Andres Herkel, the head of the Estonian delegation to PACE since 2007, Vice-President of PACE (2009-2011) and a member of the Pro Patria Union will visit Ukraine as part of the “European experience” joint project between The Ukrainian Week and the YE bookstore chain.
In an interview with The Ukrainian Week, Mr.Herkel shares his views on the building of democracy in post-Soviet countries.
U.W.: You are planning to visit Ukraine in the first part of November. What will you do while you are here?
It will be a very short visit. I will be a guest-speaker at the Ye bookstore. My topic is “The path from Soviet republic to democracy: a comparative analysis". I would also like to visit my parliamentary colleagues to study the situation in Ukraine after Ms Tymoshenko’s trial.
U.W.: You are actively engaged in the Council of Europe in solving the issue of political prisoners. How do you think the nature of relations between the authorities and society has changed in former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago? In your opinion, what allowed authoritarianism to make a comeback in so many of them?
I entered politics after my student years in 1988. One of my first activities was to create network of information between different pro-independence groups. We also started to demand the release of Estonian political prisoners and a few years after that I found myself working together with them in Estonian politics.
The problems with many post-Soviet countries is not only about corruption, or the deformation of the principles of a free market economy, the rule of law and human rights. There are two very simple pre-conditions to development: communist crimes should be condemned and ethnic identity must be strong. Therefore the truth about the Holodomor and the use of the Ukrainian language in education are of extreme importance. Unfortunately, in many of the countries, communist leaders continued to hold the power using old methods. They did not allow an adequate assessment of Soviet legacy and instinctively opposed the development of democracy. The strange concept of a "sovereign" or "controlled" democracy was invented. In many of these countries, ethnic identity is very weak or vulnerable.
But from the other side, if the society as a whole is not ready to formulate national interests then the post-communist leaders have a good chance to manipulate society and to defend their own rather narrow-minded interests with the help of oligarchs.
U.W.: As PACE Rapporteur on the situation in Belarus during the last session, you suggested that your colleagues visit political prisoners in Minsk, including former presidential candidates and human rights activist Ales Bialetski. Did your initiative receive any support? What was Minsk's official reaction to the idea?
I got support from my colleagues but there has still been no reaction from Minsk. After the events in last December PACE decided to not have high-level contact with authorities in Belarus. But currently I am not a member of the Bureau of the Assembly and therefore as a humble member of the Assembly I do have permission to meet with authorities and personally persuade them to release political prisoners. I am also very concerned about their health and the desperate conditions in which they are being held.
U.W.: What is your opinion about the cancellation of the political reform of 2004 in Ukraine and the return to the Constitution of 1996? Should the Council of Europe have made tougher decisions regarding the extension of presidential power a year ago? And could such assessments have prevented the current sliding of Ukraine towards totalitarianism?
Without any doubt Ukraine needs decisive and well-targeted reforms in the field of the Constitution, the criminal justice system etc. The return to the 1996 constitution was a setback. I also wondered how the entire political system in Ukraine is shadowed by the hypothesis that positions on a party list are much more dependent on money than on the political skill or personal qualities of the candidate.
As a Council of Europe member-state, Ukraine always has the ability to consult on Constitutional and other reforms with experts from the Venice Commission. We should react if certain regulations in legislation do not meet our standards. At the same time, there are choices which are up to the political will in the country. For example, it is strictly a country’s own choice on whether to have a presidential or parliamentary democracy or a first-past-the-post or proportional electoral system. Different democratic countries use different systems. In other words, nobody has the right to say in the name of the Council of Europe that a parliamentary democracy is better than a presidential democracy or that you should implement a proportional electoral system with different constituencies and personal votes for specific candidates on a party list. But as a friend of Ukraine, I can tell you that that is what my opinion is.
As far as the choices made in Ukraine are concerned, the weakest point is not the shift towards presidential power as such, but the fact that a political decision was made by the Constitutional Court and not by your parliament.
U.W.: Do you think that the criminal cases against Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuriy Lutsenko, Valeriy Ivashchenko and other members of the previous Ukrainian government are political persecution? How can we distinguish between political repression and fighting corruption? Would it be realistic for PACE members to visit the detainees in their cells?
Yes, I think there is strong political motivation and the analysis made by the Danish Helsinki Committee on those cases is convincing. Unfortunately, Ukraine is not the first country were we can see the very selective use of the criminal justice system with regard to corruption.
I think that PACE monitoring rapporteurs Marietta de Pourbaix-Lundin and my compatriot Mailis Reps should have the possibility to visit any prisoner they want. I was monitoring rapporteur of Azerbaijan from 2004 until 2010 and despite having different opinions with Azeri authorities even about the existence of political prisoners in the country, I always had opportunity to visit them. Ukraine is still a Council of Europe member-state, like Azerbaijan or the Russian Federation; it is not an outsider like Belarus.
U.W.: In one of your speeches in Strasbourg you mentioned “the responsibility of the international community for cases in which a state openly despises its own citizens”. Does the international community feel its responsibility for Ukraine today?
I spoke about the “responsibility to protect” which is the principle more and more underlined in international organizations, including UN. However, this principle was not followed for example during the war in Chechnya. Court-cases against Tymoshenko and others are different than war against peaceful citizens.
At the same time we should act stronger than we did, and a critical look at the functioning of the criminal justice system in Ukraine is probably necessary.
U.W.: What is preventing Europe from having a deep understanding of processes in Ukraine? How can we make people understand it is important not to lose Ukraine? How can the West effectively support pro-European circles in Ukraine today?
Europe is a much better choice for Ukraine than the so-called Eurasian Union led by old-fashioned Russian imperialism. Unfortunately, we are weak at the moment because of the debt crises. The President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy named his daughter Yulia, but it is obvious that Europe is too busy with its own problems. The debt crises has a very clear origin: the basic values of transparency and financial responsibility were not followed in many of countries which belong to the EU and the euro-zone. There is only one way to protect Europe and to protect Ukraine: to simply be consistent with values.
U.W.: You are also the PACE Rapporteur on Azerbaijan. How do the speeches, recommendations, and resolutions of the Council of Europe influence politics in that country? Was it possible to achieve some changes for the better with the help of outside pressure? Does the Azeri opposition have the chance to come to power in a legal way?
I was rapporteur from 2004-2010 and afterwards I wrote a book about Azerbaijan and it will likely be published in English, too. To be brief, I will say that it is much better to assist a country which wants to be assisted. Sometimes I felt that this was not the case with Baku. And it may be counterproductive to have a huge amount of natural resources because then the government can easily manage without sensible reforms. Many people in Azerbaijan told me that they believe in revolution over evolution. My recommendations always advocated evolution but often even they were ignored by authorities.
U.W.: What is your position regarding the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? How much is it about the right of nations to self-determination or about the imitation of such rights for the sake of occupying part of Georgia?
We should protect Georgia's territorial integrity. The principle of national self-determination is very important, but those entities were simply occupied by the Russian military. The people of Abkhazia and Ossetia deserve a much better destiny and the existence of a free and democratic Georgia as well as a free and democratic Russia are the main pre-conditions for their well-being. In reality, they are being misused by an undemocratic Russia. Georgia committed many mistakes, but today it is a much better country than Russia in terms of its democratic development. Unfortunately Georgia was wounded by the occupation and war of August 2008.
U.W.: What urgent reforms do you think must be implemented to improve the work of PACE? It is not rare to hear criticism that it does not perform its duties. Hanne Severinsen said “the positions of non-democratic forces in PACE do not allow it to fully perform its duties: protecting the human rights and the rule of law ”. Lobbying by such forces (in particular, pro-Russian forces) keeps PACE from being able to properly monitor its member countries. Severinsen says that the root of the problem is the mechanism for appointing the PACE leadership. Do you agree?
First of all I would like to point out that I agree with the PACE reform designed by my colleague Jean-Claude Mignon who was nominated to be EPP candidate for the PACE presidency. My criticism was about the lack of political will to act and speak if necessary. I said that we have relegated ourselves to the second league of European players. The European Parliament is more visible. To often we simply avoid difficult topics and of course, it was a mistake not to put Ukraine on the agenda of the October session. In analysing the reasons that happened, I would also agree with explanation by Ms Severinsen.
U.W.: You studied at the university in Tartu when the future first president of Chechnya, Johar Dudayev, was the commander of the military air base there. Did you ever see him? What do people in Estonia think today about Dudayev and the overall situation in Chechnya?
Yes, I met him after he had already been elected to be the leader of the Peoples Congress of Chechnya. Actually, he came to Tartu in 1987, two years after I had finished university. After that, he was elected president. My university teacher Linnart Mдll was one of the driving forces to initiate the Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organization (UNPO) in the beginning of the nineties. Dudayev was enthusiastic about this organization and he was also inspired by the model of the Congress of Estonia. He always had a good reputation in Estonia and it was great to have a military commander of the army of occupation who fully understood the aspirations of our people.
What happened later with him and with Chechnya is disastrous. Now Kadyrov gets huge sums of money from Russia; he is relatively independent from the Kremlin, but his model of ruling does not correspond to any international standards. At the same time, the climate of impunity has become widespread in other areas of the North Caucasus.
U.W.: With regard to the euro zone crisis, how do you see the future of Europe? How effective have European officials been in solving the debt problem? Do Estonians think that they rushed to join the euro zone?
As I said before, we must stick to the values. The debt crisis itself is a crisis of the values. At the same time, the European project is not a failed project. The best consequence of cooperation in Europe is the fact that since the end of the Second World War, we have enjoyed peace on our continent. Also the rights and dignity of human beings are protected better than ever before. I do not think that the debt crisis will destroy Europe, but there are many lessons to be learned. Fortunately, financial stability and a low debt is exactly the model which Estonia follows. It is strange to say, but our framework of values became much more understandable during this crisis.
Of course, my voters are asking why we didn’t inform them about the coming problems in the euro-zone. The plain answer is that the Greeks didn’t inform me. At the same time we had the benefit of being financed by the structural funds of the EU which already gave us huge support to develop our infrastructure. Therefore we should also share the responsibilities.