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Jim Thurber and the Ukrainian Connection

Ukrainian PAAI Alumni Share Their Perspectives on the War, Rebuilding, and a Special SPA Professor

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has transformed the geopolitical landscape in Europe, but it has also affected the lives of millions, including SPA alumni on the ground.

SPA’s two-week Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute (PAAI) and the one-week European Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute (EPAAI), founded by SPA Distinguished Professor James Thurber, educates participants on ethical and effective advocacy. Program alumni include a tight-knit group of Ukrainian professionals who enjoy a special relationship with Thurber.

“They're all reformers and, some of them are fighting in the war,” said Thurber, who stays in touch with the group, sending them maps and news reports and checking in on their spirits. “All of them are, in my opinion, under the threat of war all the time. Even if you're in Kiev, you don't know whether a rocket is coming to hit your building or not. They are exceedingly calm under the circumstances.”

Thurber’s relationship with Ukraine began in the late 1990s, when he received a grant to help draft a portion of their new post-Soviet constitution. He has lectured there extensively, and worked with officials on anti-corruption efforts, including a presentation on lobbying reform to the Rada, their legislature. Thurber was also involved in organizing an international lobbying reform conference in Prague, and coordinates with similar efforts in Croatia, Kazakhstan, Italy, and with the OECD.

Thurber leverages connections at home and abroad to help the war effort as best he can. He helped one Ukrainian student, a banker, come to Washington, D.C. in May to meet a network of international donor organizations looking for a safe and non-corrupt way to funnel money to rebuild Ukraine after the war.

Dennis Bazilevych, who attended both PAAI and EPAAI, serves as the leader of this alumni group, which also includes Vasyl Myroshnychenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to Australia, Andriy Zablovskyi, the Head of the Secretariat of the Council of Entrepreneurs, and Oleksandra Pavlenko, attorney and former deputy minister for health policy. Bazilevych is a government relations expert; he advises a number of commercial organizations and international technical assistance programs, including Nova Poshta, the private Ukrainian postal and courier company, and the Center for International Private Entrepreneurship (CIPE). He also supports advocacy and lobbying efforts in Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia.

“It is a great honor to be part of this story,” said Bazilevych. “It was really fortunate for me to be in that year, in that place, in that class, with that professor who changed my life. I inherited a lot from his passion, his knowledge, his expertise, and his atmosphere.”

Bazilevych, part of then-president Yushchenko’s team in 2005, attended PAAI on a Fulbright APSA/Congressional fellowship, to better understand coordination between the executive and legislative branches. However, when Thurber illuminated the dangers of corruption, he became a strong advocate for lobbying regulation in Ukraine. In 2010, Bazilevych worked with Thurber to establish a European NGO on the model of EPAAI, the Professional Lobbying and Advocacy Institute (in Ukraine), which Bazilevych ran for 10 years.

His compatriots agreed with Thurber’s impact, and the influence of PAAI. “Dr. Thurber is a great professor, educator, and storyteller,” said Myroshnychenko. “I often refer to the lessons learned during PAAI, especially waging influence through mass media.”

“It was a good chance for seeking new possibilities and opportunities within the professional community, and [building] a solid networking base,” Zablovskyi agreed. “My relationship with Dr. Thurber was very constructive, in the sense of proactive and intensive collaborative work, as well as sharing best practices/knowledge in the fields of lobbying and advocacy. In order to be productive and effective, especially in wartime, you should utilize all networking/lobbying/advocacy opportunities.”

Pavlenko found the EPAAI content so interesting, she said, that she completely ignored D.C.

“James Thurber's course was an amazing time in my development as a government relations specialist,” she said. “We studied with colleagues from different countries and discussed every situation within the framework of geopolitics and cultural differences. . . All cases that Dr. Thurber gave us were chosen in order to show us the fundamental differences in the work of GR specialists across different tasks.”

Myroshnychenko expressed gratitude for the skills built during his own PAAI experience in 2014, which helped him rally a significant war aid package from Australia, among other achievements.

“I was running a public relations and public affairs consultancy in Kiev, so the knowledge I obtained from the program was invaluable,” he said. “Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the spring of 2014, I co-founded Ukraine Crisis Media Center, a media NGO, which has been amplifying Ukraine's voice internationally, counteracting Russian disinformation, and running global advocacy campaigns. The EPAAI experience was extremely useful in ensuring its development, growth and influence.”

Pavlenko considers Thurber both a paternal figure and compassionate curator of knowledge. EPAAI helped her build an impressive toolkit, including government-to-government and business-to-government negotiations, which she has used internationally at embassies and consulates.

“Thurber has a very loyal attitude towards the mental differences of students,” she said. “I always received from him not only an answer, but also new questions, for my thoughts.”

“During war time, I’ve received regular messages from Dr. Thurber, [asking] ‘How are you?’,” said Bazilevych. “‘Are you alive?’, “What's going on there?’ He asks every time what he can do for the Ukrainian people, and for my family. His very human and very kind approach is really appreciated.”

Bazilevych refers to the war as “expectedly unexpected,” and confirms that the reality is far more terrible than he or anyone else imagined. Even so, his family has remained with him in Odesa.

“I provided an option to my family to [seek refuge in] the United States,” he said. “They said no, because we want to be together.”

Zablovskyi’s family sought and received asylum, and Pavlenko sent her son to school in Athens to keep him safe.

“It was a very difficult decision for me as for mother,” she recounted. “In addition, long-term weariness is felt from everything that is happening. There is a lot of worry, and questions without answers. Now I understand what it means to live for the moment.”

Bazilevych recounted the early waves of the war, marked by empty streets and isolation. Odesa, at least, came back to life a bit this spring.

“Starting from March, we have had a lot of people coming back,” he said. “We have the infrastructure restored. We have fully occupied cafes and restaurants, and a lot of people in the streets. That’s a good signal. But of course, this war is a marathon, not a sprint, so we have to be ready for other cycles.”

While other nations, including the U.S., have provided money and equipment to support counterattacks, Ukraine, so far, has depended on its own troops and military might. The PAAI and EPAAI alumni interviewed for this story all pleaded for additional help to maintain its territories.

“By waging war against Ukraine, Russia became a clear and present danger to all democracies and peace-loving countries in the world,” said Zablovskyi. “Only by holding Russia accountable can we protect Ukraine and restore peace. Please don’t forget this globally.”

“Just pitch to your people in Congress to help us right now with all these military needs,” Bazilevych added, “and tell our story, to try to counteract the Russian lobby, which is very strong in Washington.”

Another recurrent theme is the resilience of the Ukrainian people, who have expressed complete confidence in victory under tall odds.

“So far, people very strongly believe that we will not give in, and we will win to the extent that we can win,” said Bazilevych. “Considering our current geopolitical situation, victory can mean different things. [But] we have become stronger, inside ourselves, and in our values. We started to pay attention to core principles, to core values, and not just [to issues that are] artificial or fashionable.”

All the PAAI alumni interviewed had begun thinking about the challenges and opportunities represented by the rebuilding process.

“We have to think about the post-war period, and how to launch a separate initiative, one on Ukrainian revival and restoration, perhaps under the auspices of AU,” said Bazilevych. “People don't have to waste their lives just for the sake of sustaining something corrupt. They have this opportunity to build a radically new approach to public administration. It will require all the expertise and toolkits gained from [PAAI and EPAAI].”

Bazilevych sees opportunities for the nation to rethink its economic performance post-war as well. Ukraine, he said, leads the region in digital innovation.

“We have advanced so much in terms of these innovative solutions,” he said. “We have a lot of advantages, being this Eastern European miracle.”

Another post-war challenge, said Pavlenko, will involve ensuring that the workforce has the skills it needs to rebuild. Though she hopes to keep her law firm stable, she is prepared for anything.

“I fully accept any turn of events, including the possibility that it will be necessary to retrain,” she said. “But this is probably an extreme. However, I would gladly return to the government service.”

Bazilevych agreed and emphasized the high stakes of Ukrainian victory. “If we win, or don’t let them win, it means a lot for the stability of the democratic system,” he said. “What's going on here will be felt to the far, far, far, ends of our Earth.”

While COVID has put EPAAI programming on hold, and the war has kept Thurber from visiting, the strength of these alumni connections reveals the program’s impact, on both individual and systemic levels. This special Ukrainian relationship, he said, impacts him as well.

“They sent a video of a [former] student in full army gear, with an AK47, who said, ‘I want to thank Jim Thurber for everything he's done for us.’ It was deeply moving.”