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12 December, 2016

"Minsk is an attempt to escape from reality"

Verkhovna Rada Vice-Speaker on re-balancing power in Ukraine, the effect of the Minsk process, and occupied territories

Interviewed by Roman Malko

Two years ago in an interview with The Ukrainian Week, when asked whether parliament is leaving behind the tradition of decision-making in back rooms, you said that there is some inertia, but everything will be all right. What has changed?

– There is some inertia, but everything will be all right (laughs). But seriously, of course, there are reactionaries and the old "tradition" is recovering. The people who have been in this system for a long time desire to put everything back the way it was. This reactionary response began about six months after the newly-elected parliament started work. Once parliament settled into a routine, these people wanted to return to "business as usual" – you scratch my back, I scratch yours, and other sorts of deals. And this is partly the case. The majority of decisions are made in this way. But there is more. A small number of MPs are bearers of other values and independent from oligarchic parliamentary groups; they are not part of the Byzantine tradition, and in one way or another always disavow the current process. This is already irreversible. Previously this caused great irritation to bearers of the Byzantine tradition: they were outraged and offended, but now realise that these people cannot be intimidated, bribed or changed – they will always be the same and say whatever they feel. This is a positive development. As for when everything will be "all right", I will answer: when there is a majority of people who are bearers of these transparent, responsible values.

There is a perception that Ukrainian politics will change when new people, independent from the oligarchs, come into it. But experience shows that the quality of people is more the problem. Can we expect the next elections to bring completely new political parties, a critical mass of high-quality new faces into parliament?

– That's the million-dollar question. The current political system is oligarchic. It was formed over at least 15 years. Almost all political forces in parliament are the products of oligarchs, oligarchic brands. Moreover, most of the oligarchs who stand behind those forces are by their very nature not Ukrainian, and often stand for anti-Ukrainian interests. Oligarchs are those that have big business, a political party and big media. These people use their money to create political projects – new ones for each election – and use their personal media to promote them, effectively marketing these brands. They get into parliament, form a government that will always be in their pocket and get access to three things: the state budget (through procurement and social payments), monopolies and natural resources (gas, oil, electricity, land, minerals), public enterprises and privatisation. As a result, they get even richer and invest even more money in new political projects and so on. This is how the self-renewal and endless circle of Ukrainian politics work. In parallel, there is ongoing investment in personal judges and prosecutors, who are basically providers of services for certain people. The issue for us – these few dozen people in parliament – is what to do about this and how. It is a big challenge to meet the needs and expectations of a society that has moved forward and needs new governance right now.

In order to change this, there are some critical points we have to put pressure on.

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First, we need a new election law based on proportional representation with open lists. If this doesn't happen, the next elections under the current law will lower the quality of parliament. There will be fewer independent people and more pro-Russian forces.

Secondly, public funding of political parties. It was launched this year, which is good, but, for example, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NAZK) has received direct instruction from the Presidential Administration not to give Samopomich (Self Reliance) the 39 million hryvnias ($1.5m) it should be allocated under the gender quota. This is an example of political pressure for those of us who do not have money from oligarchs.

This is an example of how, on the one hand, we have taken a step forward and there is now a fund to finance political parties, and on the other hand – it was immediately turned into a tool for manipulation and applying pressure.

In addition, there are the points of oligarchic self-renewal that I mentioned and we have to hit them hard. To eliminate the budget-linked source of renewal, we have to change the public procurement system, audit the pension fund, as well as all social benefits, and put in place a new tax administration system. These hide at least one more budget, maybe more. Today, the pension fund, tax office and customs are a Klondike for embezzling public funds.

The second point is natural resources. In this case, we have to deal with all regulators. No president ever wanted to give up his influence on the regulators, especially in the fields of energy and utilities. The fact that we passed a law on regulators is not a blow to oligarchic circles, but a small, buzzing fly. In fact, the law has basically normalised the current opaque system of licensing, setting tariffs and monitoring, as well as the regulator’s dependence on the president. Therefore, the law is no good: it will not bring anything new to regulation on the energy market or add any transparency. There should be a completely new approach. This should apply to all regulators.

The third component is state-owned enterprises and privatisation. For two years, we've been told: vote for this list of enterprises to be privatised. The argument was that a private owner is better than the state. Of course, it's better. But who will this owner be? No country has completed its privatisation process without scandals. Legitimacy of a procedure depends on its transparency. This means that there should be no risks of re-privatisations or mysterious deaths of State Property Fund (SPF) chairmen, which we have already had two of.

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We must understand that the same management rules as for private companies should apply to state-owned ones too, as well as privatisation procedures that meet the requirements of transparent competition.

First of all, there should be a law on corporate governance of state enterprises with supervisory boards and all related transparent elements. For now, however, there’s the list of companies that we've been shown for two years, these companies being under the umbrella of the State Affairs Management – an agency governed by one person, the President of Ukraine. True, these companies have different directors, but ultimately they are all part of one pyramid. It's the same with the more than 140 Ukroboronprom, the complex of state-owned defence industry enterprises.

So, one law should offer transparent privatisation procedures. Reasonable procedures of formation and accountability to parliament should be introduced for the State Property Fund. Finally, no transparent privatisation is possible without institutions, such as courts, prosecutors etc, being independent.

Then, the law on state secrets - today, it does not protect state secrets, but the vast corruption in the field of security and defence. We need to increase the defence budget as a country at war, but, with the current law in place, increasing it would only increase corruption. So we need a new one that will establish that state secrets do not apply to public procurements funded by the state budget.

Is there the potential to implement these ideas?

– The potential of this parliament is like turkeys voting for Christmas. People in parliament have been getting rich for years thanks to bad laws. They have to be forced into change. Typically, it is possible to make positive decisions when there are people in the Verkhovna Rada who understand this and are willing to fight. There is also civil society, which is active in some places and in others requires more work, as well as our international partners who understand the importance of such things. When we manage to close this triangle where interests converge, we are able to take very important steps. When I talk about civil society, I mean journalists too. They can play a very important role. Most journalists do not want to take on serious topics, preferring to describe scandals rather than delve into a certain theme and prepare society for important decisions. Which is also irresponsible.

To what extent is parliament an independent power? Despite the fact that we are officially a parliamentary-presidential democracy, it seems that parliament is in some way controlled by the Presidential Administration.

– Parliament is immature and subordinate for two reasons. Firstly, the dependence on oligarchs was formed over decades, so it is hard to expect that it will be possible to quickly jump out of it. Especially if the election law is not changed, people will again vote for the nice, slick person at the top of the list without looking at who is further down, and then, as usual, they will complain and ask why our MPs are so negligent, vote for the wrong things and are corrupt.

The second reason is hidden in the imbalance of power, especially the executive branch. According to the Constitution and the tradition introduced by Leonid Kuchma, a greater volume of executive power is concentrated in the president than the prime minister and cabinet. This is very bad. For example, executive authorities at a local level – the heads of county and district administrations – are supposed to represent the government, not the "presidential vertical".

As a representative body, parliament should oversee the entire executive branch. People elect it in order to monitor how the Government collects and spends their money. This is the function of the Rada. And laws are the consequences of this control. If parliament sees that the Government is abusing taxpayers' money, an appropriate response must follow.

RELATED ARTICLE: How Ukrainian politicians see the likelihood of elections in the occupied parts of Donbas

As for the situation with the President of Ukraine, any of them: whoever is in that office has massive executive power, because he influences the collection and expenditure of public money without the control of parliament. The Verkhovna Rada has no tools to monitor what the president does in the executive branch. As a result, anyone holding the position of president, with such a large amount of power and access to public money, begins to slide into authoritarianism and corruption. It's human nature.

And if you have this absolute power for five years with no oversight at all, that's it – all hell breaks loose. This happens to everyone. Therefore, it must be corrected – the entire executive branch must be under the control of parliament. All of it.

Who bears political responsibility then?

– The person who has the most power. Which, by the way, few people understand. The more power you take on, the more responsibility you have to bear. Whereas people usually want a lot of power and less responsibility. Excessive power, without the correct accountability tools, becomes a tombstone for anyone who monopolises it. How should political responsibility be divided up? The president, parliament and ministers – 471 people – are a horizontal plateau that has to make decisions for the state. Meanwhille, anyone in Ukraine wants a godlike status as president – "who created everything and governs everything". Although in fact, everyone should be able to feel their own 1/471 share: the president for representing the state, the government for shaping public policy and parliament for supervising the government. A person who tries to take over everything himself will one day have to answer for everything.

The next parliamentary elections should be held in three years' time, unless a snap election takes place. How do you see the future political spectrum? Will there be new parties or will existing ones reformat?

– We must understand that early elections primarily benefit Russia. This is a way of internal destabilisation in Ukraine (elections mean six months of ineffectiveness) and a guarantee that pro-Russian forces will gain more influence in parliament. The Russian Federation is rather actively working on shaking up the situation here; there is much rhetoric from various political forces on how we need early elections and everything is really bad. I believe that we are developing now, no matter what; there is no stagnation or degradation. We are just not developing as quickly as Ukrainian society expected. But, paradoxically, the very facts that there is a war and Russia attempts to stir up Ukraine from within are the best proof that we are moving in the right direction. If we were degrading, Russia would not have to do anything– it would just wait for us to fall into its arms. This must be remembered. We take one step forward, three to the side, then one back, due to the great influence of oligarchs. We're trying to force these turkeys to vote for Christmas. And it is necessary to realise that they will not do this with pleasure and deference, but only under great duress.

Nevertheless, there are some resources to work with. In both government and parliament. It is just necessary to consolidate around the search for new high-quality solutions. Still, there is a set of anti-corruption legislation, which will bring a new quality of policy, there is still fear and 25% of judges have given notice of their resignation. Now there will be more natural purification thanks to electronic declarations of officials’ assets. In any case, certain processes are taking place that brush certain people aside and give others the opportunity to emerge. But political parties should be built from the bottom up. They are not born in the Presidential Administration, but in the community, the county and oblast centres, where you have the insight of the people. Not even in Kyiv. A political force born in the capital based on a purely national-level platform will not survive.

RELATED ARTICLE: New political parties and projects in Ukraine

Do you see the Democratic Alliance, Mikheil Saakashvili's party or other political forces not represented in parliament as political allies and partners?

– I would be happy if there were at least 226 votes from pro-Ukrainian forces in parliament. That is my dream. It doesn't matter what they are called or who represents them, I will respect them and cooperate with them all. The main thing is that they be independent of the oligarchs, guided by certain values ​​and able to conduct responsible politics.

Under what conditions could Samopomich return to the coalition?

– We left the coalition (with Petro Poroshenko’s BPP, Arseniy Yatseniuk’s People’s Front, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna and Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party – Ed.) for one reason. When they got into parliament, all political forces declared the same thing. And the coalition was formed based on those declarations. Then it turned out that we say, think and do the same thing, while here the tradition is a bit different: say one thing, think another and do a third. This reached a critical point for us and there was a watershed moment, because we don't lie to our people and can't cover up double or triple standards. We have separated ourselves from this oligarchic alliance once and for all. Now we are in our natural state: we can be ourselves. At the same time, if we understand that the decisions made in parliament are useful, we support them, but we are not responsible for the decisions that the oligarchs produce as part of their scheme.

Is there a parliamentary coalition at all now?

– According to the Constitution, there is a coalition de jure. But after spending some time in the political environment, I can say that a coalition is something a little bit different. It's not about 226 votes. It's the ability to find consensus. This doesn't exist in Ukrainian political tradition yet, but we're learning. When the first coalition agreement was written after the election, it was our first experience of building consensus. You may remember, the president suggested that the leaders of the People's Front and Samopomich should sit down with him, the three of them together, and sign a coalition agreement. Only Andriy Sadovyi (Mayor of Lviv and Samopomich leader – Ed.) said: "We’re not going to be in parliament. Let the people who are going to work there write and sign the coalition agreement." About a week and a half passed before the president agreed to this, but we kept our part of the bargain and sat down at the negotiating table to search for consensus. It just so happened that I moderated the whole process and could see the dynamic. We were such "freshmen", didn't know anything or anyone, but the rest came with the baggage of mutual distrust that was built up over decades. Perhaps because we were brand new and genuinely tried to put all these pieces together, it worked out. Again, just because we did not have any experience in the past, we were able to persuade both sides to sit and work a bit more. Since then, we have had many coalition crises and the coalition now remains in a limited form, but the process of preparing the agreement is still cited as a success. When we have to seek consensus, politicians who were involved in that process often say: do you remember how we wrote the coalition agreement? The development of the country depends on the ability to build consensus. If there is political consensus and the ability to build it – this is a safeguard against early elections, subversion and political manipulation, as well as a guarantee of good planning and transparency in parliament.

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How does your party affiliation influence your work as vice-speaker and vice versa?

– Very well. When I took this position, I was not yet a member of the party and had to give up my seat in the faction. However, very often this becomes the subject of manipulation. I came here with a team of people whose values I share. We hardly knew each other, but I intuitively felt that, although we often think differently, we know how to look for common solutions, so I was comfortable with them. When I moved to this office, and everyone else stayed where they were, other people tried to take advantage. They asked me, "What do you want?" and offered me anything I needed. They tried to take care of me and explained that because I'm unaffiliated, we can do things differently and I don't have to vote in the same way as the faction. No one realised that I made decisions not because of the party whip, but my own convictions. One day, I made an application to the party, went to them and said that I need this identity. First of all, I think that it is impossible to build a political system without being in a party. Saying that "someone someday will make the right party and I'll join it" is infantilism. Just try and build a decent party in a place where there's no tradition of this because they were always sold as a franchise. This is a very difficult thing, and it requires responsibility from the very start. I understood this, and also the fact that I just need the identity to have a circle of protection around me. Since then, although I am officially unaffiliated, I identify myself as Samopomich to everyone, and for me it is a great honour to be part of the team and bearer of a specific value system that is ​​shared by people in the faction, party and local organisations. This helps a lot.

The political future of Samopomich will be closely linked with you, as you hold the highest position achieved by the party so far. Where do you see the political niche of Samopomich? Should it be social-democratic, right wing, liberal?

– We often discuss this vision of the party's mission and have come to the understanding that our challenge is a little different now. Traditional ideologies have shifted somewhat in the modern world. Tony Blair wrote about it in his book A Journey, for example. The way ideology was perceived at the beginning of the 20thcentury and at the beginning of the 21st century is two different things. People expect the same things from the state, no matter which ideology they or their parents adhere to. That is, as far as Western democracies are concerned. The situation in Ukraine is different still. Today, we have two ideologies: oligarchic and anti-oligarchic. However today's political forces in parliament position themselves, all of them, except for Samopomich, change their rhetoric depending on the changing interests of the people that stand behind them. Often, they are also influenced by Russia. It is necessary that we have a critical mass of people in parliament whose primary ideology is the removal of the oligarchic political system. I am in no way bloodthirsty, and am not exactly champing at the bit to put everyone behind bars. These oligarchs will have to give back what they took from society. Because to a great extent they all acquired their wealth by abusing the benefits of society. And it's time to give back. Each one should build some sort of Rockefeller Center in order to leave something for the public. Let them continue to develop their businesses, but policy must be built by people who do are not so economically dependent. Big business will never make decent politicians. A person who comes into politics to defend their big business is unfortunate. They can't think about the interests of the state and society, because they have to think about how to preserve and increase their wealth – such is their nature. So we need to help them by pushing them out of the political system. This is our main ideology now. Then, when we get a political system where oligarchs do not have a majority influence, I will at least be able to calculate how much tax we collect. How can I say now whether we are a liberal or conservative economy, if I don't know how much money we have coming in, but I know that at least half of it is stolen? When I can count the taxes and audit the pension fund, I will know how much money we actually need for pensions, and then I can say that we should be such and such a type of economy. Now, it's all guesswork. We have no control over most of the public finances.

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To what extent do the current beliefs of Samopomich leadership and founders correspond to the policy of local branches?

– People in the regions are mostly very good quality. However, finding them is a tough mission. Good-quality people do not want to go into politics. They say, let me help you a bit, but I don't want to get involved in politics. This stereotype should be broken. Politics can be different. People who join us do so based on certain values ​​that are clear to everyone. On the basis of integrity, compassion, openness and accountability. Through this, we find common ground, and even complex issues are not a stumbling block. We speak the same language. Moreover, it's nice to watch people in our local branches learning horizontal decision-making. When they expect to get some orders from above, they are told: it's your decision, it's your town. We sit down together, have a think, they start to make proposals – and a solution appears. For them, this is a great mystery – they are only just finding the ability to make decisions in themselves. Or the opposite situation, when here in Kyiv there are attempts to influence decisions in the regions. People come to us and say that there will be a vote in Dnipro or Kherson, so we should have a word with our people there. We say that they are clever and know what decision to take, so how could we influence them. At first, they thought we that we were joking around, because that isn't the way things are done, but there is now an understanding that it's really the case – in principle, everyone is responsible for what they came to do.

What do you think of the peace-making potential of the Minsk or Normandy formats? Will it be possible for Ukraine to solve its age-old problem with its neighbour in this way?

– In fact, the wrong thing is being solved. Minsk is an attempt to escape from reality. Above all, by the Western world. Russia creates this false reality, and everyone falls for it. It wants to bring Ukraine into its imperial surroundings, wants a vulnerable and dependent EU that it will be able to disrupt, and all this in order to end up one-on-one with the US and divide up the world with them. That's the ambition. In order to destabilise Ukraine, Russia has used financial terror by investing partly in the economy and partly in the oligarchs that it brought into politics. Now, every time they need the horse to buck, they simply pull on the reins. When it was necessary to activate all this for the occupation of Crimea and Donbas, all the "sleeper agents" came out of the woodwork. Although there are still many of them in Ukraine. Russia has got a lot of the same "sleepers" in Europe. Political parties and the media that they finance, as well as Russian money. Europeans think that this money protects them, but it actually covers "sleeper agents", and no one knows how and when they will wake up. This is all a big threat. Today, Russia causes problems all around the world: Transnistria, Karabakh, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria. It's such a trouble-maker. Russia sells this instability in order to draw attention to itself and make itself a force to be reckoned with. Both Europe and the US should focus on solving the problem of Russia as a bad guy that is a pain in the neck for everyone. But no one knows which approach to take. Well, he's such a bully, he’ll start to fight even more and cause us another headache. Because no one wants or knows how to pacify him, they have decided to appease him by offering certain benefits that, in the opinion of the West, could calm him down a little. And Ukraine is the bait. Russia has laid its hands on Ukraine, and now Europe and the Western world are faced with a choice: give the victim to the dragon or fight for it. Some people in the West have already realised that the dragon will not be satisfied with one victim and will eat the whole village. But since there is no real solution to the problem, they continue to try to do something with Ukraine.

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I have already heard from European politicians ideas about continuing to democratise Russia and work with it from within. "From within? Where's that?" I ask. "What? You don't believe that they will let our information in?" I say, "No Russian brain will take in your information, because it contradicts their beliefs about themselves. You might get through Putin's censorship, but you won't get through the censorship of the zombified Russian brain. There's no angle to approach them from."

Again, in order to seek a solution, we must first recognise the problem openly and say that the problem is not Ukraine and that it's not a conflict in Ukraine. The problem is Russia, and it is necessary to look for a way to solve it. This is impossible to do in the Normandy format, because the US is not there, and it's unachievable without the United States. Actually, we should think about how to expand this format, change it and find the opportunity to involve the United States, perhaps the UK and other European countries. And we really need to seek a new legal order. The UN Charter does not work, obviously. The safeguards that were in the UN system and OSCE have all fallen apart; they are still pottering around under their own momentum, but it’s gone and we have to look for something else. Otherwise, the world will not survive – there must be some systems of collective security. 

Are we puppets in this game or active players? How independent is the Ukrainian president?

– We're not puppets. But what can we do at the moment? It's easy to blame the president and I criticise him myself when there is a good reason, but... The country is at war, a country that at the beginning of the war had no Armed Forces at all and which is surrounded by 6,000km of Russia and its allies. How can we be an active player in this situation? Once, David Kramer from the McCain Institute, commenting on the phrase that there is no alternative to a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, put it very well, "Yes, but diplomacy only works when it is standing behind tanks." Now, I think the US understands the error of the Budapest Memorandum, which took away Ukraine's nuclear weapons and tactical missiles. Then, they thought that it would be easier to have one strong player, and changed Ukraine from a subject into an object. Now, they are apparently aware that the weakening of Ukraine led to a strengthening of Russia. You can even make parallels to World War I, when no one was interested in Ukraine being strong. There were a lot of neighbours who preferred Ukraine to be part of something else, under someone else's influence or a protectorate. I think that this will never happen again. Ukraine has established itself as a political nation over 25 years, but we still have a long way to go in order to change from an object into a subject, and an army is essential here. A very strong and powerful army.

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Is a Croatian-style solution possible for Ukraine?

– Russia is not Serbia. We must understand that there are only two ways to regain this territory. We either recapture it or wait until Russia leaves it. I can't rule out the military option, but it will be decades before we can afford ourselves the opportunity to do that. Or Russia becomes so weak that it will be forced to leave these areas to deal with something else. And then the biggest battle will begin. For the hearts and minds of people who spent so much time under occupation, mainly informational occupation. Meanwhile, we should recognise the occupation, isolate the conflict politically and economically, and build a strong state of dignified people.

BIO

Oksana Syroyid is an MP of the 8th convocation and Vice Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada. Born in 1976 in Lviv Oblast, she graduated from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Political Science), Taras Shevchenko University (Master of Law) and the University of Ottawa (LL.M). Ms. Syroyid was an assistant and consultant to MP Ihor Yukhnovskyi (1996), an expert in social reform for UNDP projects (1998-1999) and National Project Manager of the OSCE Project Coordinator in Ukraine (2004-2012). She worked on projects in the field of administrative law, administrative justice, legal education and human rights education. Ms. Syroyid was also director of the Ukrainian Legal Foundation and expert for the Reanimation Package of Reforms.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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