Being a local politician during wartime

A conversation with three Ukrainian participants

It is an unusually hot summer day in central Stockholm. The week is drawing to a close, and the calm has settled over the otherwise buzzing SALAR building where ICLD has just finalized its workshop called Swedish Phase. Only three Ukrainian politicians remain – Iryna Kolkovska from Lutsk, Oleksandra Fedoruk from Ivano-Frankivsk and Ulyana Pak from Lviv. All of them are participants in the eighth cohort of ICLD’s international training programme “Women’s Political Leadership”.

We have asked them to stay on for an interview about how the war has affected them and their participation in the programme. While one politician answers a question, the other two are busy on their phones coordinating volunteer efforts in Ukraine. Then they take turns. 

–  We are grateful for this opportunity to get back to ‘normal’ during these two weeks in Sweden and to reflect on the conditions needed for a democracy to thrive, says Iryna Kolkovska. Now we can come back to our war-torn country with new strength and continue to defend our land, our heritage, our freedom and democracy. 

When we ask her why she applied to the programme in the first place, Iryna replies that as a politician in charge of gender equality and women’s rights, she felt that the programme was a perfect match for her:  

–  Every single word in the programme description was about me and my sphere of interests. Gender experts in Ukraine emphasize that Sweden is a gender champion. That is why I reacted immediately when I saw the call for applications. For me it was like: “Oh, this is a country with real expertise in implementation of gender equality and all that we only speak about.”  

Changed circumstances

However, many things have changed in the world, and in Ukraine specifically, since the launch of the programme. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing unimaginable human suffering with a tragic loss of life, the civilian displacement of millions, and immense damage to the country’s infrastructure. It goes without saying that the war has brought its adjustments to the plans of the three participants. The so-called ”change processes” that the participants has been expected to develop and work with during the training has been put on halt.  

–  As for my process of change*, Iryna says, my goal was to develop a women’s health programme and get it approved for implementation. A few days before the war started, I had meetings with different stakeholders: doctors, vice mayor, head of the health department and some other. All of them were positive about my proposal. Today, it is very difficult to provide this programme. However, I will do everything possible to continue this work. I want our deputees and Lutsk City Council to approve the programme already this year – without money. At least, we will have a plan for the future, and when there is money in the budget, we will allocate it for this programme.   

For Ulyana Pak, councillor at Lviv City Council, this two week visit to Sweden has become an eye-opener, and she for the first time saw herself as a politician: 

–  Usually, I identify myself as a civil activist, rather than a politican. A person who represents my society, my community, but who does not provide policies for the country. As a group of deputees, we deal with relatively small questions. But now I feel that it is from these small decisions that politics is growing.  

Due to martial law which is in effect in Ukraine since the start of the war, Lviv City Council has not had a single meeting, and all decisions are made by the Mayor. Ulyana says that she is now even more determined than ever to organise a City Council meeting in order to be able to influence the processes they have in the city. 

According to Ulyana, participation in the Women’s Political Leadership programme has given her an opportunity to develop her leadership skills and to look at herself from the helicopter view. 

The common denominator of the three politicians is that they all had to instantly adopt a new role – role of a volunteer. Oleksandra Fedoruk, an elected politician from Ivano-Frankivsk, has been helping Ukrainian pilots and the aviation from the start of the war. She recognizes several stages of approach towards war: 

– The first stage was denial. The second one was a kind of panicking, when we realized that it was not just an occasional thing. What we were witnessing was systematic attacks in different parts of the country. Quite shortly, we came to realize that there is no escape from this situation, and we started to organise ourselves, supplying our soldiers, our people, our army with necessary things. Next stage was to do things more effectively – not just to do something, but to do it timely. Our work became more structured. And then, after Bucha, after Mariupol and some other cities, we understood that this war is not a war of possession – it is a war of destroying the whole nation, the Ukrainians. And we have nothing but to stand up. 

During the Swedish phase, the participants got an opportunity to discuss the current situation in Ukraine with representatives of the Swedish Parliament, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, as well as with their mentors who are politicians at the local level in Sweden. 

It’s time for us to leave the SALAR building and say goodbye to our Ukrainian participants until we meet again at the programme’s Final workshop, which takes place in one of the participants’ countries on the African continent at the end of November.  

* A change process within the scope of the Women’s Political Leadership programme addresses a real problem of concern to the politician, thus contributing to translating the theoretical content of the training programme into capacity development and institutional change within her municipality. 

ICLD’s International Training Programmes with participants from Ukraine:

  • Women’s Political Leadership
  • Human Rights Based Approach

ukraine, women's political leadership,