Pop­u­lar writer leads Ukraine’s cul­tural diplo­macy in France


Ukraine’s bu­reau­cracy even fol­lows its of­fi­cials abroad.

Irena Karpa, Ukrainian writer, singer, ac­tivist and the first sec­re­tary for cul­tural af­fairs at the Ukrainian Em­bassy in Paris, has seen the phenomenon first-hand. Hav­ing worked in her cur­rent role for two years, Karpa says sig­nif­i­cant progress has been made in Ukraine’s cul­tural diplo­macy. But even in France, Ukrainian bu­reau­cracy still slows the whole process down.

“It’s weird that when you talk to each in­di­vid­ual per­son at Ukraine’s For­eign Min­istry, they un­der­stand the bu­reau­cratic in­san­ity, but when the process starts, ev­ery­thing slows down,” Karpa told the Kyiv Post. “There isn’t one par­tic­u­lar dam­ag­ing of­fi­cial, but some­how it doesn’t work. But we’re still mov­ing for­ward.”

Karpa is prob­a­bly the most un­con- ven­tional per­son to work as an em­bassy of­fi­cial for Ukraine.

A pop­u­lar Ukrainian writer and avant-garde mu­si­cian, she once warmed up the au­di­ence at a Mar­i­lyn Man­son show in Kyiv wear­ing a dress made of salo, or raw pork fat — a Ukrainian del­i­cacy.

Today the 36-year-old still oc­ca­sion­ally per­forms, but also blogs about liv­ing in Paris with her two daugh­ters, who are 6 and 7 years old.

It’s been two years since she left Kyiv to lead the cul­tural diplo­macy ef­forts of Ukraine’s Em­bassy in France.

But un­til ear­lier this year, her hands were tied: There was no state fund­ing for what she was try­ing to do. Now that it’s changed, and she’s start­ing to get things done.

Money ar­rives

A diplo­matic break­through for

Ukraine came in March, when the govern­ment passed a res­o­lu­tion on creat­ing a pos­i­tive im­age of Ukraine abroad. It al­lowed state fi­nanc­ing of Ukraine’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in for­eign politi­cal and cul­tural events for the first time since 2012, when then-Prime Min­is­ter Mykola Azarov, an ally of fugi­tive ex-President Vik­tor Yanukovych, cut the fund­ing com­pletely, cit­ing an eco­nomic cri­sis.

For 2017, Ukraine al­lo­cated Hr 70 mil­lion ($2.6 mil­lion) to its em­bassies all over the world for cul­tural diplo­macy. Karpa jokes that the Ukrainian Em­bassy in Paris is “the greed­i­est one,” re­ceiv­ing $90,000 for two events.

One of them is “Un Week­end à l’Est,” an an­nual fes­ti­val in Paris, sched­uled for Nov. 15–20. This year, the event will fo­cus on Kyiv, and fea­ture mu­sic shows, lec­tures and ex­hi­bi­tions, with Ukrainian writ­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers, di­rec­tors and mu­si­cians par­tic­i­pat­ing.

Karpa said she would like to in­vite pop­u­lar elec­tronic folk band Onuka to per­form, but that’s where the bu­reau­cracy steps in: The al­lo­cated bud­get money can’t be spent on any­thing but ba­sic or­ga­ni­za­tional needs, like rent and trans­la­tions.

“It’s a trap — there is money, but we can’t spend it,” Karpa said.

The thing is, Ukrainian leg­is­la­tion doesn’t have thor­ough in­struc­tions that would in­clude all pos­si­ble items of ex­pen­di­ture, so diplo­mats are limited in the way they can spend bud­get money when or­ga­niz­ing events. How­ever, a de­tailed rul­ing that would solve this prob­lem is in the works now in the Ukrainian govern­ment.

“The em­bassy has re­quested money for sev­eral im­por­tant events. But it had to back out of some of them. Be­cause the pro­ce­dure for us­ing the funds — the part about trans­porta­tion and ac­com­mo­da­tion of artists, jour­nal­ists and ex­perts — is still re­viewed by Ukraine’s Jus­tice Min­istry,” Karpa said.

Another prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Karpa, is that all spend­ing should strictly cor­re­late with the preap­proved bud­get plan, so she can’t throw an im­promptu event, or com­mit to par­tic­i­pate in an up­com­ing fes­ti­val next year, be­cause it’s hard to say whether her depart­ment will get the money.

“In­ter­na­tion­ally, big events are vi­tal, but to take part in those you need to be sure you’ll have the money, and that you won’t end up be­ing con­sid­ered a flake,” she said.

Karpa said that hope­fully she will be able to at­tract phi­lan­thropists to sup­port cul­tural events. She said that she has hosted count­less Ukrainian artists in her Paris apart­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to Karpa, even though Parisians are hard to im­press, they still at­tend Ukrainian events.

“When Lviv Opera per­formed in Paris, city’s Palais des Con­grès was full, and it’s 3,000 seats,” she said.

Be­ing proud

Karpa com­bines her diplo­matic job with writ­ing books and lead­ing the Ukrainian al­ter­na­tive band Qarpa.

She calls her­self more of an artist than a man­ager, and says she feels most com­fort­able when she is on stage com­mu­ni­cat­ing with her au­di­ence. She also likes to sit on a cafe ter­race and write fic­tion. How­ever, as the mother of two kids, she doesn’t have much time for that.

Right now, Karpa is work­ing on a book, a new sin­gle with her band and a screen­play.

Hav­ing been born in the cen­tral city of Cherkasy and raised in western Ukraine, Karpa says she has never felt “ei­ther em­bar­rassed or su­per proud” of her ori­gins.

“To be proud of the fact that you are a Ukrainian is like to be proud of the fact that you have kid­neys,” Karpa said. “You should be proud of spe­cific things.”

Karpa says she is proud of how Ukraine is chang­ing, of the EuroMaidan Rev­o­lu­tion that de­posed Yanukovych, and of how Kyiv is de­vel­op­ing, with its new co-work­ing spa­ces, star­tups, and art.

“Cul­ture is a liv­ing or­gan­ism, it can’t be jammed in a box,” she said. “A per­son sees a high-qual­ity prod­uct at first, and then finds out that Ukraine is be­hind it. No­body says: ‘Ok, let’s in­vite Great Bri­tain, be­cause they have Ra­dio­head.’ First, they get to know Ra­dio­head, and then find out where they come from.”

Irena Karpa, Ukrainian writer, singer and ac­tivist, reads po­etry by Ukrainian poet Artem Polezhaka dur­ing her show "Po­etry and Jazz on the Roof" at the Roof Club in Kyiv on Aug. 2. (Yulya We­ber)

Irena Karpa, lead singer of Ukrainian al­ter­na­tive band Qarpa, per­forms on the stage of Kyiv's Docker Pub on March 12. (Yulya We­ber)

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