A big ‘Fail’ to Parliament and the Reform Sandwich
End of Month Expert Panel Discussion, with Brian Bonner and Inna Pidluska
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.
CULTURE and MUSIC
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Dyczok: Hello and welcome to a new feature on our show Hromadske Radio Ukraine Calling. I’m Marta Dyczok in Kyiv and this week we’re introducing an Expert Panel Discussion. At the end of every month we’re going to have two experts, possibly three, to talk about what’s been happening over the past month.
In studio with me I have Brian Bonner, who’s an American. He’s the editor-in-chief for the Kyiv Post, which is the oldest English language newspaper in Ukraine.
Bonner: And the best one.
Dyczok: And the best one. And Inna Pidluska, who is a political analyst, long-time political commentator. Now she’s the Deputy Executive Director of the International Renaissance Foundation, which is the oldest NGO in Ukraine, founded back in 1990 by George Soros. Thank you both for finding the time to join us.
This has been a very hot month, July, not just the temperature, but the politics and society in Ukraine has been bubbling. There’s been all these high level international visitors. There’s been a lot happening in Parliament. There have been attempts to bring corrupt MPs to justice. The Normandy Format has been revived. The war in the east has intensified. Let’s try to help our listeners understand what all of this means.
Brian, I’d like to start with you. Of all the things that happened this month, what do you think is the most significant, that has a long term impact?
Bonner: We have had an eventful summer. Unfortunately, Parliament broke off, and went on a long summer vacation, undeserved, without passing pension reform. Without creating the Anti-Corruption Court. Without creating an agricultural land market. Without doing health care reform. Without making progress on privatizing state-owned enterprises. They’re not behaving like leaders. They’re not behaving like a nation at war and in crisis.
And I think what matters to Ukrainians is the effect this is going to have on the economy, which is still sluggish. We’ve lost half of our GDP since 2013, we’re now crawling back into growth.
Dyczok: We are! Last week we had an expert who said that the economy is growing.
Bonner: It is. 2-3 %. But after you lose half of your economy, I think it’s a stretch to think that Ukrainians are going to be patient with 2-3% growth. That means essentially it will take decades to catch up to where we were in Yanukovych times. There’s a lot of frustration out there. Its summer, it doesn’t seem like it. But there’s a lot of frustration. And the effect of Parliament failing to do its job, is that we’re not going to see the foreign direct investment that Ukraine needs to grow at the rate of 6 to 7 to 8% to get back to where it was quickly. And to give a better standard of living for people.
So I give a big ‘Fail’ to Parliament, and the political leadership, for not only stalling reforms, foot dragging, but obstructing the reforms actively. And throwing Ukraine off the IMF program, or causing delays. And we don’t know. Now it looks like it’s going to be next year before any installment. Now Ukraine’s not going to financially collapse. But the signal to investors is very bad, and that is the very critical element to reviving Ukraine’s economy
Dyczok: Well, from the high level criticism, let’s hear what civil society has been doing. We have an expert here who can tell us, perhaps, a different picture.
Pidluska: Well, thank you. From we have been observing is mostly from the level of civil society. And we have been trying to see what the Parliament and the government have been doing. Or rather, what they have not done, those things which would affect reforms, which civil society says are very significant for Ukraine, and for Ukrainians.
Dyczok: Sorry to interrupt, tell us again, what are the important reforms that civil society is pushing for.
Pidluska: From my perspective the most important ones would be health care reforms, the anti-corruption reforms, of course, and the anti-corruption court, which needs to be put in place. And also the effective functioning of the new entities, the anti-corruption institutions, such as the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Another reform would be election reform, which would bring in new election legislation, bring in more financial transparency of political parties. On this we do actually have some very modest progress. The National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption has started to look into how political parties report for the assets that they have generated for their operations. But we are still far away from having a transparent political system, with a transparent election system which would make sure that there is no dirty money in politics, which does affect a lot of what’s happening.
And there are a couple of modest reforms I really want to mention because they are, I think, they are incredibly significant for society and for the people. One is decentralization
Dyczok: Can we hold off on that, let’s stay with the anti-corruption, because this is something that both of you talked about. In parliament there was this attempt to bring corrupt, or rather Members of Parliament who are allegedly corrupt to justice. And it sort of half happened, half didn’t happen. Do you not see that there is a push happening from different directions, and that the fight is still ongoing? Or do you see that it’s just a bleak picture, that it’s a fail all around? And about legislation, some of it is in place.
Bonner: Well the fight is still ongoing, but the fact of the matter is, more than three years after the revolution, zero people have been convicted of any high level crime, corruption, murder, anything. And this is by design. There is no new Supreme Court. Everybody knows, every lawyer, every businessperson knows, that the court system here is unable to do its job and to take any case, or any trial to adjudication. Except for political persecution. We have unreformed courts, we have unreformed prosecutors, we have unreformed police, largely. I’m talking the Interior Ministry, I’m talking SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service], I’m talking other law enforcement organs. So, as far as Parliament members, who have been charged, or suspected of financial corruption, well, good luck trying to get those through the courts, because we still have the same corrupt court system that we had. And we’re seeing that the judges aren’t doing their job, they’re letting people out on bail.
Again, this raises the question, why does Parliament, more than three years after the revolution, still have legal immunity from prosecution? And they have to have a majority of the members remove it. We’re still far away from what Ukrainians demanded on the revolution on the justice front.
Pidluska: I agree with what Brian is saying. There has been a lot of disincentive for people to participate effectively and actively when they see that. Although there is the legislation. There are a lot of anti-corruption norms which should be followed. And the instruments
Dyczok: Some of them are there.
Pidluska: Yes. So we can speak about the notorious political will, we can speak about the circles of support within the Parliament, we could speak about the courts. And Brian mentioned the problem with the courts which we still have. The system does resist, and it resists very effectively. There is a huge push from the international community, and we do appreciate that a lot. There is also a huge push from civil society indeed. And a very significant demand for progress with anti-corruption. But, unfortunately, there were quite a few steps last month, when the anti-corruption watchdogs themselves were under pressure, under attack. And that’s not over yet. So that’s one of the things which I do think is quite a bad sign, and something which really needs to be addressed if Ukraine stays on this course which is has declared.
Dyczok: You touched on international pressures. There’s been a lot of international activity happening in Ukraine this past month. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Of all the visitors who came, who said the most important thing? What’s the takeaway from these visitors who have come, and continue to come?
Bonner: Well, I think it has been an unprecedented month. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember a week where we had the US Secretary of State, the NATO Secretary General, both the European Union leaders and the United Nations Secretary General. And I think they were very, very, very effective. I thought Tillerson’s visit was a political master stroke. He met with the civic society leaders and the reformers in the US Ambassador’s residence before he met with Poroshenko. A clear signal. He laid it on the line in public to Poroshenko that if he expects investment, he better reform. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also hit on the cancer of corruption. If you hope to get close to NATO, you have got to cure this. This is not just about reforming your military, having a modern military. It’s about having a democratic society with institutions. And the European… well, the UN was a little bit soft, but the European Council was very mixed. We had Jean-Claude Juncker’s cluncker, where he inexplicably backtracked on a long-standing EU demand for the creation of an independent anti-corruption court. Now, he backtracked, but that kind of mixed signal is not going to help Ukraine to get to where it needs to go, where Ukraine wanted to go.
Pidlusky: Yes, I think that was a clarification, actually, on Mr. Juncker’s statement and I think it was very important that the EU repeated again and again and this is very firm on anti-corruption. And Ukraine should fulfill all of its commitments, including the anti-corruption courts. And indeed we do see the strong voices of people who care about Ukraine, who come here to support the delivery of reforms, to bring in an international attention and international support. Those conditions really help to push Ukraine in the right direction. We do talk about this reform sandwich, which is the international community, international friends of Ukraine, pushing from the top, and then civil society in Ukraine providing this necessary public demand for reforms. And we see that this is very important. I wish the government and the parliament also did their jobs more effectively and actively and with the international community, so that we did not have to have this reform sandwich and push. But this is what we have now. And also, although we understand that attention to Ukraine is here for a reason which I would prefer we did not have – that’s the war, that’s a really serious situation in Ukraine’s economy and the situation with reforms.
Dyczok: That’s where I wanted to go next – the war has heated up again. This month we saw an escalation of fighting, increase in casualties and the newly appointed US envoy coming to Ukraine twice. And for me what stood out was that he said this is a hot war, this is not anything other than that. What is the significance of that? How important is corruption given the war? And the international attention to the war, what do you see happening with that?
Bonner: Well, I think Kurt Volker’s appointment is a positive sign for Ukraine. He has a very good reputation and a very good understanding of the situation. Basically, he is just talking reality. I also think what is happening in Congress today is going to help with tougher sanctions against Russia, tie down Trump’s hands, which in this issue he needs to be restrained. Because he continues to spout pro-Kremlin statements, and today anti-Ukrainian tweets, which are very disturbing. But I think overall, I think the policy of the United States and the West is clear on Ukraine. However, I still argue that the West is not doing enough. They continue to do business in Russia, they continue to have a lot of trades. Nord Stream-2 is moving ahead. I cannot understand for the life of me, why the EU and the United States, the West collectively are not taking a tougher stance on Russia and this war. Because the war is probably not going to end until Putin is, you know, forced to make it end, or he sees that the costs of waging war are too high. And I don’t know when that point will be reached, but overall Putin is not showing any change in his strategic view that Ukraine is not a sovereign state. And that he want to continue to interfere and humble its development just like he is doing in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan on and on and on.
Dyczok: So you don’t see a shift in American policy here or with this envoy and the stronger statements coming out of POTUS?
Bonner: Well I’m encouraged that the people around Trump seem to be taking an even tougher line than even the Obama administration, but we still have the wild card, known as Donald Trump, and so I don’t know what’s going to happen. You can pass tougher sanctions laws, but as I understand it, it’s back to implementation, if Trump wants to actively implement it. I still think we need, absolutely, a tougher stance from the west because I don’t think Ukraine is going to be able to do this alone.
Dyczok: Inna, I know you focus on civil society, but what are your thoughts on this?
Pidluska: Yes, let me try and look at things from a domestic perspective. What we’ve been seeing these past couple of weeks is that the Ukrainian government is trying to see how they actually can be more active in supporting the people in the conflict-affected areas. Obviously, there has been a lot of criticism that the government is not doing enough and the parliament is not doing enough to support the internally displaced people; to ensure that there is a safe and well-organized regime for crossing the contact line; also, to ensure that Ukrainians who stayed on occupied territories do feel that the state cares about them and the state is there to try to find solutions; also, there the huge issue of Ukrainians who are being held hostage in the occupied territories and also in Donbas, as well as Crimea. Actually, I do think there has been a huge effort from the Ukrainian state to try and facilitate the release of hostages and do that. So, perhaps greater involvement from the U.S. and also a stronger position on the Normandy Format would help move these things forward, so we think this is critical for the Ukrainian Government, but we do need international support for that as well.
Dyczok: Let me get you guys to look forward. We’re at the end of July; what’s going to happen in August, what do you see the big issues coming up in the next little while?
Bonner: August. Everybody will be on vacation, but I want to go back to…
Pidluska: That’s a worrisome thing. Everybody is on vacation in August, so you never know what happens.
Bonner: That’s the trouble, that’s the trouble. I want to go back to…
Dyczok: Well, August of 2014, that was the intensification of war in Ilovais’k. August of 1991 that was the coup. August. We think of it as the ‘sleepy summer month’ but…
Bonner: A lot of strange things happen in August, and not only here, but in Russia too because that was the month of the Kursk disaster, and many other tragedies. I want to go back to what Inna said and electoral reform. I’ve sort-of lost faith in this parliament, and frankly, in this president to push through the needed changes that Ukrainians are demanding, and that goes back to electoral reform. We need a new electoral law; we need a transparent, responsive, representative, electoral law. Let the Ukrainian people choose their next leaders. I think the current incumbents, if there is a new, fair election law, are going to be in for a big surprise because Ukrainians, we marvel at their patience as Americans. But we also know if you push Ukrainians too far, they will fight back.
Pidluska: Well with the elections definitely in the air, of course, we are still a couple of years before the next election, but if you look at all the political debates and all the things which are happening in the parliament, and including all the surge in political populism about all the reforms; be it the health reform, be it the pension reform, or the land reform, which has effectively stalled, and a matter of huge political manipulations on all (this discussion). So you would definitely sense that August is not going to be very quiet and September is going to be quite a very important month because a lot of the reforms which have not been launched by the parliament in the past couple of weeks, basically a couple of days when they are still operated in mid-July, are being effectively shaved to September and we hope that the parliament will scoop responsibility it has and go ahead with the healthcare reform and also with the anti-corruption court.
There is another thing, which I really wanted to mention now, this is the election of the ombudsperson. Well, you probably know that the current ombudsperson’s term has expired and we are supposed to have a new one. And it is fundamental for the civil society to have really politically independent ombudsperson, who would be able to ensure that human rights are protected and observed. And that’s ensuring that human rights are not violated by the state.
Dyczok: Especially during the time of war…
Pidluska: Especially during the time of war. So it is a very important position. So what is happening now is there is an effort in the parliament to pull through a politically connected ombudsperson. It does not matter what kind of political force this person would represent, but we do think it is a very worrying sign and it is really important to make sure that the process of nominating and electing an independent ombudsperson is observed. There is a worrying development and there was a protest from the civil society, human rights organizations just these days, today, when the new law on the constitutional court now contains provisions which would involve open vote, not a secret vote for a new ombudsperson. Which does open the way to political pressures, and we think this is a really bad sign.
Dyczok: Brian, any last words from you?
Bonner: Well, I would like to hope that I am wrong and that the parliament, and the President, and the Prime Minister will summon the will to adopt this whole slate of reforms that are critical. And they are not just critical because this is what democracies do. Land reform is critical to bringing in a potential 50 billion dollar investment.
Dyczok: Health reforms…
Bonner: Health reform is critical to stepping out corruption and making healthcare affordable and more efficient on a very limited budget. You have got to sell off these state enterprises, you have got to have a pension system that can pay for itself and not take up 12% of the budget deficit. The military has got a lot of work to do to catch up to be NATO-ready, to meet NATO standards in the timeline that the president has set. So, there are a huge tasks ahead and they are vital to the democracy and to the prosperity of Ukrainians. And unfortunately maybe they have a really great vacation and come back really motivated and committed to doing it. But with some of the people we have in this parliament I am not sure.
Dyczok: Well, we will look forward to hearing from you, guys, next month. Let’s hope that everybody both has a good vacation works forward on all the art projects and watching what is going to happen in the world. We have been speaking with Inna Pidluska of the international Renaissance foundation, Brian Bonner of the KyivPost. Tune in next month. My name is Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Ukraine Calling will be back with this feature next month. Thank you very much.
Ukraine protests against Russian aggression at the UN
Following a week in which Ukraine suffered its heaviest casualties this year in its war with Russian-backed forces in the Donbas, on 21 July Ukraine’s Envoy to the United Nations Volodymyr Yelchenko sent a letter to the UN secretary general and head of the Security Council with a statement for the General Assembly. In it, Ukraine “expresses its strongest protest against the intensification of Russia’s hybrid forces, including with the use of tanks, self-propelled artillery, rocket launchers and mortars,” demands from the Russian Federation an immediate halt to the armed provocations, which are increasing the number of casualties and the destruction of regional infrastructure.”
New US envoy does not mince words
U.S Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker visited Ukraine at the beginning of the week and saw for himself front-line locations. Among the conclusions he shared with the media were that the conflict in the Donbas is not a civil war in Ukraine as Russia depicts it, but the result of Russian military aggression, that the question of Crimea cannot be separated from that of the Donbas, that “There are more Russian tanks in there than [tanks] in Western Europe combined,” that arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons would help it to better able to defend itself.
New round of Normandy Four telephone talks on Donbas conflict
On 24 July the Normandy Four leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany held a new round of talks over the phone in this format, focusing on the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas. According President Poroshenko’s press secretary, the Ukrainian leader urged Russia to stop aggressive actions and arms supplies to the occupied territory,” and demanded a full ceasefire.
According to a joint press release by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron following the phone talks, “The Heads of State and Government agreed that the political, humanitarian and economic issues as well as the security aspects of the Minsk package should be fully implemented”, that “ceasefire violations must cease immediately” and necessary measures to be taken to prevent damage to civilian infrastructure, “to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Donbas.” The importance of withdrawing heavy weapons as well as the secure access for the OSCE SMM to all parts of Donbas, including the temporarily uncontrolled parts of the Ukrainian-Russian border, should be ensured as well as the security of OSCE SMM members” was also stressed. Macron and Merkel also stressed the inadmissibility of any statements undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in particular on the creation of the so-called “Malorossiya.” For his part, Russia’s President Putin once again called the Russia-backed war in Donbas an “internal Ukrainian conflict” indicating that no change in Moscow’s position could be expected.
Russian military build up on Ukraine’s borders
Meanwhile, the Chief of Ukraine’s General Staff warned that Russia has massed significant strike forces on Ukraine border. Viktor Muzhenko announced this week that Russia has recently deployed three divisions of motorized rifle troops capable of conducting rapid offensive operations. A week ago, while on an official visit to Kyiv, Belarus’s president Aleksandr Lukashenko sought to reassure his Ukrainian hosts that the Belarusian-Ukrainian border would “never to be border of war.” But Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak pointed out that the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises, West 2017, scheduled for September 14-20, 2017, are giving rise to concern as up to 13,000 military personnel are expected to take part in the exercise.
President Trump suggests Ukraine interfered in US presidential election
On 25 July, U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly tweeted that Ukraine had tried to “sabotage” his 2016 election campaign in favor of Hillary Clinton. Ukrainian officials denied this while US media, such as the Washington Post dismissed the accusation as an attempt by Trump to deflect attention from the investigations currently under way about his own contacts with Russia and its involvement.
US Congress strengthens sanctions against Russia, Europe also poised to do so
Following the U.S. House of Representatives, on 28 July the U.S. Senate voted nearly unanimously to apply new sanctions on Russia despite President Donald Trump’s objections to the legislation, and Moscow’s threats to retaliate. The Senate backed the measure, which also imposes sanctions on Iran and North Korea, by a margin of 98-2 with strong support from Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. The sanctions measure had already passed the House of Representatives earlier in the week by a vote of 419-3. The sanctions would affect a range of Russian industries and might further hurt the Russian economy, already weakened by 2014 sanctions imposed after its aggression against Ukraine. Besides angering Moscow, the proposed legislation has upset the European Union, which has said the new sanctions might affect its energy security”, namely the construction of the controversial “North Stream” gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that European Union states have given initial backing to a German proposal to blacklist several more Russian nationals and companies over the delivery of Siemens gas turbines to Crimea, though no final decision has been made. Berlin made the proposal at a Brussels meeting of 28 EU ambassadors on Wednesday after it emerged that the turbines had been delivered to the peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, in contravention of EU sanctions.
Poroshenko strips Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship
On the domestic front the big story of the week was the surprise announcement that President Poroshenko has stripped Georgian ex-president turned Ukrainian politician and reformer Mikheil Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship. The two had been political allies but later fell out after Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of not supporting sufficiently his efforts to combat corruption while Governor of the Odesa region. Saakashvili has sought to create his own reformist, opponents say populist, Ukrainian political party and has been outspoken in his criticism of Poroshenko and his team.
Though formal reasons were cited for the decision, namely that Saakashvili had withheld evidence about charges levelled against him by the Georgian authorities, most observers concluded that the move against him was purely political. Kyiv’s mayor, and ally of President Poroshenko, Vitaliy Klychko, commented that depriving Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship would damage the image of Ukraine.
During the week, skirmishing and shelling continued along the front line though at a somewhat lower level of intensity. On July 22 OSCE patrols were blocked by the pro-Russian forces near the town of Novoazovsk, Donetsk region. Monitors registered an active movement of military vehicles across the Russian-Ukrainian border. On July 21, pro-Russian forces fired at residential areas of Mariinka, Donetsk region wounding 4 civilians, including 2 children. According to the Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Alexander Hug, the number of casualties among civilians since the beginning of the 2017 has increased by 50% compared to the same period of the last year. Overall, during the last week 3 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in action, and 12 were wounded.
History of the Future. That’s the title of a new book by Yuriy Bilak. It was launched this week in a space in Kyiv called Ostannia Barykada that we featured in an earlier show (link). It’s a photo album about Ukraine from the Euromaidan through the war in Donbas. And over the weekend there’s an event called Connect Ukraine Festival happening at Kyiv’s Art Factory Platform. 2000 visionaries, innovators and technology leaders from all over the world are coming to Kyiv to share their ideas.
Some new sound tracks appeared on SoundCloud this week by a Ukrainian Crimean Tatar project called R2Я, or Ramzik & Remzik. All we know about them is that they are 2 musicians who are playing music that’s nothing like they’ve played before. But the music has clear Crimean Tatar melodies and flavours. Hromadske Radio leader Andriy Kulykov tried to interview them, but, alas, Ramzik & Remzik insisted that they want to remain incognito. But they graciously agreed to let us play one of their songs on Ukraine Calling. Have a listen to Qatty, a title which is tricky to translate, but it means something like tough, harsh. Let us know what you think. https://soundcloud.com/muslim-umeroglu/qatty
Next week in for a new episode and write to us at [email protected] I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Nykole King, Ilona Szieventseva, Max Sviezhentsev. News by Bohdan Nahaylo. War by Max Sviezhentsev. Culture by Marta Dyczok. Music by Andriy Kulykov. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.