, youth and sports, should be doing everything he can to prevent the emergence of just such a contemporary, critically-minded, and competent elite. Heck, what you want in Yanukostan is bureaucratic da-men and da-women, folks who’ll do whatever the sultan tells ’em to do. The very last thing you need is smarts and initiative. Them things could rock the boat and make it capsize.

Mister Tabachnik wants to reduce university autonomy to zero and forbid students to change their majors. Both moves make great sense in a Soviet society that fears independent thinking and needs what dissident Valentyn Moroz called “cogs.” Tabachnik calls this “educational reform.” After all, he’s the product of just such a system and what the hell’s wrong with that, huh?

Fortunately, there are alternative proposals for reform on the table—let’s just say they’d make the continued replication of Tabachniks less likely—and society is pushing back, a bit. A petition to stop Tabachnik’s vision of the “new elite” is currently making the rounds. The good news is that it’s getting a lot of support. The bad news is that, of the 25 original signatories, only five were from Ukraine. The others were mostly academics from North America and Western Europe. (Disclosure: I’m one of the signatories.)

Here’s the gist of the petition:

The Parliamentary Commission on Education in Ukraine will consider several proposals on educational reform … If the proposals of the newly reappointed minister of education and his supporters take shape, then bureaucracy would dictate what to teach, how to teach, what disciplines students should take, and what professional careers individual students should build.

If the conservative approach prevails, intellectual sovereignty would become null and void. Universities would be integrated into the politically biased and inefficient state bureaucratic system …

Mobility is exactly what makes today’s world media so rich, productive, and inspiring. In our time, the best journalists are often university-trained historians; the best writers may be former scholars of physics; and poets can be former medical doctors and engineers.

To impose a strict yoke on the university system, disallowing universities to run themselves and shape their own priorities and mobility system is to strangle the idea of higher education and to plunge Ukraine into backwardness …

This is precisely what is at stake—the independence of Ukraine on an intellectual level. This is exactly what the opponents of pro-European reform are trying to suppress. Intellectual independence and mobility is what scares them most …

It should be crystal-clear that it is up to the individual to decide which school to attend, what area of study to follow, and how to apply one’s intellectual capacities. It is up to a university to decide how to structure undergraduate and graduate education. Even the best-educated authority cannot be a specialist in all the branches of knowledge. Therefore, it is the university as a sovereign intellectual institution that should make decisions about its development.

This is what reform is all about—and this is what we support. The independence of Ukraine begins with an independent mind and with intellectual mobility. Only the sovereignty of universities can make true Ukrainian independence happen because it is the independence of the mind that can set the individual free.

Go ahead and sign the petition. Stop the Cog-in-Chief and his Minister of Cogs from creating more cogs.

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