(OPINION) What Hopkins Can Learn from the Ukraine

Sometimes a new friend can help us realize just how lucky we really are.

Notes of celebration dominated last week’s sister city visit. Civic leaders from here and the Ukrainian city of Boryspil ate together, laughed together and, at the end of the night, even raised glasses of Minnesota vodka together.

Yet Boryspil Councilman Sergiy Linkevych began his final speech in Hopkins with a tragic chord. Yes, Boryspil is a 1,000-year-old city, the councilman said. But the past 100 years have been hard on the Ukraine. It endured the horrors of World War I and World War II—when first Soviet then Nazi scorched-earth policies laid waste to huge swathes of territory.

Linkevych could have added to the list the forced collectivization of private farms in the 1930s that killed about 7 million Ukrainians through starvation, the hurried end of the Cold War that left the Ukraine a virtual arms dump or any number of other depredations.

The Ukraine may be old, Linkevych said, but in many important ways its history started over when it emerged from beneath the Soviet Union’s shadow just two decades ago.

The discussions during the group’s tour of Hopkins highlighted just how hard starting over has been for the Eastern European country. During a tour of , the visitors asked the warehouse manager how much profit the company makes as a percentage. When the manager told them the company’s profit margin is about 2 percent, the group scoffed that no one would work for that in the Ukraine.

Richard Fursman—who organized the civic exchange with his wife, Irina Fursman—lamented the viewpoint as shortsighted but understandable. Government turnover is frequent and tumultuous enough that businesses must make their money quickly instead of through long-term investments that lead to high volume, low-margin corporations like Supervalu.

The challenges of governance could be seen elsewhere. A professor from the Ukrainian National Academy of Public Administration described the low number of government officials who have public administration degrees. Many officials only pursue a public administration degree to fill the time during interims when their party is out of power, he said. It’s a result of a spoils system not unlike the one the United States once had, he was quick to point out.

Then there were the questions and observations that hinted at the situation more obliquely. Following a presentation from one of teen board members—who spoke Russian—the Ukrainians asked how the city convinced volunteers to chip in. And after touring the Hopkins Activity Center, they praised the way Hopkins takes care of its senior citizens.

“Most of all I was surprised by the care that is provided to the people in the U.S.A.,” said Ievgen Kylymnyk, a student at the National Academy of Public Administration. “I would say the U.S. is made for living.”

The lessons from the Ukraine aren’t important because it’s one of the chaotic countries that regularly top off Google News. It’s not. It’s ranked 132 in per capita GDP—near the median of the 226 countries ranked. It doesn’t have the poverty of the Congo or the anarchy of Somalia.

What it lacks is good governance and an involved citizenry. It’s labeled as “repressed” by The Heritage Foundation’s and Wall Street Journal’s 2011 Index of Economic Freedom—due in large part to corruption and weak property rights. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World survey ranked the Ukraine only “partly free”—grading it a three (out of seven) for both civil liberties and political rights.

And the Americans who visited Boryspil in May, including Hopkins Mayor Gene Maxwell, all noted how happy regular citizens were just to be asked their opinion on local government.

It’s become common in the United States to worry about the future of the country and to bemoan the failure of our institutions—and there are real problems. The fear of becoming a third-world country is a particularly popular cliché that gets bandied about.

And yet such fears ignore the evidence we may take for granted but our guests from Boryspil certainly don’t:

  • Businesses like Supervalu persist through both Republican and Democrat administrations and will continue to do so.
  • Volunteers create a variety of activities that allow for safe teen get-togethers—often organized by the teens themselves.
  • Nonpartisan bureaucrats shepherd years-long projects along even as the political fortunes of any one party or candidate change.

This isn’t normal in every country, but it happens here every day.

So yes, there was a tragic tone to the Boryspil councilman’s speech, but it was part of a hopeful harmony—part of a song that could soar over the dirge of Tea Parties and Occupy protests if we would but join in.


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