Alisa Kolesnikova – Ukraine
Helping reinvent her homeland
Odessa, Ukraine is “the best city in the world,” according to Alisa Kolesnikova, citing the beaches along the coastline of the Black sea, the mild climate, museums, parks, gardens, the elegant architecture that once attracted Eastern Europe’s royalty, and the rich history. Proud to be Ukrainian, her family spoke Russian like most citizens of Odessa, but two months after Alisa’s birth in 1991, the USSR officially ceased to exist.
In a post-Soviet limbo, Ukraine experienced both recession and inflation, and in 1994, its government signed what Alisa would analyze so thoroughly later in college as the major basis of Ukraine’s foreign policy: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Russia, the US, and the UK recognized Ukraine, which agreed to abandon Soviet-era nuclear arsenals to the new Russian Federation. Russia formally agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, refrain from the threat or use of force against them, and to refrain from using economic pressure to influence politics. Alisa says that the national Ukrainian mindset saw Russians as “brothers,” practically part of the same nation. Besides, she adds, ordinary people believed they had no means of changing anything.
Alisa learned to speak Ukrainian in her early school years, but she became aware of how hard her parents worked from early morning to late evening to provide a better future for their daughter. “Eventually I realized that the only way to make their lives easier,” she says, “was to study well and become a decision- and opinion-maker in my country.” In the absence of robust democratic leadership, oligarchs were exploiting Ukraine’s resources and corrupting government officials.
Alisa and her family relocated to Kyiv, and in 2007, she began a series of classes in international summer schools, her first in Bristol, England. Over subsequent summers, she would travel to Warsaw, Poland; Baku, Azerbaijan; Budapest, Hungary; and several cities in Georgia, earning achievement awards in such classes as “Black Sea Young Diplomats” and “Diplomatic and Consular Relations.”
In 2008, she entered the Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University. In addition to her studies, she was named Head of Communications at the Student Board of the Institute of International Relations at the university. She also volunteered twenty hours a week, continuing for three years at Center “Miro-Priyatiye” for international youth, specializing in project management.
Ukraine’s president caved to Russian pressure in 2010, extending the lease of the Russian navy base at Sebastopol in Crimea, fatally allowing the presence of 25,000 troops on Ukrainian soil. Alisa believed this to be a violation of the Budapest Memorandum. An activist, she joined the Youth Diplomatic Initiative and was chosen to be director of communications. A year later, Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice awarded her a Certificate of Accomplishment in the course, “Basic skills in Mediation/Management of conflicts.”
In early summer of 2013, she volunteered for two months as a translator for the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at an Air Squadron Festival. Then in September, she served as an intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs doing analytics and translation fifty hours per week. By November of that same year, she was defending her master theses in diplomacy and international relations when the world watched as protests broke out. “Almost overnight the international policies we had studied in college had become obsolete.”
Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity changed everything, starting with the idea that ordinary people can decide they don’t have to tolerate a president designated by Transparency International as the top example of corruption in the world. Russia, which “used to be or pretended to be our most important friend,” as Alisa puts it, completely abandoned the Budapest Memorandum and launched an ongoing invasion of Ukraine on two fronts.
“We emerged in a new country that needed new policies and values, and we needed to learn very fast because the nation’s very existence and sovereignty were at stake.”
The following April, Alisa went to work for a think tank NGO, Maidan of Foreign Affairs, as a project manager, where she still works, developing vital new policies and strategies. “Ukrainian civil society and politicians must first learn the best examples of successful conflict transformations and nation-building and then develop the uniquely Ukrainian national model.”
A year later through the Youth Diplomatic Initiative, Alisa organized the Future Diplomat Institute (FDI) for young people in international relations to study and implement those primarily Western international values and practices proven to be effective. FDI offers trainings and seminars with foreign diplomats, representatives of the OSCE, NATO, and Council of Europe, as well as with successful NGOs that work in the area of international policy, human rights, legal reform, and more. They assist FDI graduates in finding internship placements with the relevant organizations. Alisa volunteers her work and the program is free for the participants. “And it shows every sign of being sustainable.” The most vital aspect of her role was inspiring young people, experiencing a sense of accomplishing the impossible, and “contributing to the cause that is truly existential for the country right now.”
Ukraine has lost territory to Russia, which caused the displacement of almost 1.5 million people and over 10,000 war casualties, including innocent civilians. “We are a society in transition and in conflict in all planes,” says Alisa, “militarily with Russia, old Soviet mentality against the new, and corruption versus transparency.” She understands Ukraine’s crucial role as a buffer state between Russia and the West and hopes to assume “a leadership position in the field of Ukrainian foreign policy” to forge vital international alliances. “After all, without the support of the West, Ukraine would be doomed to remain a periphery of a backward empire….Ukraine has to do nothing less than re-think and re-invent itself as a nation, find our place and role in the international community, and ensure that being a Ukrainian transcends all other differences within the nation.”
Alisa is currently pursuing a PhD program in Political Science.