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Ilko Kucheriv (1955-2010)

June 11, 2010
Nadia Diuk

Ilko Kucheriv was one of the rare individuals who had come through Ukraine’s struggles for independence with a world view that placed Ukraine firmly among the community of democratic nations, with aspirations for himself as a citizen to be personally engaged in making the world a better place.  

Twenty years ago, as one of the founders of the Rukh, the popular movement for reforms that mobilized million of Ukrainians to choose independence, Ilko was surrounded by many similarly idealistic and principled colleagues.  Over the years, as Ukraine slid into semi-authoritarianism, many of these colleagues went into business or turned to the “dark side,” selling out their principles for a comfortable living.  Ilko stuck to his original principles and vision of working for a better and more democratic Ukraine.  He created the Democratic Initiatives Foundation as an institution that would hold up a mirror to the society to persuade people to look at themselves in a critical way—thus, independent public opinion polling became a staple of the DIF’s work, and under Ilko’s guidance, his team of pollsters and sociologists became a leader in the field in Ukraine.  As a NED partner for most of the past decade, the Democratic Initiatives Foundation set a standard for its excellent work in spreading democratic values within Ukraine’s nascent civil society and as an example of how an independent organization can work to make a difference. 

The Democratic Initiatives Foundation celebrated its 15th anniversary last December with much to be proud of.  One of its enduring contributions to Ukraine’s democracy was the perfecting of the “exit poll” as an instrument for showing up falsification of elections by an authoritarian regime.  With help from colleagues from the United States, Ilko turned it into DIF’s trademark activity and used it effectively in the 2002 Parliamentary elections and most notably in the Presidential elections of 2004, when the overwhelming proof that election fraud had taken place launched the Orange Revolution

Ilko had a unique talent in bringing people together—a very special skill in a country where, as the old Ukrainian proverb goes, whenever two Ukrainians get together, invariably three parties will emerge.  He brought journalists, specialists, politicians, diplomats and civil society activists, all with different points of view around the same table and took on the burning issues of the day through civilized discussion and debate.  He was an “intellectual entrepreneur”; while many people would sit around and complain “What is to be done?”  Ilko would be the one come up with a plan and to get up and make it happen.  He came to the United States as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow in 2006-7 and spoke often of how the experience dramatically broadened his outlook and made him rethink his approach to his own work and the profile of his organization. 

Many of us will remember him though, for his warm, unfailing optimism, his love of life and not least, his sense of humor.  Dismayed with Ukraine’s slowness in applying for NATO membership, he came up with the idea of applying for individual membership for himself, and presented this idea to a somewhat surprised former General Secretary Lord Robertson.  One of his favorite phrases was “I’m enjoying the sweetness of life!”  And indeed this outlook permeated everything he did.  For someone who had struggled through some very dark days and had lost a couple of fingers in a vicious attack several years earlier, his enthusiasm for activism, his integrity and steady support for democratic values made him exceptional.  On the day before he died he wrote the following as a message of thanks to the hundreds of friends and colleagues who had responded with offers to help support him through his illness:

“I remain an optimist.  None of us knows how much we will be given.  This has led me to reconsider all my values and particularly the value of time.  I want to spend it in the most effective and thoughtful way….. I have been thinking about my work and my organization, I believe that people can and should strive to change the world for the better.” 

Ilko Kucheriv passed away suddenly on May 29, 2010, after a short battle with cancer.  He leaves behind a widow, Iryna, two daughters, and an immense group of friends and colleagues all over the world.

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