How is Ukraine strengthening its democracy in the face of foreign aggression?

In this second episode of the DemWorks podcast, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, the deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration in Ukraine, talks to NDI President Derek Mitchell about her decision to run for parliament in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution, confrontations with misogyny early in her career, and her fight to open up the Ukrainian military to female service members.

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Klympush-Tsintsadze is a political scientist and international relations specialist, holding undergraduate and masters’ degrees from Shevchenko National University, as well as studying briefly at Montana State and Harvard universities.

She first served in parliament in the wake of the EuroMaidan “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014, when massive street protests in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv led to the departure of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, and snap presidential and parliamentary elections.

Her personal story reads like a case study in Ukraine’s trajectory on women’s role in public life.

Derek Mitchell: It's great to see you again. We first met last November, as you may remember, during my first visit to Kyiv to observe a pre-election period—you had presidential elections this spring. As we tape this, we've just come out of NDI’s annual Madeleine Albright luncheon here in Washington, D.C., at which we celebrated women risk-takers around the world. You shared your compelling personal story about risk-taking. Can you share that story with our listeners?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: Well, maybe I'll share a little bit different story from the one that I've shared on the stage. I think that risk-taking, for many of us who have decided to go into politics after the Revolution of Dignity, was basically breaking ground to address the needs of the society and simultaneously reflect on the internal hesitation any of us who have come to politics from civil society or from business after the Revolution of Dignity. That is something that we had to go through, talking to yourselves first of all. Because I remember when I was offered a place in the party list to go and run for parliamentary elections back in 2014, that wasn't an easy take. It wasn't like: “Hurray, I'm going to run for a seat in the parliament.” It was like: “Can I actually deliver after the deaths of people have happened on Maidan, after Russia has already started its attack and aggression at Ukraine. And after, you know, considering this for actually literally a couple of days, talking to yourself, you make the decision that it’s time to take the responsibility, that you've probably matured enough to actually go and and try to take the responsibility. Not without fear. Not without question marks in your head: “How will it go?” But I think that all those who have decided to do that or most of those who have decided to do that in 2014 all have gone a very long way, and and can be both proud of a lot of things that we've achieved, but at the same time we actually have also a lot of lessons to be reflected upon and learned after these five years of serving in the parliament.

DM: And then in the governmental office, was it particularly difficult as a woman in that environment? Was the movement driven, and were there women leaders of the movement when you decided to step forward and say “I want to be a leader,” a parliamentary leader, was that difficult within the Ukrainian cultural context?

IKT: The difficulty probably runs much deeper. I remember myself being—I don't know what, 23, 24—when it was my first visit to NATO headquarters, along with a group of obviously men, because it was about defense and security matter. No young females were in analysis of the security and defense policies. And I remember, you know, after having a very hectic and difficult day, being exposed to a lot of information in NATO headquarters, we sat down together as a group. And I've been given plenty of different compliments, being told how great I look today and how impressively beautiful I am, but after that someone was saying “Okay, now men, guys, gentlemen: Let's go and talk business, and I had to persuade them that I actually had something to say, specifically on the business, specifically only issues that we've discussed and we've been exposed to. So I think that that was basically my first encounter of this difficulty, which I actually later on had to take as a regular challenge. I did not think that it could be different. And when I came to the parliament, actually at the beginning I thought okay. “We've all gone through this type of thing, and maybe we just have to work very hard in order to achieve something, and not necessarily provide for some additional instruments to ensure that women are much more empowered in Ukrainian society. And it took a learning curve, through the parliamentary work and exposure to experiences of other countries to understand that actually we can help other women to go through such experiences much smoother—not to have such experiences of having to be dealt with on the gender basis as opposed to professional basis. So therefore I think that that runs much much deeper and much further behind in time.

DM: Yeah, it was relatively later in life that you may have woken up to the challenges of the gender issue. I understand you were a political scientist, international relations specialist, and not so interested in gender or focused on gender issues much of your early career. Is that right? And was this experience then the thing that turned you? Is there anything else that may have caused you to really say: “I've got to focus on this specifically.”

IKT: That was already in the parliament. I've joined the Equal Opportunities Caucus, that has been operational already in previous convocations of the parliament. And it was interesting because, as you’ve learned the experiences of others, you've understood that maybe there is some horizontal problem to that, as opposed to your personal story that you had to fight your way through the male-dominated area of security and defence. And so therefore, when you're sharing your experiences, and when you are learning the experiences of other countries as well, then you finally get to the point that: “Oh, okay,” that this is a common problem that has much wider scope, and actually we have to address it together, and have this commonality in response to this.

DM: What do you think are the greatest remaining barriers in Ukrainian society to getting where you need to get on gender?

IKT: We've done plenty of institutional work. We've changed rules. We've changed procedures. We've opened up professions to women. We've opened up the security and defence sector to women. We have been achieving incredible results over these five years. But at the same time, I think that stereotypes and prejudices are still part of our societal canvas, so to speak. And some of the political parties, or some of the political figures are trying to play on those stereotypes and prejudices. Especially if you go further from the capital city, from big cities, and you go to the local and rural areas. It's interesting that only when women see the kind of role models that can be followed do they start to additionally kind of believe in themselves. At the same time, it's puzzling because Ukrainian history actually tells us—if you go three four centuries back—that women have actually played a pretty equal role with men before we have been conquered by Russian empire, and then have become part of the Soviet empire. So I'm assuming that we are just coming back to our roots right now in our culture. The culture and the stereotypes and prejudices we have right now have actually come to us through this imperial intrusion.

DM: We always talk about making progress towards modernity. In some sense, you have to go back to roots—

IKT: —and match it with modernity. Because we have been suffering on different levels from the dominant position of the Russian Federation, that it has been pushing on us over centuries. Right now, this movement for gender equality is coinciding with a movement in Ukraine for freedom, for the right to choose the path for the country, the right to aspire to become a part of the free nations family. And so for us, it's all together. It's about human rights. It's about personal rights. It's about country’s rights, nation’s rights. It's all together, streamlined in one as a very united effort.

DM: You mentioned in the luncheon that women make up 54% of the population. So if you leave out 54% of the population—

IKT: —exactly, you don’t build on their experiences. You don’t use their knowledge. Moreover, it’s not only that we have this big number of the population consisting of women. Out of women population in Ukraine, 65% have higher education. But that doesn't mean unfortunately that they are holding the highest positions in the offices and the businesses, in the public offices, in different fields. It has only been growing since the Revolution of Dignity. We finally have the first two women generals—which we are very proud of—in the security service and in law enforcement so far. Obviously, in the Armed Forces where they have not been given this possibility of real growth through different stages for a while, we would have to wait a couple of years until our women colonels and lieutenant colonels will be ready to actually hold the posts of general level. But I think that this is incredible, what is happening.

DM: Can I ask you about that? That is fascinating—the fact that the Armed Forces has opened up. That's usually the the hardest institution to crack open. How did you do that? How was that accepted in that culture, to allow women to be in the Armed Forces on a relatively equal basis?

IKT: Women have gone along with men as volunteers to fight for Ukraine, to defend Ukraine against Russian attack. But unfortunately, they were serving there and being registered as cooks, holding supposedly very safe positions. But at the same time, they were snipers, they were artillery machine operators. They actually held very serious military positions. So we understood that this is an existing problem. They are there in the Armed Forces. They just do not get the same recognition as male military colleagues. We had to fix it. We had to actually make sure that their reality corresponds to possibilities. The actual actions, the deeds performed by women have driven this need to fix it on the legislative and on the executive level.

DM: And as you suggest and people should know, you are under a real, serious, immediate threat from the outside. You don’t have the luxury of saying: “Well, we have to leave some people behind.” You need to defend your territory against an aggressor.

IKT: Yes, unfortunately the threat does not go away. Unfortunately, Russian intentions and strategic goals of undermining Ukraine and its desire to build its own fate are being all the time tested by the Russian Federation through military invasion, through disinformation campaigns, through cyberattacks, through trade and transit war that we are experiencing all the time. It means that the fronts for pushback against this attack are various, and therefore you have some women and men serving in the Armed Forces, but there are others that are taking courageous steps in the other areas in order to protect the country from the aggressive behavior of the Russian Federation.

DM: As you mentioned, there's the physical threat from armed force and then there's the gray areas of the hybrid threat, the disinformation, the cyber war that goes on. Can you comment about how you're seeing that done by the Russians? Be that how you're seeing it in your personal life, your professional life, your colleagues. How are the Russians going about this disinformation campaign? Since we always talk about Ukraine being on the front lines of this challenge, and because what Russia does in Ukraine doesn't stay in Ukraine, they end up trying in other countries, acting out a lot of different techniques and methods of hybrid attacks on the territory of Ukraine.

IKT: We do believe that we are already standing as a strong holder of the eastern flank of the community of free nations, like the North Atlantic alliance. We need another several-hour podcast to discuss all the techniques that they are using. But it goes from absolutely fake pictures that they would use, for example from some movie that they would show as if that has happened in Ukraine. Or they would take a picture from—let's say Syria—and would present it as something that is happening in the territory of Ukraine. So from very primitive techniques to very sophisticated techniques like running our Facebook accounts from the territory of the Russian Federation, pretending that those are Ukrainian Facebook accounts, and calling for dismissal of current authorities, or criticizing the actions that either the government or the parliament or the president is taking for example, and spurring this dissatisfaction. Also, we’ve looked at Russian narratives in Russian news media about Ukraine. Predominantly 90% are negative about Ukraine. There are three major narratives that they are producing: 1) that Ukraine is a failed state, 2) that Ukraine is an intolerant state, and 3) that Ukraine is a corrupt state. They’ll take whatever possibility of amplifying that message, on Ukrainian media but also international media. Meanwhile, whatever boring but—we believe—great news of some successes, some specific things that we have achieved in Ukraine are not necessarily making it to the headlines in any international media or Russian media.

DM: Yes, their strategy is to disrupt and divide, and one way they can divide is on gender. They try and use that as a way to divide society. Can you share how they do that?

IKT: Absolutely, but moreover Ukraine is not the end-target for the Russian Federation. It's to divide and disrupt also the free nations of the European Union, the United States of America and others.

DM: We are aware of that personally, yes.

IKT: Unfortunately. With regard to one of the surreal tactics that they are using to divide Ukrainian society: They are trying to polarize us on the issue of gender equality, following the push on so-called traditional family values—as if gender equality runs counter to family values.  We are countering that with the narrative of our own personal experiences, of the many, many women who are already in different public offices in Ukraine. Basically, our ability to equally take responsibilities with our partners, with our husbands, with our colleagues in the office is actually making our families much stronger, much healthier, and much more powerful, because they are based on partnership, they are based on support of each other, they are based on common, shared values. That's something that is lacking in this supposed fight for traditional values. In the Russian realm, traditional values are based on a book that was—if I'm not mistaken—produced in 17th or 16th century, the so-called Domostroy, a book that provided for a very specific place for women, not really taking the lead in any of the family matters, being obedient to their husbands. That's the only notion of traditional family values that Russia understands. Ukrainians are a bit different, but still we do have some part of society that’s conservative, and those prejudices are being explored by Russia, and are also being taken on by political forces. They're coming out with a cohesive and coordinated action plan of attacks on the achievements that we have already made up-to-date in terms of gender equality, so it's not going to be easy in the future. I recall probably two or three years ago Secretary Albright came to Ukraine and spoke about the need to persistently defend women's rights. She said that if you stop at some point, there is the possibility of a pushback. That's exactly what we see right now. We haven't stopped in Ukraine, but now that we’ve achieved something, we are receiving this pushback, itself backed by Russian Federation.

DM: What do you think about the resilience in Ukrainian society? What more needs to be done to push back against this threat in your view?

IKT: There is a resilience, and we can see this by the public opinion poll conducted by NDI. I think it's incredibly important to understand that more than 60% of the society believes that there is a need for more balanced representation of men and women, for example in public offices, and that it's both men and women who are receptive to this idea. The demand of the society is of a different nature than the one that we've discussed, these so-called traditional family values. I think for us it's very important to institutionalize all of our achievements, in order to ensure that it's a part of the law, that it's accompanied by an information campaign about why it matters and what it provides you with, and how this is beneficial for the whole society. I’d like for it to become a part of the usual, boring tradition. I think for that matter we need quotas, for that matter we need even temporary instruments that would allow us to leapfrog to a traditional behavior in terms of equal representation in different spheres of men and women.

DM: It's important for men to understand that unity and equality and justice are national security. You're more secure when you're unified. When you have equal rights and justice for everybody then the society can withstand all kinds of pressures from outside. You're more resilient for sure, you are more stable, you are more prosperous, you are providing for much more encompassing decisions because you're looking from different perspectives on the same problem, and then you are getting to a decision which has a much longer-lasting nature in the future. Your other responsibilities: We're talking a lot about gender, but you're also involved in Euro-Atlantic integration. Can you give us an up-to-date sense of the status of EU and NATO accession for Ukraine. Where do you expect it to lead in coming years?

IKT: This was the cause of the Revolution of Dignity. Ukrainians did not want to take the decision of the previous president not to sign the association agreement with the EU. It's a societal demand to move towards membership in the EU and NATO. Therefore, we are happy that we have managed to sign this year's association agreement, to ratify it, to go into an institutionalized and structured implementation of the rules and procedures and directives that have proven their efficiency in the EU countries, in our Ukrainian practices. It's a huge work. The ambitious association agreement that we have with the EU is the biggest association agreement that the EU has ever signed with any other third country. It's very close to implementation of the early stages of accession to the EU. The only problem is we still do not have the promise of the EU on Ukraine's European perspective. I really think that we are lacking that political decision that should come from the EU of long-term engagement. We are willing to to build a European state within Ukraine, but we also think that we are entitled to be invited to the EU if we are fulfilling all the preconditions with regard to NATO. There was a promise made back in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members. Unfortunately, we have for a number of reasons not reached that point yet. But again, during the last five years we have gone a long mile in the internal transformation of both the security and defence sectors, and also the whole spectrum of different areas where we needed to reform. I hope that there will be enough sobriety and responsibility and readiness to accept—Ukraine being already the de facto eastern flank of NATO and contributor to the security of the entire North Atlantic community—that it has to be given the instruments to become a NATO member in the nearest future.

DM: I think it's a very powerful argument. Your newly elected president-to-be is famously a professional comedian. He has no formal government experience. He clearly has exceptional political skills. What advice would you give him as he prepares to take the reins of government? You've been in government for some time. This is a critical moment in Ukraine's political history. What kind of advice would you give him and his team at this moment?

IKT: I think that first, no compromises in European and Euro-Atlantic integration. It's a dream that we are fighting for and that we are dying for. And second, to base his team on professional but patriotic and integrity-based people. If we see that, I think that there is a way for success with the new president, with the new team, and I'm sure that all the people that have put their efforts, health, time, knowledge over this period of time to build a new Ukraine will only join their forces together with him.

DM: The energy of EuroMaidan, of the Revolution of Dignity was about clean government and economic opportunity. The people haven't seen that justice, or at least they don't feel that in their lives, so clearly I would think anti-corruption would be at the top, along with a sense of economic opportunity. But that's easier said than done I imagine.

IKT: Anti-corruption is extremely important, but also don't forget that first-and-foremost we have to secure our own statehood. We have to preserve ourselves, to survive the attack of the Russian Federation, would would allow us to have this country which we are building, with the rules and procedures and transparency that we want to see, and the respect for the rights of every single person which matters so much in Ukraine. This actually makes Ukraine very different from the Russian Federation. Human beings matter in Ukraine while in the Russian Federation it's the, I don’t know—

DM: —the glory of the state—

IKT: —the glory, the importance of the state that matters. So right there, we are profoundly different.

DM: I think that’s the challenge we're facing, for those who believe that's it's the glory of the state versus the dignity of the individual, two fundamentally different visions for how we should be ordering ourselves. Whether it's Russia or China or others, they talk about the glory of the state, and the individual doesn't matter so much. But the common values that you suggest between the United States and Ukraine are very powerful in that regard, that civilizational choice and that civilizational divide. Now, what is your political future, if I may ask? You have parliamentary elections—important ones—I hope myself to be there in the fall, in October if they happen in October or maybe sooner, but do you intend to run? Do you have any thoughts about your political future?

IKT: I do hope that we will be able to unite with like-minded people that both have some experience and courage, and have dedication and readiness to serve the country and serve the nation further. In order to be present in the next parliament, I think it would be irresponsible to give up on the experience we've gained and to give up on the efforts that we've done in this structural, systemic, huge number of reforms that we've started. It's very important that we carry them on and that we further build our ability to defend ourselves, and to build the country of the our dreams. I hope also and I'm counting very much that we will not be alone in this battle, that we can count on our partners and allies across the world.

DM: Let me ask you one final question based on that. You have been a successful leader. You've risen in a challenging political environment as a woman leader. How can those of us on the outside help support your country's continued development on that front, on gender, or just broadly to enhance the prospects of Ukraine's success

IKT: I really think we need a conscious long-term decision of our Western partners to stay engaged, to stay focused with Ukraine, and continue to push together with those people on the inside the important change and transformation and reform agenda for the people of Ukraine which both Ukraine and our allies will benefit from. If we are strong, if we are prosperous, if we are democratic, we are only going to enrich the free and democratic world.

DM: Madame Deputy Prime Minister, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and share your remarkable story and perspectives. We wish you and your country nothing but success, and we look forward to NDI’s continuing partnership in Ukraine's democratic development in the years to come.

IKT: Thank you so much, and we are also very much hoping that NDI will stay as engaged and as motivated in Ukraine.

DM: We will! I think it's our biggest office in the world, or one of our biggest offices.

IKT: We’re a big country.

DM: You're a very big country, and I can't think of one that's more important, to be honest. I apologize to the other offices but I truly do believe that.

Thank you to our listeners for joining us. Share DemWorks, both our podcasts and our videos, on social media to amplify the voice of these Democracy Heroes. For more details about NDI and its work—including our new 35th anniversary report, fresh off the presses—go to, and while you're there, sign up for our monthly newsletter. I'm Derek Mitchell. This has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.