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23 February, 2017

"E-declarations should seriously kill the desire to run for the Rada in many folks"

Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada on the main contradictions and temptations of Ukrainian politics, the major ideological camps in the legislature, the war, lobbying, and geopolitics

Interviewed by Roman Malko

It’s been three years since the Maidan. How much of what you imagined at that time has actually come to pass in Ukraine politically?

You can look at the Maidan from a number of different angles. Some say that, wow, the dollar used to cost UAH 8 and now it’s UAH 28, others say that Ukraine covered a specific territory and now part of it is occupied, and they ask what the purpose was. For me, the point-of-view hasn’t changed from what it was on the Maidan and what it is now, and it covers a much larger timeline than just three years. Today, we mark 100 years since the formation of the Ukrainian National Republic. As a patriot and historian, this is the angle from which I look at everything. This war has been going on for 100 years. The Maidan, the ATO and current events are merely stages of that war. If we look at it in greater detail, we can see many analogies between that time and today. And if we compare them, it is a lot easier to give a correct assessment of what’s going on today. I want to remind people that the first volunteer soldiers were in 1914. WWI had just started and the Austrian army allowed the first Ukrainian divisions to be formed. Thousands of our best, all our elite that was raised in Plast, Sich and Sokil (various scouting and patriotic organizations for young people. Ed.), all of them joined as volunteers. One hundred years later, this same volunteer movement appears, those same people who have determined the course of this war.

In the midst of the World War, an opportunity appeared to establish a Ukrainian state. One hundred years ago, when the Ukrainian National Republic was declared in Kyiv, a bolshevik government was formed in Kharkiv and it invited the Russian army to Ukraine. Where did Yanukovych go after the Maidan? To an assembly in Kharkiv. And Russian Federation forces were invited to enter Ukraine. For 100 years, we see the same scenario, the same enemy, the same empire. It may have had different names—Tsarist Russia, USSR or the Russian Federation—but it’s the same essential empire. And its aim with Ukraine has not changed either: complete subordination to the empire.

The reason for the Maidan was not only protesting against the reneging on the agreement with the EU. It was far deeper than that. It was a mass public action that made it impossible to join the Customs Union with Russia, a de facto new colonial entity. The failure to sign the Association Agreement with the EU meant that in a very short time, Ukraine, just like Belarus, would have become an appendage of the Russian Federation. And so for me, both the Maidan and the ATO are elements of that same nation-liberating struggle for statehood. The lessons of 1917-1919 are key and provide an answer to the question: Why did we fail to maintain Ukrainian statehood at that time and how to prevent the same mistake from happening again today?

The main issue was the confrontation among Ukrainian leaders. So the first lesson is not to allow for confrontation among the political leadership. In contrast to our predecessors, we were able, even without an army or special forces, to rebuild ourselves, to contain the aggression and, above all, to counterattack and liberate a significant part of the occupied territories. And now we are strengthening our positions, step by step. That has been our successful effort. The occupant did not make it to Kyiv, even though his tanks stood very close at one point—just outside Chernihiv.

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The second lesson is the army. A century ago, Ukrainians were unable to organize one at a high enough level. Bolshevik propaganda demoralized complete units. In our time, volunteers formed the ideological foundation at the front and thus our army was completely rebuilt on a new basis during the course of this war. Today, most of the combat brigades are almost entirely new people who have gone through battle. The military elite has all been changed, as has the military ideology. Today, without any exaggeration, we have one of the strongest armies in Europe, one that is battle-hardened and knows modern tactics, and this experience is now being adopted by NATO soldiers.

The third lesson is international support. A hundred years ago, we were losing completely on that front. The international community was not on Ukraine’s side. We were unable to persuade them of our view. Today, the civilized world has united around Ukraine. Who would have believed it when all the EU members voted for sanctions? Ukraine has managed to achieve this much. Step by step, sanctions against Russia keep being extended, although we were told that this would not happen any more.

These are the key factors that explain why we failed 100 years ago. Today, we’ve learned from those mistakes and have held on to statehood. We didn’t allow Putin to carry out his aggressive plans. This is the only vantage point from which I look at the events today—and at what needs to be done.

Some say a state is a mere formality. I’d like to remind them: because Ukraine lost its statehood 100 years ago, we had the Holodomor in which millions of Ukrainians died. Statehood is not a formal illusion. It means the security of every citizen and the protection of all Ukrainians.

How much does the current make-up of the Rada, which was elected six months after the Maidan, reflect the confrontation with Russia’s armed aggression and the mood among Ukrainians?

For the last 25 years, there have been two camps in the legislature that confronted each other: pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian, to one extent or another. Initially, the pro-Ukrainian camp was small: Narodna Rada included all of 150 people. After the Orange Revolution, the two camps became almost equal. That’s probably when the first battle in this war took place: the Kharkiv agreements, when the pro-Russian camp didn’t have the necessary votes and had to resort to paying titushky. Symbolically, this was a key turning point: they were wearing their orange-and-black imperial ribbons, while we wore blue-and-yellow ones.

You were about the only one fighting…

Yes, that was my first fight in this war. And I’m very sorry that we were unable to stop them then. Today there are more than 300 deputies in the Ukrainian legislature who, to greater and lesser degrees—that’s a matter of some discussion—believe in pro-Ukrainian, pro-European principles. And this is the line along which the Rada divides, not into coalition/opposition. That’s why they vote on all matters of security, eurointegration and the fight against corruption regardless of whether they belong to the coalition or not.

So, does the Verkhovna Rada reflect Ukrainian society? Conceptually, yes. It reflects the general mood today.

Ratings are often a matter of debate, because parties in power will always be in the negative there. Somehow, reforms have to be undertaken across the board, but many of them are highly unpopular. Poland, Czechia and Slovakia went through reforms that generally covered the same territory as ours: increasing prices for natural gas and other utilities and raising the retirement age back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, we have to take these same unpopular steps right now. Of course, they will never give those in power a boost in the ratings. Of course, plenty of mistakes get made, especially in terms of who is hired.

Meanwhile, many of the old schemes are still very much in place. Are we fighting against them? Yes. We legally got rid of one oligarch’s monopoly over petroleum, another one’s monopoly over natural gas, a third one’s over electricity. We’ve set up anti-corruption agencies that are working to eliminate these old scams. We’ve established mechanisms and organizations that can do the job. We’ve been able to move to that level where it’s now possible to double the minimum wage. I think we’ve bottomed out and trends should all be towards recovery now. Ukraine’s economy was on the verge of default at one point and now it’s growing again. Sure, it’s not happening as fast as we’d like. But what other country has been at war and managed to recover its economy while most of its public spending was going to the defense sector?

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What are the main political trends in the Rada now—not meaning factions, but actual political and ideological currents that might be represented in different factions? To what extent is Ukraine’s legislature just a club lobbying business and foreign interests, especially Russia’s?

My response continues from the previous ones. For 25 years now, Ukraine has had to deal with two diametrically opposed forces, including in its legislature: the pro-Ukrainian and the pro-Russian. This is a clash of civilizations and worldviews. From the Rukh movement to Nasha Ukraina, which brought everybody together. People joined forces to stop Russian influence that kept undermining us through the other camp. This has left Ukraine politically amorphous to this day. Perhaps this was the only possibility, given that the country was going through a nation-liberating struggle. If Poland, France, Italy or Germany can afford to discuss raising and cutting taxes or healthcare reform without also being enmired in discussions about the country’s very existence, we are only now getting close to that stage when we no longer swing but have 300 solid votes.

In the next Rada, there may well be more of those for whom domestic and foreign policy issues are identical: NATO, the EU, a Ukrainian state, and a Ukrainian identity. In this sense, I think, we also saw a break in the evolution of political culture and political structuring. Most of the current political forces are more easily identifiable as belonging to a camp than to an ideology.

Does the Rada include members who clearly represent oligarchs? Yes, it does. The old schemes are still there. Are there members who are oriented towards Russia? Yes. But this same Rada passed legislation cutting off the monopolist oligarchs. This gives us reason to believe that, while their influence may not be insignificant, it’s nothing like it was prior to the Maidan. All the anti-corruption legislation was passed by the current Rada, by the current pro-Ukrainian, pro-European majority. Some influence remains from the other camp, but they no longer have a decisive impact on key policy decisions.

Obviously, political structuring will take place. If nothing else, we have to recognize that the EU itself is going through a difficult period now, where conservative approaches are gaining in popularity, and this clearly has an impact on Ukraine.

What kind of preventions do you see against business influencing the government? How might the influence of financial-industrial groups be eliminated? What do you know about the political and ideological views of these FIGs? Or are they strictly business?

There clearly are Russian businessmen who are trying to leverage the situation in Ukraine economically. They represent the aggressor and are trying to monopolize certain sectors and to work towards Russia’s objectives through business. Many others are indifferent: for them it’s all just business. And of course, there are those who have taken a stance on the side of Ukraine. Largely because their business interests are here, they understand that the continuing existence of the Ukrainian state is a guarantee of their success. All the more that they have seen what happens to Russian oligarchs who felt the long arm of the Kremlin even in London. But generally speaking, clearly most business operates according to the Laws of Manu and financial interests will be the key determinant.

To separate business from politics, we need a slew of measures. Deputies don’t come from the moon, they’re elected. The political culture of a society is an important element. When people complain, “Gee, so many of you guys in power are oligarchs,” but then the oligarch goes to his constituency and hands out UAH 200 before the election and another UAH 200 after if he’s elected to the legislature, hello? How did he get there anyway? This whole issue is complicated. I participated in many election campaigns and saw some real horrors: people standing in line to get that money, not seeing any cause-and-effect relationship, not wanting to understand that a lot more will later be stolen from their pockets.

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Another issue is legislation. E-declarations are a serious blow that should kill the desire to run for the Rada in many folks. I know quite a few who are saying that this kind of public strip show doesn’t interest them any more. But more importantly, the role of the oligarchs in Ukraine should be diminished, thanks to combined efforts. I mentioned the example of their being cut off from monopolizing the market, which gave them enormous profits. A proper oligarch in Ukraine should have some kind of representation in the Rada, enormous financial resources and his own television channel. And of course own a football team as a sign of his prestige. Every anti-oligarch move of ours went through a perfect storm of attacks against those who initiated them, especially in the press. Where are those super profits from? From corrupt schemes. And cutting them off from these means turning them into simply “business onwers” or “enterpreneurs”. There won’t be any more windfall profits from all this corrupt skimming and kickbacks, there won’t be the money to pay for television channels, football clubs or political teams. By stripping and bringing down the old schemes, we can build up transparent relations across the economy—and that’s how you change the system.

What real influence does the Speaker have on the way the Rada works, or do you become hostage to all kinds of games while the real decisions are made outside the walls of the session hall?

Of course, policy is made in the legislature, sometimes accompanied by really aggressive debate. To get very different groups to come together around various issues is important and difficult—and takes a lot of effort. If you’re asking what this involves, then it’s a matter of communication and persuasion. You can’t simply break people. Forcing the session hall is impossible. If there aren’t enough votes, then they just aren’t there. The only thing that’s possible, and I’ve done it more than once, is to declare a five-minute recess and ask the faction chairs to get all the deputies who might be in committee or in the cafeteria or at an interview back in the hall. When I see that there are only 222 members sitting, I know that there are people who support the proposed policy but they simply aren’t present and the only way to deal with this is to invite them. Once they are there, we can return to the vote.

Needless to say, when putting together the agenda and including issues to vote on, I determine the prerogatives and consult about them. I think that when we bring packages of bills for debate, the efficiency and depth of the legislature’s work improves considerably. This is one of the many important parliamentary reforms that make it possible for me to identify prerogatives and specific directions that could, in my opinion, be a priority. It’s all about negotiation and persuasion.

Of course, there are issues that I personally consider important and I don’t hide that. For me this is security and defense. And yes, I bring them up for a vote several times and return to them because this is the basis for the Ukrainian state to exist and survive. Some accuse me of violating the VR Regulations, but this is nonsense. There is no prohibition in the Regulations on repeating a vote. It’s a regular standard. As is a show of hands to see what the support for a proposition might be. There is a rule and it does not state how many times this can be done.

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The other fundamental area for me is decommunization. I remember the day we passed the last legislative act on Kropyvnytskiy (formerly Kirovohrad. Ed.). I understand that we are mortal, we come and go, but this reform is aimed against the psychological and mental crippling that happens when people are born and raised in a town named after a butcher who killed their grandparents, and will likely last for a century. It’s very hard to build a Ukrainian state living in a city named after Kirov on a street named after Lenin and to also volunteer to go to the front.

The other issue is songs on the radio and Ukrainian-language books. I have been working on this very deliberately and organized meetings to come up with a policy. It’s not a question of forcing something through: this is a long preparatory process and consensus-building. With the radio quotas, we have already held more than half a dozen very intense consultations.

One more critical issue was a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew about a Ukrainian national church. I didn’t know how this might work, so I got together all the heads of the pro-European, pro-Ukrainian factions, invited Patriarch Filaret to join us, and said: “Please bless us.” He blessed us and in the morning I went, not knowing what the Rada’s decision might be. I was really worried, because a negative response would have had a very bad impact. But everything went nicely. This was extremely important for me.

How realistic is it, in your opinion, that a new electoral law will be adopted so that the 2019 election really takes place based on new, fairer rules?

The working group I set up when I became Speaker has held many meetings where we reviewed all the available bills to change electoral legislation. My position is clear. My signature is on the first one under the Electoral Code that calls for changes to the electoral system, both for the Verkhovna Rada and local councils: instituting open lists with regional ridings. This means that in every riding people will be voting, not just for a political party but also for a specific representative. Each party has to present not just a single nominee but also a list of them and voters get to choose which individual deputy they’d like to see elected. Whoever gets more votes moves up in the list.

Right now, this is all just at the level of discussions. Some parties think that elections should be based simply on open lists or on proportional voting. But half the people in the Rada today were elected in the FPTP system. They have their own ridings and they know this guarantees that they will be elected, so they will never support a purely proportional model. Well, in fact, some of them do support such a system. I think the current proportional system with closed lists, combined with FPTP seats where we can really see financial power at work is bad. Are there enough votes today to change it? Not at the moment. The debate continues. The group addressed all the factions with a proposition that they submit their own conclusions about not just one but three bills to see which one gets the most support. So far, not all factions have responded.

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Why is it that Ukrainian politicians refuse to call this war that has been storming for three years now a war, but keep coming up with all kinds of nice-sounding excuses?

Declaring a state of war will put the country in a completely different regime where many of the human rights and freedoms in the Constitution will be restricted and military administrations are supposed to take over in the regions. This means a change in the very philosophy of running the country. And let’s not even discuss whether all the commanders have the necessary experience to head administrations that are responsible for governing and making social policy in the regions.

Plus, you might say that historically this has happened and it doesn’t get in the way of engaging in military action right now. You know that I initially favored declaring a state of war when I was secretary of the NSC. I raised the issue especially when the conflict was at its most intense. Today, this isn’t even on the agenda. Such a declaration won’t offer the Ukrainian Armed Forces any more options, while it could cut short a slew of processes that are allowing us to carry out reforms in the country, including electoral reform. If we declare a state of war, there won’t be any elections at all—presidential, parliamentary or local.

What are the most pressing tasks facing Ukraine’s state-building forces?

To hold on. Not to waver. This is the challenge that we faced on the Maidan and in the ATO. Strange as it may seem, it remains the main challenge today, too. Who could have foretold how the Revolution of Dignity would end or how the ATO would unfold? Would they invade through Chernihiv or not? Our main task was to hold on. To stand on the barricades and hold the perimeter. Just like now. Of course, international cooperation is extremely important, as are reforming the country, establishing an army and growing the economy. What’s more, we have to do this all simultaneously: defend the country, develop it and make a modern European state with high standards. This is extremely difficult when you are under attack, but this is our goal and we are moving towards it.

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This year’s budget is already a growth budget. We’ve been able to increase spending on the security sector, on wages and on road-building. This shows that the economy has shifted into growth again. Of course, it’s important to set priorities and this is what we are now planning and discussing. Agriculture, aviation, the military-defense complex, IT, and infrastructure.

The issue of regional cooperation is very important for Ukraine, so I’m also focusing on: cooperating in the Baltic-Black Sea Union and in the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative. This year, I’m supposed to visit Lithuania, Poland, Croatia and Romania, to a number of interparliamentary platforms for dialog, including on this theme. I think that, for Ukraine it’s critical to have close relations in these regions. We have every chance of becoming a regional leader in time.

How likely will these somehow be confirmed in the nearest future?

There are a variety of options. Scandinavia does it at the parliamentary level. We have the Europe-Carpathians platform where discussion is about common infrastructure throughout the Carpathian region, the way it was done in the Alps after WWII, when the countries in the regions put together a joint infrastructure project. Then there’s the Visegrad Four, which is playing an active role. We shouldn’t make a mistake with the formats, so everything has to be carefully thought through, thoroughly discussed and agreed before coming up with a specific decision. But I think that interparliamentary cooperation such as Northern Europe has is a quite acceptable alternative and appropriate for our region. This could be in the form of an interparliamentary assembly.

What red lines do you see in the current political process that your state-building forces will not cross: a snap Rada election? an early presidential race? or changes to the Constitution?

Snap elections would be used as a mechanism to destabilize the country. We have more than enough examples of that, such as Moldova. They were in a similar situation, with a confrontation between pro-Russian and pro-European forces going on for years. Finally, the pro-Europeans gained a slight majority, and then it began. Scandals, demonstrations, and demands for a snap election. What’s more, two of the three opposition leaders made no bones about the fact that they were travelling and reporting to the Kremlin. With the pre-term campaign, came a crisis, the IMF decided not to issue its regular tranche, and then came a presidential election in which the openly pro-Russian candidate won.

We all understand that Putin has no need of the slice of Donetsk or Luhansk Oblast that he has today. Russia’s plans today, just like 100 years ago, are to control all of Ukraine. He can already see that getting to his goal militarily is not as easy as it was a century ago, and so he is using other means to destabilize and change the government in Ukraine to one that is loyal to him. For an early election to lead to a so-called ‘coalition of unity’ that says, “We have to stitch the country together and that means rejecting NATO and the EU and declaring neutrality. As though there were no other options for unifying Ukraine. I understand that this plan is already out there, to say nothing of the memos I’ve been able to read. I think we have to do everything to prevent this concept from taking root, knowing how important this is for the defense of our state. This is the equivalent of preventing the bolshevik insurgency in Kyiv 100 years ago.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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