After fleeing the war in Ukraine, the anti-corruption expert talks about scholars at risk and how Kyiv and Berlin are much alike.
Maria Mamedbekova has a lot on her plate. Between working at an anti-corruption think tank in Ukraine and doing a Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School in Berlin, she is also assisting in a hybrid-class on anti-corruption. Right now, about 20 students are rounding up their last session of “Diagnosing Crony Capitalism and Kleptocracy”, a course taught by Professor of Democracy Studies Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. While the group opens their laptops and note pads, Maria connects them to another group via Zoom – students from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, Ukraine.
From Kyiv to Berlin
While Maria is now busy with her master’s degree at the Hertie School, her professional path was only rerouted to Berlin when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Maria earned her first master’s degree in International Relations and Politics in Kyiv. After working at the Odesa Regional State Administration, she went back to Kyiv to work as a programme manager at the Anti-Corruption Research and Education Centre (ACREC), a think tank at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “At ACREC, we work on various issues dealing with anti-corruption: rule of law, transparency and the protection of whistle-blowers,” she explains. One of Maria’s projects at ACREC was a master’s programme on anti-corruption for civil servants and civil society activists – the first of its kind in Ukraine.
Maria’s situation changed dramatically in February 2022. “When the invasion began, my colleagues and I were forced to relocate to cities throughout Ukraine and abroad. We only had about a month and a half to salvage what we could,” she says. It was then that Maria found out about the Hertie School through Professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a long-time friend of her boss at ACREC, Oksana Nesterenko. Mungiu-Pippidi recommended that Maria apply for a scholarship that was currently open to scholars at risk. Maria jumped at the opportunity: “It’s not like I’m doing much stuck in another city,” she remembers thinking.
Once Maria received the scholarship, Mungiu-Pippidi suggested that she apply for the Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School. “Since you are going to be in Berlin anyway, why not get another master’s degree while you’re here?” Mungiu-Pippidi recalls herself saying. Maria sent the application, and a month later, she had her letter of acceptance.
Coordinating an anti-corruption course between Berlin and Kyiv
Now Maria is working on a master’s degree at the Hertie School while continuing her anti-corrruption work in Ukraine. In addition to these responsibilities, the anti-corruption expert is also coordinating Professor Mungiu-Pippidi’s transnational class with her university in Ukraine.
For Professor Mungiu-Pippidi, it was important to include students in Ukraine in this course. “When the war started, I thought the best way to move forward is for everybody in Europe to adopt something in Ukraine – a university, a school, a civil society organisation, each its own kind. We already had this anti-corruption programme in Kyiv that we helped start years ago, so it was only logical to pool two corruption classes in one hybrid format’,” she says. Maria adds that “we specifically designed the course with the current situation in Ukraine in mind.”
The goal of the course is to identify evidence to diagnose kleptocracies, countries whose leaders use political power to expropriate wealth from public resources and the people, and to make sense of the new world where corruption can easily cross borders. “Nobody has a good universal instrument to measure crony capitalism, and it is really difficult to compare a country where kleptocrats come from, say Russia, and another where the banking industry hosts them,” Mungiu-Pippidi explains. According to Maria, the biggest strength of the course is its international student body – and not only in Berlin. “Even back in Ukraine, there are students from the US and Georgia who can compare examples from their own countries with what goes on in Ukraine and Russia,” she says.
Maria notes that before the course started, they were concerned that power outages in Kyiv might prevent the students there from taking part in the course. But the students were ready for technical difficulties. “Some students didn’t have power at home,” she said, “but almost every student knows what to do. There are cafes with generators that offer free Wi-Fi, and the government has also set up places where you can work and study for free.”
Life at the Hertie School in Berlin
Despite the extreme circumstances that brought her to Berlin, Maria managed to get through the “bureaucracy that everyone moving to a new place has to deal with”, and quickly found a flat. Now she says that she likes living in Berlin. “I feel the spirit of freedom here,” Maria says. “Berlin is very dynamic. It has a lot of hidden gems – places to chill like coffee houses.” In her eyes, Berlin is a lot like Kyiv: “Places are familiar to me. Somebody once told me that Kyiv looks like Berlin did 20 years ago – now I see it. The atmospheres in the two cities are similar, and both cities are centres of culture.”
When asked about her experience studying at the Hertie School, she says that “although the system is very different from what I’m used to, I’m enjoying it very much. There are fewer classes, and they are more focused on practical subjects. You have a lot more flexibility as to what you want to study, especially after the first semester is over. And there’s a lot more diversity and a bigger focus on networking.” The Hertie School community in particular stands out in her experience. “The community here is very, very welcoming,” she says, and adds that she also has fellow Ukrainian students at the school that she can talk to.
Maria’s future plans
Despite having years of work experience under her belt, Maria has still found inspiration in her current studies. She says that one topic she wants to explore more during her master’s programme is digital governance and cooperation. “I continue working on anti-corruption in my job, but during my time at Hertie, I’ve decided to research digital governance more and connect it to my work on anti-corruption,” she says. “Digitalisation allows for more transparency and eases a lot of processes. It makes everything more efficient, and it makes it easier to track suspicious activities.”
After finishing her degree, Maria says that she is considering doing a PhD because she likes the idea of teaching. “Doing a PhD is an idea I would like to explore because it would allow me to teach at university.” She mentions a classmate of her previous studies in Ukraine who did a PhD and now teaches. “She has some very interesting stories to tell,” she says. “She likes to talk to young people because they are the ones rebuilding after the war. I want to be a part of that, too.”
While she is enjoying her time in Berlin, Maria eventually plans to return to Ukraine. “I always wanted to study, do an internship or work abroad for a year or two, but I never wanted to move abroad permanently,” she says. “Ukraine is a great country to live in, and I really want to go back.”
Maria Mamedbekova received a residential fellowship from the Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative. Read more about what the Hertie School is doing for scholars at risk.