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20 August, 2015

“Western partners often do not understand what Ukraine wants”

Head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Foreign Affairs on Ukraine’s cooperation with Western partners and international organizations, the consequences of the Minsk agreement and the upcoming local elections

Do you consider the Minsk format effective in the current crisis? Can there be an alternative?

The Minsk agreements are basically a forced step Kyiv had to take under pressure of the Russian military offensive and the state of the Ukrainian economy. Starting with the Minsk agreement signed in September 2014 steps were taken that allowed to stabilize the front line, reduced the intensity of military actions and loss of human lives and gave us the possibility to cut costs and gain time to prepare to win this war.

Compared to a year ago, the Ukrainian military has made notable progress in terms of staffing and armament. But we are not ready for full-blown invasion as the price would be human lives. For this reason we are exploiting the Minsk process, though we are not happy with it. It is important to understand how additional strategies to defend our interests can be built through and around the Minsk agreement. By conducting reforms and fighting corruption, we are sending out a message to Russian citizens that under Russian aggression Ukrainians are becoming stronger, and to the international community that is providing us with financial and humanitarian aid.

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The state must be built in unity, people must play as a united team where every member has an own role. It is critically important that the interests of the state prevail over the interests of financial groups or political factions. What some parliamentarians are doing is not permissible. They cry out “We do not recognize the Minsk agreement!”, but they do not propose alternatives. If we speak about alternatives – whether we should expand the circle of our allies, increase the number of negotiating parties or strategic partners – this must be discussed.

I recently received from the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden a positive response to my letter requesting expansion of sanctions against Russia, including expulsion from SWIFT, should Russia fail to fulfill its urgent commitments under the Minsk agreement. The United States are not officially part of the Normandy format, but they are involved in negotiations and the official visits of John Kerry, Victoria Nuland and Joe Biden to Ukraine are testimony to the fact that the U.S. is actively participating in counteraction to Russian aggression.

For Ukraine, this opens the possibility of close cooperation with the entire world – Australia, Japan, African nations and the Arab world. When export to Russia is blocked, it is time to seek new export destinations for our goods. The lifting of sanctions against Iran opens an additional source of energy for Europe and weakens the influence of Russia on the global market. The situation is rapidly changing, which is why we must have a sober understanding of challenges and opportunities.

Is the Ukrainian leadership facing pressure from Western partners to speed up decentralization and reforms in general?

Saying something like “you’re being pushed into doing something” only plays into Russia’s hands. The Kremlin wants to disband the parliamentary coalition by fueling disputes about constitutional reform. Many messages will be spread to fuel squabbles amongst those who have not looked into it in detail.

Western partners often cannot understand what Ukraine wants – we cannot afford to confuse them. Politicians should not cry out that somebody is putting pressure on them. Instead, they should effectively fulfill their obligations by cleaning the Augean stables in the Ministry of Defense, the defense industry, agribusiness and industry. Everyone must play their role. It’s as simple as that. We have several tasks at hand: resistance to Russian aggression, winning international support in different sectors and developing information campaigns.

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine is supporting public service broadcasting so that we finally have a quality product with professionally made content that Ukrainians will want to watch. This could encourage people to think more critically and compete with TV channels controlled by oligarchs. We must understand how to exploit the support of the West: we should request actual assistance to restore Eastern Ukraine rather than more loans. As far as loans are concerned, we must be responsible and spend them effectively.

Unity is the key resource for Ukraine. Thanks to unity Turkey managed to double its GDP and become a regional leader with huge ambitions and actual influence. This is because it clearly understood that this in the country’s best interests. Ukraine must take this as an example. I encourage Ukrainians to pursue sound pragmatism, adequate judgment and understanding of our strategic interests.

The decentralization amendments passed by the Verkhovna Rada recently expand the powers of local communities. This makes the upcoming local elections in October all the more important. How do our Western partners see the process of elections in occupied territories? How can transparency be guaranteed there?

This year we have conducted budget decentralization — now local councils have more funds, but they often do not know how to spend them, as they do not have a farsighted strategy. And what is the priority for cities: building roads, investing in hospitals or opening new schools? This requires a concrete program: the community should assemble and stop pointing at what the president, the parliament or the government has to do for it. From now on, you and your mayor are responsible for the future of your city. Then, having greater financial wherewithal, local politician will bear greater responsibility, because if something goes awry local residents will hold them to account, not Kyiv. The move will boost effectiveness, and the argument that the “upper echelon is in the way” will no longer be valid. People should be able to take care of themselves.

Unfortunately, in many regions there are no realistically worthy cadres to run in these elections and assume responsibility. We will hold these elections, and they will reboot local elites, even if only partially. Under the new Constitution, the next elections will be held in two years (after the ones in October 2015 – Ed.). This will be a good new opportunity.

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Voters will see their elected candidates in action and realize whom they want to see running their constituency. In addition to that, this presents an opportunity for international and Ukrainian NGOs to prepare cadres.  I know that the Internationals Republican Institute supported by Canada will conduct studies for mayors and their teams, deputies and activists.

We and our Western partners understand this perfectly well and the parliament did the right thing by amending the Law “On a Special Procedure of Local Self-Government in Some Parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts” to outline nine clauses on how the elections should be held in those regions. These will not be sham elections as Ukrainian parties and politicians will participate while OSCE and other international observers will monitor, but this should not be done at the terrorists’ gunpoint.

Ukrainian media should be present during these elections, but only after heavy weaponry is withdrawn and when the terrorists are disarmed. Also, we must rely on the voters’ responsibility – the race in Chernihiv showed that this can be problematic. Voters must understand that when they vote for a politician, they are responsible for their vote. This is mutual responsibility of both the voters and the politicians they elect. They should actively interact after the elections as well.

At the moment, we are observing a very worrisome trend of complete desacralization of power. Some are fueling a pessimistic sentiment that there are no honest politicians and that they are all bad. This crushes belief that some politicians actually do work for the benefit of the state.  

How effectively are international organizations working in Eastern Ukraine? For example, the OSCE: to what degree does their mandate enable them to facilitate the resolution of the conflict?

On the one hand, we understand that the effectiveness of the OSCE must be enhanced. They themselves understand this too. Recently in Helsinki at the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act it was stated that the OSCE must be reformed so as to be able to prevent conflicts.

On the other hand, if we are very critical of the OSCE with not alternatives, we will push ourselves into a situation where our laments bring about zero result. We criticize them, and then talk about demilitarization of Shyrokyne and the need to increase the presence of the OSCE.

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In all talks with EU member states, Canada and others we ask for the support of the UN and its peacekeeping mission. In addition to that we need to increase the presence of the OSCE and those organizations that are providing us assistance – the Czech organization People in Need and the Red Cross. We must clearly realize that there are no better options for the current tasks.

At the moment, we have unique opportunities to integrate into international organizations, but we need a sound strategy to do so. Participation in international organizations and their presence in the East is a great learning opportunity. We must find strategic partners but not brag about it everywhere. There should be a group of people who have a clear vision of Ukraine’s future domestic and foreign policy, and who are ready to sit down with the Western partners, think about it and implement it together.

BIO

Hanna Hopko, born in 1982 in Lviv Oblast, was educated as a journalist and holds a PhD in communications. She worked on television and radio, volunteered and worked at NGOs. Ms. Hopko is on the coordination board of the Reanimation Package of Reform, and head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Foreign Affairs since December 4, 2014


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