New Political Season: Overcoming Doublespeak in Ukraine’s Parliament
Oksana Syroyid and Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a Ukrainian and a Canadian MPs, discuss Ukrainian and international politics in a new issue of Ukraine Calling, with new host Marko Suprun
New Political Season in Verkhovna Rada
Ukraine’s Parliament reconvened this week after its summer break. It faces a tough agenda. Undeclared war continues on its territory. Domestic corruption and scandals continue to dominate the headlines. Over the next few months, elections will be held in countries that play a huge role in determining Ukraine’s future: the United States, Germany, France.
Ukraine’s president Poroshenko addressed the assembly. He reiterated his strategic vision of Ukraine joining NATO but braced his country for a rocky few months ahead. He said, “Over the course of the next year, political forces could come to power as a result of elections in several European countries that may not be extremist, but are inclined to compromise with the Kremlin and which believe that the best policy against the aggressor is conciliation.” He also appealed for unity, warned against internal squabbles, referring to history that in the past led to Ukraine’s loss of statehood at the end of World War I.
On its third day back from the holidays, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a resolution calling on foreign parliaments not to recognize elections planned by the Russian State Duma in the Crimean peninsula that Russia occupied in 2014.
Later in the show we’ll bring you in-depth commentary about the challenges facing Ukraine’s parliament by deputy speaker Oksana Syroid and Canadian parliamentarian with a long history of cooperating with Ukraine, Borys Wrzesnewsky.
In other news. The dynamic of the war seems to have changed over these past two weeks. Late August continued to be quite heated, with daily reports of heavy shelling and casualties, with 5 soldiers killed and 27 wounded, including one nurse. On August 27th 12,000 residents of Luhans’k were left without water because shelling destroyed their facilities. But despite fears that this would continue, on September the first, which is the beginning of the school year in Ukraine, the official spokesperson reported that things were quiet on almost all fronts in the Donbass. And in the first week of September 2 soldiers were killed, six wounded, one civilian woman and one policeman.
G20 in China
Ukraine was not high up on the G20 Summit agenda in China this/last week. Unlike the summit in Australia, where then Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper stole the headlines by refusing to shake Mr. Putin’s hand for annexing Crimea. But as Newsweek reported, the Russian president was forced to backtrack on his earlier statement that he was going to pull out of “senseless’ negotiations with Ukraine, and agreed to continue the four way talks brokered by Germany and France.
There was mixed news on Ukraine’s efforts at battling corruption and efforts at improving transparency. Ukraine Calling listeners may remember that the new system requiring government officials to declare their incomes on-line ran into a snag over the summer, and was postponed until September the 1st. Some media outlets reported that the second attempt at the e-filing system was once again flawed, Others, including the usually critical investigative news website censor.net were more optimistic. It reported that within a week 816 users had registered and 118 declarations had been submitted.
Former investigative journalist, Serhiy Leshchenko, who went into politics in 2014, found himself under the transparency microscope this week. Reports began circulating that he and his girlfriend recently bought a luxury apartment in central Kyiv for 7.5 million Ukrainian hryviasю Another media outlet published documents where the two of them declared incomes totalling just over 2 million in the past seven years.
Crimean Tatar Leader Released
Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov was released from Simferopol’s psychiatric hospital on the 7th of September, after three weeks of forcible confinement. Ukraine Calling listeners will remember that we reported on this in the last episode, that the deputy chairman of the Mejlis, had been transferred from a regular hospital to forcible psychiatric assessment reminiscent of the old Soviet system. Upon release he began giving interviews, reporting that despite everything, he is in good health.
(Headlines prepared by Marta Dyczok)
With me, Marko Suprun, in the studio are Borys Wrzesnewsky, member of the Candian Parliament, the House of Commons, who was recently re-elected in 2015 in a landslide victory for the Liberal Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeu. Also we have with us Ms. Oksana Syroid, the Deputy Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament and the first woman deputy speaker of Ukraine.
Thank you very much for joining us tonight.
The theme of the week is Ukrainian Parliamentarianism. And we went out over the week and asked a few students to share with us their thoughts about the Ukrainian parliament, whether it is a strong or a weak institution. And before we begin I’d like to share some of their thoughts that we recorded.
Kateryna, a university student: Ukrainians are so disappointed of many things that happened. Today’s Rada disappoints us a lot. We mostly focus on what we can do as a person or part of the company. How you can change the place you live, the work you do, your behaviour. We all try to be more open. As for me, my position is I do not expect a lot from Rada. Really. I do not that trust them much any more.
There is one thing that I hope for: the Ukrainian Parliament President could do more for integration into the European Union. That is my biggest dream. I want to be there together with them.
I can see that in Lviv we can work all together: business, city and people. We have many social initiatives. For example, last month we built the first dog park in Lviv with all that cool equipment, stuff to clean. I see that it works. I think that it is how the triangle – the city, businesses, and society – can change. I mostly trust local development than something that comes from Rada.
Suprun: The level of trust for the Rada is very low. Although in some Western democracies they really would appreciate that kind of rating. What are some of the things that you can do as Deputy Speaker to strengthen the role of Rada in Ukraine today?
Syroyid: What is very important for any MP, does not matter if it is a Vice Speaker or regular MP, is to talk to people and try to explain to them, at least for those who acting in good faith and who are represent post-Maidan movement, to explain to people that, first of all, they cannot expect that they were electing MPs for 20 years who did some wrongs, that eventually they would change and they will start doing something good. People have been disappointed with the Parliament (it was always the case) but they were still re-electing the same people. So you cannot not expect different result by doing the same thing. The second reason, this is the task for both MPs and for the people, to be accountable for what is going on. If MPs believe they will be re-elected and it does not matter what they do, they will never be accountable. And the third reason, of course, the Ukrainian government is not accountable to the Ukrainian Parliament. People kind of transfer this disappointment with the government to the disappointment with the Parliament, which is natural because they see MPs do nothing to hold the government accountable. The reason for this is that we have a separation of powers. The bigger part of the executive power today in Ukraine is in possession of the President, and the whole accountability lies with the government, and Parliament cannot control the President at all. That is why we cannot be accountable in front of our people for the deeds of the government.
Wrzesnewsky: First of all, I would like to express for being invited to this studio. Ms Syroid has raised a number of issues. Accountability is amongst them. We have different systems. Canada has inherited the British Parliamentary system where there is no clear line separating the executive and legislative branches of the government. Of course, the judiciary is clearly separated and independent. We clearly have rule of law state in Canada. It is one of the great lacks in Ukraine. We also have other interesting things that we can take a look at. We have the bad example, for instance, with our neighbours to the south, the US. I often refer to it as a dollarocracy as supposed to a democracy. It is also an issue here in various ways: how people get elected, how people get onto lists of parties. It is an evolutionary process that is taking place in Ukraine. The democratic process is evolving but it is also an opportunity to take a look at mistakes of other democracies and to see how this very fragile immerging democracy can be made better. One of the things that I know is the strong presence and continuing presence of oligarchs and their resources not just in the government, but in parliament. It would be very important to look at some examples. Canada did something interesting just over a decade ago. We said: no corporations, no unions, no NGOs can give donations or contribute to electoral campaigns. Only individuals can. They are limited to 1500 dollars. In ridings such as mine of 125 000 people the average cost is 95 000 dollars for an election campaign. They even account for the signs that you re-use from previous campaigns. So, that is added back into the cost. You are compelled to go out, knock on doors, meet with people one on one. I probably knocked on some 40,000 doors during the election campaign. Everyone has to do it, including the Prime Minister. We have a different system but we also limit the influence of money, and I think this is something that could be looked at in regards to Ukraine because that oligarchic control that has been maintained for so long at some point that needs to be broken.
Suprun: Oksana, you were elected on the Samopomich [political party] ticket. During the campaign how many doors did you knock on?
Syroid: We were trying to do this door to door visits to talk to people but of course it was almost impossible and still almost impossible to raise money from people. Why? Because it is like a dirt circle. People believe that all politicians are crooks and have a lot of money. So they should not donate to those crooks who are abusing such a big amount of money. The businesses say “you know, we believe that politics is something dirty and we don’t want to affiliate with the politics.” But both, business and people, they request us to be poor and independent. It is time and effort to work together. On the one side I have to show all my activities to people who elected me that I am a decent person. I am trying all the best using my knowledge and my experience. Maybe with time those people will say “OK. This person in this political party is decent. We can allocate money and not be ashamed with the affiliation with this political force.” It is a long process. It was discredited so severely. It is true that in the last 15 years the politics was completely owned by the oligarchs. This parliament is probably the first one that has a small share of independent people that can afford to express their views and vote independently. The oligarchs built the system where they establish a political project – they called the parties, got to the parliament, created the government, got access to the natural resources, state budget and state enterprises, exhausted this just to create new political projects – parties. We have to break this circle and we have to talk to people. Not even to teach but mature them by working with them.
Wrzesnewsky: I think it is a condition of the government in general. Governments have huge resources at their disposal. Tremendous Power. Power attracts. The issue of corruption is an issue you find in every political system. To what measure is it controlled and does it take control of the system. When you come from a civil society background you have particular motivators. It is different if you come in as an oligarch; take into account: people tend to have a low opinion of politicians almost everywhere in the world. They respect political leaders but they have a low opinion of them. It is one thing when you extend a helping hand to someone individually – a neighbour in need – it feels pretty good. Then you can graduate to working with an organization, creating an organization, where sometimes you have a positive impact of dozen, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. Government is such huge apparatus. If you have a skill set and you learn how to manipulate this big apparatus of government you can have a positive impact on millions. But there is the factor that all resources of government also attract extremely capable people for the wrong reasons. They do not fully comprehend the danger of that because these people who are perhaps motivated for the wrong reasons should not be underestimated and their rules of the game would be very different from those who come from civil society who would not allow to abuse the system. It is rough and hard. They often called politics a “blood sport.” Politics can also be an art form. The art of politics is leadership and people will respond; an ability to communicate a vision. That is something so required today in Ukraine. Because Ukraine is not in a situation of Canada, it does not have a luxury of most of the democracies. Ukraine is a state under an existential threat, facing a war, economic crisis, various internal issues. That is why there is such a great need for political leadership that people can trust.
Suprun: What I’m hearing is that you are talking about is that the system in Ukraine is susceptible to manipulation by various political interests. That ebb and flow but often enough they have at least one particular interest in mind which is to keep the government is some form functioning. That level of manipulation is almost endemic to the system. Borys, you mentioned the existential threat which on everyone’s mind in our interviews. Everyone mentioned that it seems that the Parliament knows about the war but nobody wants to call it that. What can be done, Borys, to bring more attention to the fact we see happening on the ground isn’t not necessarily what the media or even what some politicians in various governments of the world are calling it. We are not calling things by their name.
Wrzesnewsky: Because they do not know what to expect of Putin, how to deal with this type of individual. They do not know what to make of this hybrid form of warfare. There is certain conditioning as well in the West. We have lived in what some call the Great Peace, the post WWII period, as imperfect as it was, it was based on international treaties, agreements. An international rule of law system was put into place. That is all at risk currently. No one wants to take the bull by the horns and take full risk on stability. President Obama shifted it to Merkel and Hollande. They are in their own particular situation and dynamics. It so not that clear type of war that one would expect. Putin is very capable in a way he conducts this war and this massive propaganda and the corrupting of western elites, both corporate through various business structures in Russia, but also political elites through financing French parties.
Suprun: Western governments are prepared to recognise that Russia has actually occupied Ukrainian territory. They even refused to use the world occupation. They do not even say “Crimea is occupied”. They say “it has been illegally annexed”. This is where I want to pass over to Oksana. One of the only plans I came across is the plan of de-occupation and as I understand you were the author of this plan: is to recognize territories as under occupation. Can you tell us about the plan?
Syroid: During these two years of war I‘ve learned a couple of things. First, everybody has their own interests. In politics, and especially in geopolitics. You cannot expect to have a friend. You can expect to have partners and patrons. The only one country that is interested to patronize Ukraine is Russia. All the rest to some extent ready to be partners but to the extent that Ukraine will be ready to protect itself. I take it as my duty to face the reality and to call it the way it is. Then to demand from others to do the same.
Suprun: What it would take for the Ukrainian Parliament to recognize the occupation?
Syroid: It will be almost impossible now because Minsk does not allow this. Minsk in principal denies the recognition of the occupation.
Suprun: We spoke about this earlier, Borys. Minsk was never ratified. It was not a document that required Parliamentary ratification. Are we Ukrainians artificially tying our hands?
Syroid: I want to make it clear. From a distance it is not that visible. Minsk happened because western powers were expecting somehow in a very quick manner to resolve this issue. They were expecting that a dragon came to eat just one person in a village, just one girl. Eventually, the dragon came to eat the whole village. If you sacrifice Ukraine, it does not mean that you resolve the problem. The problem will be just rising. You will be just provoking the dragon to do it again and again. Of course there was the incapability of Ukraine in the defence area. We were weak at that moment. We are weak militarily. We could not and nobody can confront the military force of Russia, except for the US. This is the reality. It was also the point of weakness of the whole western community because they did not want to take accountability for the fact that one of the permanent members of the Security Council has actually destroyed the whole security and legal order in the world. They did not want to deal with this. It would be too bothering. The simplest way was to try to resolve the conflict in Ukraine than resolve the conflict with Russia. They are two different conflicts. If they would call this “conflict with Russia”, there would be the world conflict. It would be way easier to resolve a small local conflict.
Suprun: Let me share a final quote on this topic:
Alexandra, a university student: Well I guess it’s actually it’s quite surreal because officially we’re not at war with anyone, there’s no aggressor, no one is attacking us. And our deputies, they have a complete understanding of what’s going on and I think that somewhere in the backs of their brains they do realise that they have responsibilities. But they’re getting away with not doing any of it, they have their own interests at heart. They have interests in Russia, they have business partners there, they would probably not do anything which would hinder their own business interests. So right now there’s no consolidation, there’s no unification in parliament, there’s no common strategy. No official statements have been made. So it’s just certain people, certain deputies voicing these issues, but not parliament as a whole. So it’s a surreal situation absolutely. It’s really weird.
Suprun: This was a student at your Alma Mater, the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
Syroid: But this is a genuine voice. This is absolutely what normal people speak about because they don’t know those fluffy words that politicians or diplomats are using. And they are just telling the reality. And it was an expression of reality. Because, for example, if you want to know what is going on, whether it’s a conflict, or anti-terrorist operation, or whatever, you go to the east. You go to the frontline. You would never face such a word. You would never hear this word. They say war. And they don’t say that this is a war with separatists. They always mention Russia. Russians, they go there, they go here. So, this is the reality. You cannot invent anything there. They have no time. They are under permanent attack. They are living with, I would say, their basic instincts. Because they are surviving. I mean soldiers and people living on the front line. That’s why you would always hear the truth. As well if you want to understand what is their perception about other issues. Go to normal people and just ask them. And they will tell you what it is. And this plan that was described, this was not my invention. I talked to dozens of people just normal people, including those who were internally displaced, moved from the territories in the east, and just normal people. And they were explaining this to me. So this is common sense. And I think if you want, as you mentioned Mr. Wrzesnewsky, only a just peace can last. And this is what is perceived by normal [ordinary] people. And I believe that if you do it honestly, if you do it with the feeling of reality, understanding of reality, only then can we achieve a stable result. And I believe that victory is the point of no return for war. And here I would say that this is not only for Ukraine but also for the world. They can only say that they got victory, that the conflict is resolved when it cannot return. Now, it’s not only for Ukraine, but for the West, we are too far from victory.
Next week the IMF will be reviewing the new aid tranche to Ukraine. The success of the e-filing program is one of the items that the IMF will be watching for in deciding whether to extend more loans to Ukraine. Ukraine Calling will be watching this and other stories. If you have any suggestions or comments, please write to the show at: [email protected]
I’m Marko Suprun in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Thank you to Larysa Iarovenko and Marta Dyczok for providing the interview transcripts and producing the show.
Sound engineer: Andriy Izdryk