When I meet international visitors, most of which are participating in one of Meridian’s exchange programs, I often talk about the impact of these exchanges on the lives and careers of previous participants. I often mention Meridian alumni who went on to shine in the global spotlight. Some are very well-known: Nicolas Sarkozy, Mikhail Saakashvili, Romano Prodi, Hamid Karzai, Margaret Thatcher. A few are better known locally: Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, President of Guatemala, Norovyn Altankhuyag, Prime Minister of Mongolia, Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat, Finland’s current President, Sauli Niinisto, or Ehud Olmert, former Prime Minister of Israel. In total, some 168 current or former heads of state have stepped through Meridian’s doors mostly as participants in the U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program.
Going through this list of illustrious alumni is meant not only as a way to encourage and embolden the participants of yet another program, but to be a vivid reminder that what we do here at Meridian really matters. The way our programs shape participants’ views of the United Sates in these professional exchanges will have a lasting impact on their careers and on their personal and professional contacts.
A week or so ago, I had a chance to reconnect with one such alumni who went on to truly impact the lives of those around them and, in this case, the course of history. Mustafa Nayyem came to the United States in October 2012 on a journalism program about the U.S. Elections, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. At that time, Mustafa was a reporter with Ukrainska Pravda and a News Host for TVi. Now, he returns to the United States as a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, to receive the prestigious Ion Rațiu Democracy Award. This awards is bestowed yearly by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies to recognize and bring visibility to the ideas and accomplishments of individuals around the world who are working on behalf of democracy.
Before we get to why Mustafa came back to the United States, here is his short bio. Born in Lagman, Afghanistan, with an Afghan father and an Iranian mother, Mustafa grew up in Kabul and Moscow, moving to Kyiv in 1992 at age of 11 to become a Ukrainian citizen. He began his journalist career in 2004 at Context-Media wire. He began covering Ukrainian politics for Ukrainska Pravda in 2005, playing an integral role in the paper’s political news reporting as well as its more in-depth investigative journalism. This would shine a light on the corruption that corrodes Ukraine’s political and economic system. From 2005-2007 Mustafa also served as political correspondent for Kommersant-Ukraine, the Ukrainian edition of the Russian business daily newspaper. Between 2007 and 2010 he was on the team of the popular TV host Savik Shuster, working with him on Ukraine’s most popular political talk shows. Subsequently, he joined TVi, the only opposition channel in Ukraine at that time. The channel and its reporters, including Mustafa, experiencing severe pressure from the government in the wake of October 2012 parliamentary elections. In April 2013, along with several colleagues, he founded Ukraine’s first independent internet TV – Hromadske.tv. This unique platform funded by independent donations was created in direct response to censorship and media monopolization.
It is Mr. Nayyem’s involvement and actions while working at Hromadske.tv that contributed to his Ion Rațiu Democracy Award. In late 2013, on the same day the Ukrainian government refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, Mustafa used his Facebook account to encourage friends and supporters to initiate a peaceful protest rally in Independence Square (Maidan). This protest in downtown Kiev spoke out against the actions of the government let by Viktor Yanukovych. Mustafa’s post, shared over one thousand times in a matter of hours, was the spark of the very first Euromaidan!
As the Wilson Center noted in its press release about the award, Mustafa’s actions and the resulting “protests precipitated the fall of President Yanukovych’s government and are evidence of the Ukrainian people’s struggle for freedom and democratic values. Mustafa Nayyem’s actions around that time have placed him as an important leader of the protests.”
The award ceremony, which took place on Thursday, February 12, 2015, featured opening remarks by the Honorable Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO of the Wilson Center and by Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Ambassador Nuland praised Mustafa for his actions and his courage while at the same time mentioning his previous travels to the United States as a participant in various State Department funded programs, including the Edward R. Murrow Program for foreign journalists. The ceremony also included two panels. One was focused on Post-Revolution Democratic Consolidation and featured Oleg Kozlovsky, Director of Vision of Tomorrow Center and the 2010 Recipient of the Ion Rațiu Democracy Award; Corina Rebegea, Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis; Oleksandr Zaytsev, Fulbright Scholar at the Wilson Center and Professor of History at the Ukrainian Catholic University; and moderated by Christian Ostermann, Director of the Global Europe Program at Wilson Center.
The second panel focused on Ukraine in the World featuring Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russia and East European Studies at Georgetown University; Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution; William Miller, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine; and moderated by Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute also at the Wilson Center.