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The New Heroes Project: Ukrainians Fight for Rights

This article originally appeared in The Day Weekly Digest.

The story about the struggle of the Stara Zburivka community (Kherson oblast, Hola Prystan raion) against the local authorities has continued since 2007. That’s when the village community with its Village Head opposed plundering of the best plots of land, which, as was stated, the Raion Administration distributed to straw parties. Bold statement eventually led to the situation when there was a criminal case launched against the Head of the Village Council Viktor Maruniak and he was sent to prison. But the village community did not stand aside. They created the Self-Defence Committee of Stara Zburivka and supported legally elected Head of the Village Council. Soon under the pressure of the community the precaution measure for Maruniak was changed and he was released from custody. He then returned to the office and later was elected the Head of the Village Council for the second time. The remarkable fact is that at the elections he got the impressive 92 percent of votes. It seems that only Vladimir Putin got more votes in Chechnya. The only difference is that in case with Maruniak there is no suspicion of fraud. However, it is still uncertain whether the story of how concerned citizens of Stara Zburivka awoke for action will have a happy end. The struggle for returning the land is going on. Center of Legal Information and Advice was opened in the village. It helps farmers and provides legal assistance to another 12 surrounding villages.

This true story from life of Ukrainian self-government became the plot of a documentary short film, which together with films about the village of Zakotne (Novy Pskovsk, Luhansk oblast) and city of Pavlohrad (Dnipropetrovsk oblast) was brought together in the project “New Heroes.” The short films were produced with the assistance of the International Renaissance Foundation in cooperation with the Open Society Legal Initiative (Budapest). Short films were shot by a young film director from Kherson oblast Roman Bondarchuk, who, despite the young age, already has a number of awards from International Festivals (GoEast-2009, Germany; Kinoshok, Russia; Cinema.doc-2008, Russia).

In preamble to the project “New Heroes” its initiators aptly observe: “Twenty years of independence radically changed the face of the capital and major cities in Ukraine creating a facade look of the country with expensive cars, hotels, and restaurants. Instead the life of Ukrainian people in villages, small and big towns has had little change.”

The “New Heroes” project is basically about how people fight for their rights at the local level and win back to themselves and to the community the nearly forgotten sense of dignity. They are an alive and already documented evidence of how feeble are the regional stereotypes that exist in the Ukrainian society and the mass media which cause a painful feeling: how little we know about our own country. If to look at the project from a more global perspective you would see that each of the three short films present a story about how a post-Soviet country with multiple damages, even though it has European roots and the corresponding genetic memory, comes back to its own life not through large-scale and often empty statements of the officials but at the micro level of individual citizens awareness. This process of coming back to life is taking place in many ways: through fighting for one’s own land, through defending one’s rights, and through attempts to eliminate the parasitic formations on the body of a post-Soviet country. Fighting the System at the local level is, as a rule, especially difficult and “bloody,” and duels with Housing Office, Oblast State Administration, or with intermediaries between farmers and dairy plants become literally a Greek tragedy. However, there is still one more important nuance. Ukraine has been experiencing all that not for the first time. The subject of self-governing is not new for us but rather a well forgotten old one. This is the common point of view of both of our today’s interviewees – Viktor Maruniak, Head of the Stara Zburivka Village Council and Volodymyr Boiko, historian from Chernihiv.


How did the story that became the basis of a short film begin?

“I am a history teacher by profession, taught history in a village school and in 2006 I decided to participate in local elections. With the support of the community I won.

“Of course, the first three weeks on the new post I practically stayed day and night in my office studying law, budget, and documents. Already at that time I concluded for myself that in the view of the rules that had been determined the state should have long ceased to exist. So I set the priorities in addressing the problems (Stara Zburivka is just one big problem) and began solving them. It all started to work out for me.

“About a year later problems began. The thing is that many plots of land outside the village belonged not to the Village Administration but to the Raion State Administration. It could ‘allocate’ land to someone and we would know nothing about it. So by chance I came upon a document, which stated that 28 people got a hectare of land each outside the village. I began searching for more details, demanded explanations, protested, and made a motion to the court. At first, I was threatened and then an order was given to the Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (OCD) to make me a bribe-taker. The hunt began. For about seven months they had nothing. But then when the Village Council received 10,000 hryvnias of charity assistance in presence of witnesses it was qualified as bribery and I was brought to jail.

“While being in jail I talked with other village heads who faced the same situation. I got the impression that the scenario of ‘how to make a village head a bribe-taker’ is worked out well. As a rule, Saturday noon is chosen for an attack and then over the weekend they break the person over. If that’s the case it is too late to rescue the ‘bribe-taker’ on Monday because by that time he is ready to sign everything he’ll be asked to. Such practice exists even today.

“I have been recently elected the Head of the Village Council for the second time, I got 92 percent of votes and now continue to work. From time to time court hearings take place but victims do not attend them. The court hearings have long been turned into some sort of a comedy.”

When did you decide to resist and who did you count on?

“I realized that even with my team (there are 15 people in it) I won’t be able to do anything. I needed the support of the community. I invited people to come to a big public meeting of the community and many people came. I explained the situation to them and asked about what we had to do next. I told them that if they decided that it was the way life was, that they lived in such country, and would give up on it the way our neighbors did, I would accept it. But if they elected me to defend their interests I was ready to fight. Everybody voted for the second option. I could not say no because I had the full support of people from my village.

“Plundering of land occurred on the territory of three village councils. We had 28 hectares taken from us, which we later won back, and the other villages lost almost 100 hectares. Now a criminal case has been launched against those plunderers: land management body chief is in jail, and the chief of the OCD, who got paid so that I would be arrested, was caught taking a real bribe. However, I am the only witness in their case. Therefore, the violations took place on the territory of three village councils but there is only one witness – me!”

This means that there is civil society in Stara Zburivka.

“We managed to do it because the village is special in a way. In Soviet times there was no collective farm here. There is a river and forest, but no agricultural land here. This means a lot and in this situation people have formed a totally different mentality.

“After that victory we managed to do many other things. There were people who wanted to take the Zburivsky Gulf, where the village is located, for 49 years but we turned them away. A month later they said that people in Zburivka wrecked their plans and that they would never come here again. But now we are fighting for the kindergarten. We built it and for three years it just stood there with no electricity. Again we had to face the red tape. Only in January of this year electricity was installed there. The same day the district administration came and said that the governor and TV crew would be there the next day and that there would be a grand opening ceremony. I said to them: ‘Come on! It’s winter time. We only had electricity installed yesterday and still need to bring in all the equipment, get the staff, and form groups.’ Plus there was an issue with financing it. But a grand opening was promised to the governor and that was it. It had to be ticked off the list. As a result, we had an argument and they called the police. Raion State Administration printed 500 leaflets with their position regarding the kindergarten, that it should be opened and that the head of the village council is the one to drag this on. At 6 a.m. next day the leaflets were scattered around the village. In short, again there was opposition.”

In your opinion what should be done so that people all over Ukraine would become more decisive and would not be afraid to defend what belongs to them by right?

“It is all about our mentality. In fact, we are a sick nation. We have been told for a long time that we are the most sincere, the most hard-working, and that we sing the best. But in real life we no longer are the same. Someone should make a diagnosis: either the president or the politicians. But they do not need this because it would mean the electoral loss.

“We are chronic invalids and the diagnosis has not yet been made. There has to be a state program for re-educating the whole nation. But at the moment the position when everything ‘is none of my business’ is very common.”

Recently during the roundtable discussion organized by The Day historian Volodymyr Viatrovych expressed the opinion that Ukraine should become a country of communities. Do you think it is possible?

“In fact, it has always been a country of communities. While studying history and working with the archives, on the example of our village I can see that it was the way things were here since the 19th century. Then the Soviet government came which did not like the way it was because it made it uncomfortable to manage people. Today’s authorities are also not interested in having Ukraine as a country of communities.

“What are they afraid of? They are afraid of light shed and fuss made, when illegal actions will become known to the public. They want to steal quietly. They are afraid of pickets and rallies.

“There already is understanding in ‘the bottom’ but it is not yet a massive, overall understanding. The mentality should be changed by the local councils because they are the closest to people, they are in one ‘trench.’ But if an administrative reform will be implemented we’d have to give up this dream. Village Councils would have not only to take care of their villages but also of those located at a distance of 50 to 70 kilometers. Besides, big villages get all the funding and there is nothing left for little ones.

“We are now working on a brochure with a specific algorithm of actions: what needs to be done so that community would become more conscious.”

Inerviewed by Nelia VAVERCHAK

April 6, 2012 | Namati