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19 September, 2016

"If we lose the state, there will be nowhere left to fight corruption"

Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada about the change of generations in politics, work on past mistakes and the current agenda for political elites and society

Interviewed by Stanislav Kozliuk

How did the old elites cope with the task of building statehood?

– I do not like to use the word "elite" for political leaders, because it is obvious that its definition is broader than a group of people who are at the upper levels of government. Moreover, there was passionate impetus from below at all stages. If we're talking about the elite, let's go back to 1990. Members of the Communist Party, sensing the situation and fearing what was happening, took the red flags off their jackets to put blue and yellow ones on. But in fact they remained managers of the former property of the Communist Party and Young Communist League. And began to expand these possessions at the expense of Ukrainians using corrupt methods learned in the USSR. Is this an elite? No. It was a transitional stage. The process of breaking away from the post-communist elites lasted all these years. Is it possible to describe this ruling clique as a united front? No. All 25 years there was confrontation between the pro-Ukrainian camp, focused on Europe, and the pro-Russian camp, focused on the Russian Federation. There were fundamental differences between them. In 1990, the first camp was smaller, but their positions evened out in 2007, when a pro-Ukrainian majority with 227 votes was formed in the Rada. Now, for the first time in Ukraine's history, we have more than 300 MPs who support a pro-Ukrainian and pro-European orientation. They can discuss things and there may be differences, but in our basic principles and goals (the construction of an independent and self-reliant state, joining the EU and NATO, defending our independence), we have become like traditional European states for the first time. For them, the existence of the state cannot be the subject of discussion. And previously in Ukraine there was not only discussion. Remember the Kharkiv Agreements, when the Ukrainian parliament – Ukrainian only in name – made the decision to surrender some Ukrainian territory. But now there are no more debates on these fundamental issues.

In your opinion, which mistakes did the pro-Ukrainian camp make during its time in power?

– In my opinion, it was a big mistake not to hold early elections after the declaration of independence. It was the same in 2004. What happened as a result? The people in power were able to adapt to the new conditions and start their low-key, quiet comeback. The parliamentary and presidential elections held immediately after the Revolution of Dignity cemented the current state of society. This is the reason that we have a pro-Ukrainian majority in power. But the fact that this was not done previously is a big mistake.

Another error is confrontation within the pro-Ukrainian camp. As a historian, I can say that every single time this led to defeat. It's the curse of a millennium – from the Battle of the Kalka River when each prince went into battle alone to 1920, when fighting between Ukrainian forces led to there being no one to defend the country from Muravyov's army. In 2005, conflict in the pro-Ukrainian camp also led to the victory of pro-Russian forces.

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Is there a threat of the same thing happening now?

– There are attempts to regain influence and resources using great amounts of money. One of the tasks of government is not to let this happen in any form. Moreover, this revenge is in harmony with the policy that the Russian Federation is pursuing towards Ukraine. After all, Russia is not only a military occupier, but also works in all areas to disorientate and destabilise society.

How can this be avoided?

– By being successful and demonstrating our successful path. Many of those who now dream of taking revenge rely on corrupt money and resources from the old system. The lack of punishment for the people who were recently pulling these corrupt millions and billions out of each of our pockets encourages them. But the successful progress of reforms and tough action from the Prosecutor General and new anti-corruption bodies such as the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office and Anti-Corruption Bureau should become a guarantee that will prevent any such revenge.

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What do you associate the phrases "old professionals" and "strong managers" with?

– One of the problems at the beginning was that we did not let enough young managers into the system of government. When I hear "old managers", I have mixed feelings. Obviously, many of them were high-level professionals who climbed the ladder honestly. Because in almost all fields there are people who work loyally and people who commit acts of corruption and only think about their own interests. In the old system, the majority were involved in corrupt schemes to enrich themselves. While recognising that there are high-quality professionals among the people who have come a long way in the administration system, it's worth remembering that the "old professionals" are mostly contaminated with old corruption schemes and old forms of governance that are based on the desire to use power as a resource for their own enrichment. Renewing administrative staff at all levels – including MPs – is one of our main tasks. In this parliament, more than half of the new MPs had never been elected before. They are public figures, experts and people who experienced the Maidan and ATO.

Can we say that today's young politicians think in the old categories of the previous "elites"?

– Of course. Some of them used to be assistants for MPs and spent all their lives inside the old frame of reference. Young age is not always a guarantee of honesty and decency. It's just more likely. Can we say that there are some decent people among the older politicians? I was at the Flag Day ceremonies. Levko Lukyanenko, Yaroslav Kendzior and Mykola Porovskyi were there. Lukyanenko spent his life in prison and fought for Ukraine. Kendzior has always stood up for the state. Porovskyi, who was an MP in the 1stRada, proclaimed independence and brought in the flag. When the war started, he went to the front with the 3rdSpecial Forces Regiment and took part in the ATO. Dmytro Dontsov used the phrase "young old men". Age is not always a marker. It's just that there are more chances of finding young people who have not been infected by the old system. Are there decent, loyal and honest men among the old politicians who have demonstrated the ability to fight and defend the national interest over the past 25 years? Yes. Are there young opportunists who know the tricks so well that they are more comfortable in the system than their old bosses? Yes.

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Are the new politicians capable of finally "deoligarchising" the country?

– In almost every faction there are many active and effective progressive people of all ages. There are some who we rarely see in the chamber and it's hard to imagine them as the initiators of reforms. But the anti-corruption legislation we were talking about was adopted by majority vote. And the majority of today's political class has its mind set on changing Ukraine in one way or another. Are they ready for deoligarchisation? This is the parliament that has isolated the oligarchs. They are already ready, not "theoretically", not "at some point". Their actions have demonstrated this.

Going back to the reforms. The old management system has basically turned into the personification of "absolute evil" and tries to resist change in all directions. How can this be stopped?

– Do not be so dogmatic. If you go onto the motorway today and break the speed limit, the police will stop you and issue a fine. Who could have imagined this a few years ago? The system, which you say is resisting, includes the parliament that has created one of the best examples of anti-corruption legislation in Europe.

The main thing is for this legislation to actually operate in Ukraine...

– Is the National Anti-Corruption Bureau not working? Yes, there have been some discussions with the Prosecutor General's Office, and they are continuing. But my question is: are they working? You probably know about the opening of property registers and databases. That didn't fall from the sky! It was a decision by the Verkhovna Rada and government. And you say that the system is completely opposed. When you said this, you disregarded the work of thousands of people who are working to change the system. Disregarded all those ministers, MPs, experts and volunteers whose incredible work changes the country every day.

I gave the example of the police. Here's an example from the army. Do you think that the army is similar to the one that existed at the end 2014? Our army is categorically different. I can say that as former secretary of the National Security and Defence Council. I don't know in which other country such changes could occur within two and a half years. Yes, there are some old problems in the army, but it's changing fast. And I'm not only talking about spirit, training and weapons. It is now the most effective and most powerful army in the East-Central Europeregion. The time will come when there will be no need to send Abrams tanks to the Baltic, because we, as a NATO member or ally, will send the 80thUkrainian Brigade, which will help our allies to protect the eastern border of the EU from Russia.

Another example. The Agency to Identify Corrupt Assets. Do you remember where the most corrupt money was? I'll remind you. The gas industry. It is called the business of prime ministers and presidents. More than 50% of all corrupt money was wrapped up in it. Today Ukraine does not take gas from Russia, but buys it in Slovakia under transparent contracts. When corrupt practices were found in the local gas market, the Rada authorised the arrest of (businessman and MP – Ed.) Oleksandr Onyshchenko. His property was seized. Indeed, the stage where we need to get parliament's permission for arrest of the property is flawed, but it was passed as quickly as possible. Onyshchenko fled, but is not involved in corrupt practices anymore.

Have the old schemes been preserved? Yes. In state enterprises. In many areas. But their number is decreasing. One oligarch has been cut off from the gas monopoly, another from oil and a third from electricity. These are all decisions by parliament. Corruption is like a cancer. It penetrated society to its core. Is it possible to believe that all this can suddenly be destroyed in one day? Is it possible to think that all corrupt officials will suddenly see the error of their ways? There is an ongoing struggle between the new Ukraine and the old Ukraine. With difficulty, slowly and not as fast as we would like. But the new Ukraine is winning.

The worst thing is when you throw in the towel. Over 25 years there have been many reasons to do this and there have been much more desperate situations. Just remember the 1stand 2ndMaidans. But the only guarantee of victory was the fact that we believed in it.

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Which challenges will face Ukraine in the near future?

– There are two areas. Internal and external. Internal – the struggle for the existence of the state. At the start of the ATO, there were debates: fight corruption or to go to the front. I said then, "If we lose the state, there will be nowhere left to fight corruption". It is necessary to preserve the country. This is the number one front. The issue of the very existence of Ukraine. Changing the country, fighting corruption, building a strong and civilised country, where citizens feel dignity not only in a national, but also in a social and economic sense. The fight against corruption and its eradication is the internal front and is almost as equally important as the first point. Corrupt officials are Putin's most dangerous saboteurs. They kill people's faith in the changes to society. Another important issue is not allowing the destabilisation of the country. Putin's goal is conflict in government, in society – the collapse of the system. Now he needs a foundation to take revenge. And the scenario of early elections, which is occasionally mentioned, could well be it. But I don't think this will happen.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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