LVIV, Ukraine – Faced with widespread protests and calls for his resignation, Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine’s new education and science minister, said he would keep his highly controversial ideas about the country’s history to himself. Tabachnyk also promised not to backpedal on progressive educational reforms that have already been introduced.
“Ukraine’s education system will not be influenced by my personal views on the country’s history,” Tabachnyk told the Kyiv Post on March 17. “I will strictly follow the policy of President (Viktor) Yanukovych, the Cabinet of Ministers and will adhere to the Constitution. I am not crazy. The Bologna education system and independent testing are the only ways to develop our system of education. I won’t cancel them. I will only improve and modernize them.”
Tabachnyk, who is considered one of the few intellectuals in the president’s Party of Regions, came under immediate fire after being appointed Ukraine’s minister for education and science on March 11. Critics have slammed his views of national history, which includes the thesis that western Ukrainians aren’t really Ukrainian. They also fear he will annul independent testing, which objectively determines students’ knowledge and is a critical component in ensuring they can enter university without paying bribes.
At a protest that drew some 5,000 demonstrators on March 17 in Lviv, the de facto capital of western Ukraine, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, leader of the “For Ukraine” parliamentary faction, said his group would work tirelessly to oust Tabachnyk from his post.
“We don’t have any other choice, but to remove this Ukraine hater,” he told the crowd, which began chanting “Down with Tabachnyk.”
Kyrylenko last week introduced a resolution asking parliament to dismiss Tabachnyk; the vote could take place as early as March 30, according to the body’s vice-speaker, Mykola Tomenko. The initiative is being supported by other opposition groups, including ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc, in which Tomenko is a member. Meanwhile, the Lviv branch of Kyrylenko’s group started collecting signatures in support of Tabachnyk’s removal.
But what has particularly outraged western Ukrainians is an article Tabachnyk wrote last year for the Russian newspaper, Izvestia.
“Halychany (western Ukrainians) practically don’t have anything in common with the people of Great Ukraine, not in mentality, not in religion, not in linguistics, not in the political arena,” he penned. “We have different enemies and different allies. Furthermore, our allies and even brothers are their enemies, and their ‘heroes’ (Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych) for us are killers, traitors and abettors of Hitler’s executioners.”
The statement prompted Kyrylenko, a native of central Ukraine, to call Tabachnyk a “national security threat.” He repeated the sentiment on March 17 during an extraordinary session held by Lviv’s regional lawmakers to consider how to respond to Tabachnyk’s appointment.
By March 17, four of western Ukraine’s regional councils had passed resolutions calling for the minister’s dismissal. A host of civic and student organizations from all over the country (including Kherson in southern Ukraine and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine), authors and former Soviet dissidents have also signed petitions calling for his removal.
Fears of possible cancellation of independent testing has also united many and drawn criticism from the country’s two leading independent universities, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University. Both issued statements condemning any changes that would regress the educational system and called for Tabachnyk’s resignation.
Independent tests are set by school graduates in special centers across the country, and are assessed at a central facility. Government officials said independent testing will stay this year, but entrance exams will also be re-introduced.
When independent testing replaced university entrance exams three years ago, students started to largely enter Ukraine’s universities based on their knowledge, rather than whether they could bribe their way in, which was an endemic practice in the Soviet era and the early years of independence.
Independent testing is part of the Bologna Process, which Ukraine signed in 2005. Established in 1999, the process is meant to make academic degrees and quality assurance standards more comparable and compatible throughout Europe.
“Getting rid of independent testing is a bad idea,” said Olesia Shoba, a first-year student at Lviv’s Ivan Franko National University. “This is the one way you can really judge someone’s ability.”
By abolishing or changing independent testing, Shoba said that people like herself would be unable to receive an education. Having grown up in a village in the Lviv region, both of her parents are handicapped and of limited means.
“Testing levels the playing field. Getting into university honestly is the only way to get an education,” she said.
Students at the Lviv protest signed a petition saying Tabachnyk would “return corruption” to the educational system.
Despite the widespread criticism, some have taken a more measured view of the minister. Anatoliy Ihnatovych, president of the Lviv-headquartered National Student Union, said that anti-Tabachnyk protests are premature.
“If we decide to fight, we need to know what we are fighting for. Tabachnyk held the post of the vice-premier on humanitarian issues when the independent external assessment was launched. He didn’t impede that.”
Anna Sashnikova, a first-year student at Kyiv National Economic University, who attended a protest in Kyiv on March 17 supporting the minister said: “Tabachnyk hasn’t had a chance to do anything yet but people already protest against him. It’s not fair. He deserves a chance. I don’t like the Bologna system that we have at the universities and I didn’t like the independent testing. It had many mistakes and the calculation of the points was wrong. I’m supporting the changes that the new minister would bring.”
Still, Tabachnyk’s March 17 statement about maintaining and improving testing indicates the new government has changed its tune on the exams in light of the protests. Yanukovych had campaigned on the promise to abolish testing. As late as March 15, his deputy, Hanna Herman, maintained they would be eliminated.
“It makes sense to return to the old system of examinations instead of the independent external assessment,” she told the Kyiv Post. “This would make the lives of the Ukrainian students easier. I know many students from the villages who have difficulties getting to the assessment centers, arrive nervous and tired, which hinders their performance at the test. We don’t need to copy blindly the educational approaches of the other countries, but work on our own system which works best for Ukraine.”
Adding to the already contentious debate, Deputy Prime Minister on humanitarian issues Volodymyr Semynozhenko said that students this year would be allowed to take the independent tests in their native language, whether it is Hungarian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian or Russian. Exams are currently administered in Ukrainian, the state language. Along with independent tests, entrance to universities would be determined by graduation certificates and additional tests administered by universities. Critics say the move opens the door to corruption.
In light of the growing dissent, Herman said Yanukovych had privately met with Tabachnyk on March 15 and put him on notice.
“He had to promise the president to hide under lock and key his personal views and anti-Ukrainian statements and strictly follow the education policy approved by the parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. If he breaches that agreement, the president will take an adequate decision,” she said.
Two days later, however, in an interview with Ostrov, a Donetsk-based web site, Herman said given the protests, the right thing for Tabachnyk to do was to resign.
“His anti-Ukrainian statements provoke irritation in a considerable part of society. He could say, ‘As much as I became the apple of dissention, I should go.’ That would be honest…But I don’t think that is going to happen.”
For his part, Tabachnyk has remained defiant, saying of his critics, “My opponents have no legal grounds to accuse me of anything. If they don’t like my articles, they should turn to the editors who published them.” He dismissed mass campaigns against him as “witch hunts.”