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Ukraine trip off for local govt. leaders

WILLMAR –– A trip to eastern Ukraine by local government leaders that had been scheduled for next week has been delayed for at least a year because of political unrest in that region.

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl had been planning to take the trip, which was billed as an opportunity for Minnesota government officials, civic and business leaders to exchange ideas with their counterparts in Ukraine.

Participants were notified earlier this year that the week-long trip — which had been set to begin May 23 — would not take place as planned because of street demonstrations and violence involving pro-Russian separatists and those that support the new Ukrainian government.

On top of that, the mayor of the town the group was going to, Kharkiv, was shot and seriously wounded.

The timing of the trip would have also overlapped with the presidential election in Ukraine on May 25.

“We could no longer have a safe place to go for Americans,” said Irina Fursman, organizer of the trip.

The Russian media was “calling for anti-American” responses, said Fursman, vice president of Brimeyer and Fursman, a Maplewood consulting firm that has conducted studies for the city of Willmar.

Fursman has brought Ukrainians to Willmar during past exchanges, and has taken government leaders from this area to Ukraine before.

Renville County Administrator Sara Folsted went on the exchange in 2011, and said she learned about how local governments were operating there. In 2011 and 2013, government officials from Ukraine came here and visited government and civic groups in Renville and Kandiyohi counties.

Folsted was not planning to go this year, but said seeing news reports of the conflict, and hearing from people she met on the exchange, is heartbreaking.

“It is difficult to see the images in the news and from those I have stayed in contact with and to hear the stories of turmoil in the Ukraine region,” she said.

“They have made what I would consider remarkable progress up to this point being a young country and are positioned in an area with opportunity to grow economically,” said Folsted. “It is unfortunate that the internal ideological struggle and decisions around ties to Europe and the west or Russia was taken as an opportunity by external political forces to further divide the nation.”

Fursman was in Ukraine this spring and returned in mid-April. She was there to help gain support for the exchange programs and to work with a nonprofit organization there that is working on behalf of children with disabilities.

Fursman said the exchanges are good opportunities for Ukrainian communities to learn from their American counterparts, but she said the goal is “not to transplant” the American style of doing things into Ukraine’s local government processes.

The exchanges are also learning opportunities for Americans who make the trip, said Fursman, who is Ukrainian and has family members who live in Ukraine and Russia.

“It’s a great opportunity for our American colleagues to see themselves in a different light and explore how they may do things differently back home,” said Fursman.

While she has stopped predicting what may happen with national Ukrainian politics, she said there are many positive steps being taken “on the ground” in community leadership and she is anticipating “extraordinary events that might happen.”

Fursman said Ukrainians don’t want “help” from Russia or the United States as they wrestle with their cultural and political future.

“They need to figure it out for themselves,” said Fursman, adding that many Ukrainians are frustrated that the issues there have become global in nature instead of remaining local.

Kleindl said he had been looking forward to the trip as a chance to talk about democracy and the value of conducting community meetings with citizen involvement.

“What a great opportunity,” he said.

While disappointed the trip was scratched this year, Kleindl said he hopes the trip is rescheduled in the future when tensions calm down there.

Fursman said she plans to go back to Ukraine in June with a group of facilitators who intend to conduct a “peace summit” after the election and “respond to what the needs are.”

The trip for local government and civil leaders from Minnesota will likely be rescheduled for May of 2015.