The Ukrainian Week talks to the Donetsk-born Yehor Firsov, the youngest MP in the Verkhovna Rada, about recipes for rapid career growth in politics, the bazaar atmosphere in parliament and the helpless Rinat Akhmetov
U.W.: How come you, a Donetsk native, are not in the Party of Regions? What was your path into politics? You became an MP at 25, and if you are not someone's protégé, this is a rare exception in Ukrainian politics.
I got interested in politics at the time of the Orange Revolution and joined Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine) on a wave of enthusiasm. But it did not last long. The first event in which I was involved became the last one – it was Viktor Yushchenko’s visit to Donetsk in February 2005. I received a phone call with a request to come and join the welcoming crowd. After it was over, I was given UAH 50. I was shocked. Sensing falsity, I gave up politics for five years. And then I decided to give it another try and show that there was a different Donetsk. Young, energetic, creative, smart people not polluted with Soviet notions —this is who my team members are. True, they are in the minority, but they are still there, and someone needs to represent their interests.
I liked Vitaliy Klitschko because I saw honesty in him. His UDAR party had the popularity rating of 1-2%. In 2011, I wrote to its headquarters, received a reply and joined the party. I started with the Donetsk city organization and later was entrusted with the regional one. As soon as we stepped up our activities, people from the Party of Regions came with the suggestion of uniting into one team. This is how they subordinated everyone while they reigned in the region.
As far as getting into parliament is concerned, I don’t have any patrons. My parents are ordinary people: mother is a public servant and father is a small entrepreneur. They have nothing to do with politics. I'm not going to praise my party, but whichever way you look at it, the party and Klitschko believed in me and gave me an opportunity for career growth which most political structures do not offer. I understand that I am interesting primarily because I come from Donetsk and have a clean political biography, which is very rare here. However, it is a fact that I was No. 37 on the party list, which gave me a good chance of being elected. Klitschko did not sell places on the election list, so we still do not have any renegades, even though there have been proposals to the tune of millions of dollars.
In 2012, I came within an inch of becoming an MP. Later, I did get into parliament after our MPs took up offices in the executive government. Whether I will return to parliament again is anyone’s guess. I will not kowtow to obtain a place on the list.
U.W.: How does it feel to be in the Verkhovna Rada for the first time? Who do you interact with? To whose sphere of influence do you belong?
First, no one listens to anyone unless he has his own specific interest in an issue. Second, more than a third of MPs are constantly absent from the session hall. Third, there is a stable atmosphere of a bazaar: one MP is speaking on the phone; someone else is shouting; another MP is roaring with laughter; still others are whispering among themselves in a corner. It is hard to call this work. [Speaker] Oleksandr Turchynov is forced to nearly shove MPs into the session hall to gather them for key votes. There is a persistent feeling that everything is rotten to the core.
I remember well how I came to a parliament meeting straight from Donetsk where, the day before, my friends and I were attacked at a safe house – we had to repel the attack with some shooting. We don’t go around there without submachine guns anymore. And then I found myself in the session hall and saw complete indifference and hollow eyes. State interests are not even in the picture – these people are used to solving their personal financial problems and are out of touch with what the country lives by. This kind of parliament simply does not have the right to exist – it is inefficient, and this is on all MPs.
U.W.: There is a stereotype of Donetsk people having no principles or ideology. The UDAR party does not have a clearly defined ideological position, either. Do you have any foundational principles? In particular, what are your views on such “perpetual” questions as language, civilization choice, etc.?
As far as the European choice is concerned, I support it 100% – no surprise there. The recent events in the Donbas forever drew the curtain on any discussions on this issue. I beg to disagree with the statement that UDAR lacks ideology – the party is centre-right and has in its foundations such concepts as freedom of entrepreneurship, fair judiciary, etc.
As far as language is concerned, I see Ukraine having one state language – Ukrainian. In the future, perhaps only English may become the second state language. I have lived my entire life in a Russian-speaking region and have spoken Russian myself. But I have never experienced any discrimination and I have no arguments in favour of its separate status. I'm already tired of speaking on this topic which was contrived by the forces that support Russia and have plunged the Donbas into chaos.
U.W.: How do you see the future of UDAR, considering that Klitschko’s plans for presidency have not materialized. He is merely the mayor of Kyiv, while Petro Poroshenko is quite capable of winning over many of his voters.
I was shocked to hear that Klitschko would not run for president. However, when viewed in perspective, this was the right decision – Poroshenko’s popularity rating immediately shot up, which was impossible to ignore. Moreover, Klitschko has always called on the opposition to support one candidate with the highest rating. I hoped it would be Klitschko himself, but now I find comfort in the fact that he has kept his word even in an unfavourable situation, even though it was so hard for him and the entire team.
Just like our entire party, I will support the president only if his deeds match his words, as he said in his inaugural speech. I don't take his word for granted when he says that we will “live in a new way”. We’ll see. If he wants to change something, he has all the options. But if he decides to act the old way and with the old cadres, his career will end in the same way as that of his predecessors. So far, I see no reasons or marks of a rift in our party. Part of the MPs will work in Kyiv’s mayoral office. I am fully content with UDAR and am not even considering any options of going anywhere.
U.W.: Why did you declare zero income for 2013 in your tax declaration? What do you live on?
I am engaged only in political activity and receive certain aid- from the party. I sometimes received income from several sites, but they were closed a long time ago. Now I have the salary of a parliamentarian and use part of it to pay my assistants – two guys from Donetsk who had to flee from there.
U.W.: Your team organized elections in four western counties of Donetsk Oblast. How would you evaluate the situation? Does Rinat Akhmetov still have influence there?
The Donbas is in a deep crisis, and it will continue for a long time to come. And I mean not only the military crisis but also economic, infrastructure and moral crisis. I am completely convinced that the victory will be gained by force, but it will leave people embittered and the government will have to do something with them. Ukraine's biggest problem is extremely poor communication, which is the reason why many in the Donbas do not consider themselves Ukrainian. Some 70% of the local population did not approve of the Maidan and up to 50% were in favour of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Most of them did not have a clear idea what they were voting for at the referendum and why, but the figures are like I said. Support is now diminishing for the DNR, because the bandits are discrediting themselves. However, support for Ukraine is not growing at the same time – that is the problem. Unfortunately, we have globally lost this region in terms of communication and continue to lose it. We badly need new information means to reach out to people.
In the elections and not only, we received significant help from Head of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Administration Ihor Kolomoiskyi. He clearly understands that if the Donbas is lost, all these atrocities will spill over to his region, so he takes quick and adequate decisions together with his team. In particular, the Dnipro battalion was responsible for security, helped us appoint four heads of county administrations, etc.
Unfortunately, we never received any help from Donetsk Oblast Governor Serhiy Taruta. It was actually his inactivity for which the opportune moment was lost for lustrating people in the local police and government. Almost all of whom have by now become traitors. Back then, Taruta said it was no good time for lustration.
We, members of the Donbas Committee of Patriotic Forces, met with him 15 times and kept emphasizing this. He never listened to even one piece of advice. For example, when we suggested forming a self-defence force, he said that people had to organize everything themselves like in the Maidan, without the involvement of the government. As a government-hired manager, he showed zero efficiency as he tried to maintain good relationships with everyone.
Akhmetov had influence until the moment when weapons began to reign supreme in the Donbas. His reputation was ultimately shattered by the factory whistle initiative (to be continued on a daily basis until the region regains peace – Ed.). The entire region saw that the oligarch was helpless. It became clear that even though Akhmetov could have easily stopped everything three months earlier, he now completely lost control over the processes. After the fiasco of the Party of Regions, he was left with no leverage in both the Donbas and Kyiv. He only has enough clout to work through his people in the DNR in order to prevent the looting and shutdown of his plants.
Yehov Firsov was born in Donetsk and received a diploma from the Economics and Law Department in Donetsk National University. He joined UDAR in 2011 and received slot No. 37 on the party’ election list in the 2012 parliamentary election. He became an MP in April 2014. Firsov was one of the Euromaidan activists in Donetsk in the fall and winter of 2013-14.