Expert Interview with Dr. Tetiana Kyselova on Track III Mediation in Ukraine

Ottawa Dialogue’s Spring 2022 Newsletter features an interview with Dr. Tetiana Kyselova, Associate Professor in the School of Law at the Department of International Relations & Director of the Mediation and Dialogue Research Center at the National University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Ukraine. Our discussion covers her work as a scholar of conflict studies and a facilitator of Track III dialogues in Ukraine.

A note from Dr. Kyselova:

I gave this interview on the 22 of February 2022, two days before the full-scale war of Russia against Ukraine. The invasion that started in 2014 escalated to the whole territory of Ukraine. On the 24th of February I woke up in my Kyiv flat from the sounds of explosions. From that moment on, I ceased to be a mediator. Four weeks into the devastating war, we are not mediators, teachers or doctors anymore. We are all Ukrainians fighting for our freedom and for the freedom of the whole word. Ukrainians have mobilized themselves into unprecedented horizontal networks to help the Army and to save lives of civilians. This is our task now. When we win, I will come back to the issues below and we will do more dialogues. If you want to help, write me

Experiences in Track III and the place of Track II alongside Track I and III diplomacy

In your work, you’re written about the need for international mediators to support local ownership and advise/offer expertise only if this supports local mediators retaining centre stage. What guidance would you give external mediators on how to spur these initial conversations, and make clear the willingness to advise but also their ability to respect boundaries?

It’s a good question, and we are actually writing recommendations for donors of dialogue now. There are two things. First, every context is unique, even if there are similarities. We strongly feel that Ukraine is a unique context in terms of the way it has started and how things have turned out, geopolitically. It is a unique configuration of conflict – external aggression has become localised. It was clear to all Ukrainians that it was an external aggression back in 2014. Second, the conflict started in 2014, and by that time Ukraine had already a strong and competent professional community of local mediators. They also have a huge advantage of knowing language, culture, and conflict, and, in my estimation, they are much better in many ways than international mediators. That means that internationals who come to Ukraine have to A) really study the context, and B) have to engage local mediators even at “step zero” of the planning process. There is a high level of professionalization of mediation in Ukraine, and they’ve expanded their expertise. Now, they are experts on facilitation itself, but also process experts in conflict analysis, process design, post-dialogue support, etc. Local mediators have expanded their expertise since 2014 and are capable of providing this expertise to internationals. Given this, I believe that mixed teams are most promising. We value the experience of our international colleagues very much. They have loads of important knowledge, experience and a good intuition which is important in mediation. Working as a co-mediator can be the best experience. However, I have not seen such mixed teams in Ukraine yet.

Also in Ukraine, the nature of the Minsk peace process was unique – it was never really launched properly and wasn’t really seen as a peace process by locals, but also by many internationals. They’ve often felt, “this is not mediation.” It was seen as a power struggle more than a peace process. There were no local mediators involved in this process. In between Minsk negotiation process and dialogues that I worked with, there is a huge gap, because much of the peace work in Ukraine was concentrated at the Track 3, 2, and 2.5 and 90% of dialogues were intra-Ukrainian dialogues that did not involve Russian or any other parties. These dialogues were quite far away from Track 1. Now that Minsk is gone, nobody knows what happens. We do know, however that intra-Ukrainian dialogue at the lower tracks do increase community resilience and social cohesion and they will continue.

Should external mediators be spurring these conversations at all?  How does this relationship begin to be built?

It’s an interesting question – I don’t know how it should work, but I can say how it practically works, because we are doing much of this work in real-time. International mediation NGOs all came to Ukraine as some point and, initially, they all brought their mediators and launched their “cross counter-line dialogue processes,” based only on their international expertise. It took them a few years to realise that locals exist, and that locals can actually be much better (for many reasons – including logistical reasons regarding travel cost and translation, etc.). It took them a few years to see the importance of locals, and then they began searching for good local mediators but ran into problems, because there is no formal channel to connect local and international mediators. At some point, there were mistakes – internationals would involve locals who were not that competent or suitable for the task, just because they didn’t know that the others exist. So, how should it work? I’m not sure, but I mostly work bottom-up, with local mediators saying, “we need to make ourselves visible, we need to have agency and we need self-organisation.” They are slowly moving in that direction. For example, this summer, they’ve published a public statement on dialogue in Ukraine which made clear “we exist, and this is what we can do.” So, Ukrainian local mediators and dialogue facilitators do have a role, but it hasn’t happened to the extent that we would like to see.

What is Dialogue? Inclusion? 

In your work, you’ve written about the “crowded” nature of the peacebuilding space in Ukraine and the “peace industry” that’s come to exist there. Do you see any possibility of a way being found to alleviate some of this crowding and competitiveness? 

There are several questions within this. The question of “peace industry” – I do not see how it can be less crowded, because it is very much supported by donors. In many cases, Track 2/3/grassroots dialogue is seen as the only thing that can be done when Track 1 peace processes is not working. There will always be people willing to do them, and the field will continue to be overcrowded.

However, what I think will happen (and already is) is the continued professionalization of peace mediation, beyond domestic mediation. I worked in domestic mediation for twenty years before 2014 – if not for the war, I would still be working in business and family mediation. In domestic mediation, the professionalization process is quick and strong. There are standards of practice, self-organisation by associations, a clear accreditation processes etc. Peace mediation doesn’t have this, but it looks like it is heading the same way. For example, when the UN launched its Guidance for Effective Mediation, this was a clear sign of professionalization. The expertise is becoming narrower and more specialised, even if there are still questions about who the right mediator is for a given context. I think that internal checks and balances will be added to regulate this field in the form of self-regulation.

Could this create a bit of an “ivory tower,” particularly for very community-based mediators who may not have as easy of access to systems of accreditation, etc.?    

It depends on which kind of mediation you mean. Elite Track 1 mediation, for example, is nearly impossible to get in. It is all occupied by important names. Within Track 1, there is a lot of competition, with long rosters of mediators and standby teams. Within organisations like UN, EU, OSCE etc., there is enormous competition already. With more localised processes, it is easier to get in and there is a lot of support now. For Ukraine, it is an open field – most of the mediation and dialogue are happening at the Track 2 or 3 level. Actually – and this is surprising for many mediators from elsewhere – most (80-90%) of mediators are women. It is different from other countries. It is very asymmetrical, though – at the Track 1 level, there are very few women. At the Track 2 and 3 levels, however, there are many opportunities for women. In any case, there is a need for capacity building of local mediators and dialogue facilitators to help them to self-organize and develop their practice as they see it.

Could this crowding also lead to a “peace fatigue” on the part of Ukrainians – i.e., do you think this hurts the psyche of Ukrainians working towards peace? Is there anything that can be done about this? 

Yes, there has been fatigue about Track 1 process from the very beginning, and a lot of distrust. Also, in terms of inclusion at the Track 1 level – the attitude of civil society was very, very negative. If a civil society actor was to engage, it came with enormous reputational risks. It is extremely politically sensitive. When it comes to the Track 2 and 3 levels, the amount of work is enormous for mediators, with conflicts arising every day. But, if you believe in dialogue and mediation as a way to go, then you push yourself to go and do it. We actually feel like we need more mediators at the Track 2 and 3 levels.

I can imagine the psychological burden that a Track 2 or Track 3-level mediator may carry as both a mediator but also a member of the community in which they’re working. Is that something is present, that perhaps a non-local mediator might not experience so much?

Working on trauma and the psychological aspects of war has been a big part of our work since 2014. The truth is that Ukraine has been living in war conditions for 8 years, even if that’s only recently been recognised by the international community. For us, it has been 8 years of invasion. Trauma healing has become a natural part of the dialogue process for Ukrainians. It doesn’t matter the type of dialogue you’re mediating – whether it be very deep and existential dialogue with Russians and Ukrainians, or a community dialogue between neighbours about, say, building a school, the trauma will come out. People are deeply traumatised by the past 8 years. Local mediators feel it much better than internationals and can provide a deep empathy.

Trauma and empathy can sometimes be underdiscussed when talking about peace processes.

Yes and we can’t ignore it. When we have people at the table, and someone breaks into tears – you can’t ignore it. We are writing recommendations for donors right now, and a strong recommendation is to have psychological support during the dialogue that will include things like having a psychological support person, breaks between sessions, relaxation facilities, etc., all being planned in advance. It can be difficult to explain because some see this as “luxury,” but it isn’t luxury – it’s a necessity.

You note the overuse of the term “dialogue” in Ukraine that could risk undermining its value. Why do you think this happened? 

I have two answers to this issue. The first is that in Ukraine, the whole conflict broke unexpectedly – nobody was prepared, and nobody could imagine this. Before 2014, there were really no developed dialogue methodologies. There was business and family mediation. I am actually writing about the process of “meaning making” of dialogue now. Internationals brought this idea in 2013, but they couldn’t explain what dialogue was. It’s clear what mediation is, but what is dialogue? There are so many different understandings of dialogue. So, when you begin with Ukrainian context, and have donors wanting to help, they realise quickly that most of the opportunities for dialogue lie at the lower tracks. So, they began to sponsor dialogue without really defining it, and without the locals (or themselves) really understanding what is meant by it. And this of course triggers a high demand from locals for this money. And then everything was called “dialogue” – conferences, roundtables, traditional and hierarchical physical spaces, conversations between two people etc. It took both locals and internationals a couple of years to figure out that this wasn’t right approach. So, locals decided to define it themselves. In 2018, the Standards of Dialogue were created by local dialogue facilitators to contextualise and define dialogue for Ukrainian practice. They formulated the definition and principles of dialogue. Now, when people ask what dialogue is – I show them this paper. The dissemination of the document didn’t really work out, internationals didn’t know of its existence, but it was a clear attempt. Locals can now say “here are our rules.”

It is also important to note that the meaning of dialogue is dynamic and does not stay “in stone”, so Ukrainian dialogue facilitators wanted to update their Dialogue Standards. Also, in academic research, there is a special issue coming out on knowledge production in 2023 where our research articles will explore these issues.

How could this be fixed by the mediation community if it can be?  

Give voice to locals and see what they come up with. The problem with locals, though, is a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. In order to give “a local output,” there has to be an organisation of local experts. They need to be professional and need to clearly articulate what they want. Yet, in many cases, locals are not that strong to do so. Then internationals have two option – they can do it themselves, or they can empower locals to do their job. I think that the second option is a right one. There should be support given for self-organisation, sponsoring conferences, training, and things like this, to organise a community of professionals at the local level. So, it is a matter of giving voice and empowering people on the ground. And then they will be able to lead the processes.

Is there an alternative term and how could “buzzword-ification” be avoided? 

There have been attempts to make a new term instead of “dialogue”, but it never worked out. We don’t need an alternative term really; we just need proper meaning of the initial word. 

Knowledge Transfer and Role as a Researcher

In your experience, what is the relationship that your research has with your practice? What guidance do you have to researchers who wish to transfer their work in practice and/or vice versa? 

For me, research and practice are not separate things. However, my positionality is slightly unusual. To use the analogy of “insider mediator”, I am an “insider researcher”. I am inside the peace research – I am sitting in the conflict as it is happening, which gives me a lot of opportunities, and a lot of challenges. This positionality as an insider also forces me to look at real-life problems. For example, I don’t start from literature reviews – all of my work comes from real-world questions, from questions that people in the government ask, questions that mediators ask, etc. When they ask, I tell them “I don’t know the answer, but give me some time,” and that’s how my research comes about. It responds to practical needs on the ground, to address the real problems of my people. When you answer the real-life problems, you do not transfer the knowledge, it’s a different paradigm – you help your colleagues to do better job, they wait for your research findings, they take them immediately and put to practice or to policy. But, I understand that for other, more classical, researchers, the process of “transfer” is more difficult and requires special efforts.

Tetiana Kyselova

Dr. Tetiana Kyselova, Associate Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, School of Law since 2012. Dr. Kyselova holds an LLM from the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK), kandydat jurydychnykh nauk degree (PhD) from the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford (UK). She was trained as a mediator by the Search for Common Ground and as a business mediator by the IHK Academy Munich and Upper Bavaria. Her research interests include socio-legal studies, conflict resolution, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), access to justice, mediation, negotiation, peace mediation and dialogue.