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- Published on Wednesday, 03 February 2016 15:12
- Category: Interviews
- Written by Adam Reichardt
A conversation with Hanna Hopko, EuroMaidan activist and member of Ukrainian parliament. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt
ADAM REICHARDT: The new Ukrainian government has been in power now for over a year and some visible reforms have taken place. However, the economic situation in the country is dire, corruption still seems rampant, almost at the levels it was during Viktor Yanukovych’s rule, and even some faces of the Yanukovych era are still highly visible. As someone who is very much on the inside of Ukrainian politics, how do you assess the situation? Do you believe your country is heading in the right direction?
HANNA HOPKO: Ukraine’s transformation demands a systematic approach and above all patience. The changes we want to see cannot take place within one or two years. We have to remember that Ukraine was totally destroyed. The army, economy, education and health sector were all destroyed over the last 24 years. It was the kleptocratic governments with their post-Soviet mentality and oligarchs who monopolised politics and the media. The new generation has gained a small place in Ukrainian politics, but we still do not constitute a majority in government, the parliament or the presidential administration. This is a battle between two approaches: the old one, which is oriented towards money and the use of power to become richer, and the new one, whose aim is to build a new country.
However, in order to build a new Ukraine, we have to start from scratch. First, we have to clean out the system, which is infected with KGB agents, and prosecute corrupt officials. We have to build strong institutions, including an anti-corruption bureau, a new police force, an independent prosecutor’s office, judges and courts. We have to get rid of the old mentality which used to be a part of the system and bring in a new one. We also have to teach the new generation how to effectively govern the country.
I became a member of Ukraine’s parliament for the first time at the age of 32. I still remember the Orange Revolution, when I was standing with posters that read “Yushchenko, Yes!”. I was 22 years old at the time. I was under a lot of illusions and had a naïve understanding that after tomorrow, with the victory of the Orange Revolution and with Viktor Yushchenko as president and Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister, my life and our country would change. Unfortunately, nothing really changed. So within ten years we got the Revolution of Dignity. This time, we realised that the transformation of the country relies on everyone taking personal responsibility for it. We cannot rely on only two people; we must rebuild the country by ourselves, alongside our international and domestic partners. This process of state-building is not particularly attractive to the media.
We also have to fight for transparency, especially in key state-owned companies like Naftohaz (the national oil and gas company – editor’s note). This is the direction we need to keep heading towards, fighting corruption in all our state institutions. We started implementing this within one year. To change the country so dramatically in one or two years after the Revolution of Dignity has been incredibly challenging. Let’s look at it this way: what we are doing right now is similar to building a house’s foundation. I think our mission is to build this foundation and prevent the return of practices from Yanukovych’s or Leonid Kuchma’s regimes.
That is a very challenging mission…
Of course, we have a lot of challenges. Those who killed activists during the EuroMaidan demonstrations are not sitting in jail. A lot of corrupt people remain in power, even though the lustration law has passed. Despite this, it has helped us start cleaning up various government institutions.
Do you think that expectations are too high? More and more often, we hear voices, especially from the West, saying that reforms are not moving fast enough in Ukraine…
I can definitively say Ukrainian society’s expectations are not too high. However, the speed of reform indeed may not be fast enough, especially when you take into account the system’s resistance. We also need to remember that even those who are in power as a result of the Revolution, even if they put on a new mask, still come from the old system.
Yet there are some new faces, such as your own.
Yes, but we are a minority. I was never previously involved in politics, especially compared to our president, prime minister and other ministers. They know the old system well and know how to work with it. The key question is whether they are ready to fight against that system. We are trying to push them to speed up this process.
What motivated you to enter into Ukrainian politics?
The reality of our situation. During EuroMaidan, I was very active. At the end, when we realised Yanukovych was going to flee the country, we began discussing how to change the system. Not just the faces, but the whole system. We established a coalition of NGOs and think tanks and put together what we called the “Reanimation Package of Reforms”; in other words, how to bring the state back to life through anti-corruption, de-centralisation, judiciary reform, law enforcement reform, police and prosecutor reforms, economic revival, de-regulation and tax reform measures. We united different NGOs and established this coalition, which still exists and functions today. I was one of the co-founders of this initiative. Within the previous parliament, after the Revolution but before the second most recent set of elections, we pushed them to accept this package. However, it was very slow because there were still communists in parliament and members of the Party of Regions. When Petro Poroshenko announced early parliamentary elections, I received proposals from almost all the democratic political parties to run. I was very hesitant; I understood that those were not real political parties with a genuine vision for the country’s future. They did not have a real programme that had been developed and discussed with their members.
I have a lot of friends and colleagues abroad in the European Union who said to me: “You are obliged to run … to become an MP, you will do more good for your country this way than by being an activist.” That is when I chose to run with the Samopomich party (“Self-Reliance”, the political party established by Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi – editor’s note). I was number one on their party list. My idea was to have a pure, reformist party, although we did invite representatives from the Donbas Battalion, which I was against. However, the founder of the party, Andriy Sadovyi, insisted that when the country is at war, there is a need to include battalion representatives on party lists. Nevertheless, I invited other people from our “Reanimation Package of Reforms” initiative to join, including Oksana Syroyid, who is now a vice speaker of parliament, and Yegor Sobolev, who is the head of the anti-corruption committee in parliament. I also invited Victoria Ptashnyk. She was expelled from the party, as I was recently as well…
Your expulsion was mainly due to your decision to vote for the constitutional amendment on decentralisation. Do you regret this decision? What convinced you it was the right choice at the time?
I would like to emphasise that I am not a politician. I still consider myself a civic activist. I have never been a member of any political party. Even in Samopomich, I was not a party member. Ukrainian law allows you to run on a party list without being in the party. In Ukraine, political parties are not well-respected. People usually think an oligarch is behind a party and there is no real transparency regarding party financing. Now, following the introduction of a new law on political corruption, all parties will have to report their financing sources, how money is spent, etc. That is why I was not a member of the party. Unfortunately, after some time, Samopomich began playing political games…
In fact, you were quite critical after you left the party. You stated that Samopomich was sliding into populism and Bolshevik authoritarianism. What did you mean by that?
An example of the slide into populism would be when the party voted for a mortgage law that demanded the state to return money to a certain group of mortgage owners at the rate of eight hryvnia per US dollar (when the dollar was at 25 hryvnia). I was against this because although 40,000 people could perhaps be helped, the state budget would need to find one billion dollars to cover the price difference. Samopomich supporters, the “smart people”, were against this populist policy. Nevertheless, there were some in the party who tried to package it as necessary politics, since other members of the coalition could try to use this against us.
In terms of the decentralisation law, it included elements of the Minsk obligations. Some representatives of the party said: “We do not recognise the Minsk Agreements. This is not our problem, but the president’s.” My response was that this was the whole country’s problem. All political forces need to have a united front in the face of Russian aggression. As head of the parliament’s foreign relations committee, I urged my colleagues to think about the country’s interests first, even if I personally do not like the Minsk Agreement. I did not sign it, but when it was agreed upon, Ukraine was under attack from Russia and civilians were being killed. We had to adopt an approach grounded in reality.
I tried to convince colleagues from our faction that when we have a weak army and our economy depends upon international loans from the International Monetary Fund, we have to win time to become a stronger country. When this happens, we can then return to the discussion about our territory. Unfortunately, the party said I had to vote as they did and I refused. My professional understanding of the situation was apparently different to theirs. The party decided to expel me because of my decision. They even changed party rules because they did not initially garner enough votes to expel me. I am a supporter of inter-party democracy and not dictatorship. I considered Samopomich to be a new party and a platform for those who are reform-oriented. That is why I did not join Bloc Petro Poroshonko or Yulia Tymoshenko, who was trying to convince me to join her party two hours after I was expelled from Samopomich.
So you are not interested in joining a different political party?
No. In fact, five MPs were expelled from Samopomich as a result of our votes and we are now all independent. We have no plans to join other parties, even though Samopomich is already trying to use our expulsion against us, saying we were bought off by either Poroshenko or others, which is not true.
We prefer to be independent because it means we can be effective and we are not obliged to pay back or provide favours. This is an important precedent in the Ukrainian parliament. We were given a choice as to what was more important; our country or the party? I chose our country.
The results of the local elections across Ukraine show there still is a visible split between the east and west of the country. How will this challenge the implementation of reforms and keep Ukraine on the path towards Europe?
Let us take a look at some examples such as Kryvyi Rih, a city near Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. It is a city that was a stronghold for the old Party of Regions. Despite this, new political parties received several seats and won the city council elections. I participated in Hlukhiv, a city which is 15 kilometres from the Russian border. In Hlukhiv, the candidate for mayor, Michel Terestchenko, is originally from France. This year, Poroshenko granted him Ukrainian citizenship as his grandparents used to live in Hlukhiv and emigrated to France in the 20th century. He returned to Ukraine and decided to run for city mayor, which was under the grip of the oligarch Andrii Derkach, who is affiliated with the Party of Regions and the corrupt elite. We ensured the results were fair and Terestchenko won the election.
There was also a surprise in Mykolaiv. Everyone was certain the former city mayor, Ihor Diatlov, the Opposition Bloc’s candidate, would win. He lost. Now, there is a new mayor from the Samopomich party. This shows there is a change taking place, even in the eastern parts of Ukraine. If local people see there is an alternative, they will support the alternative. It is a matter of time and I think all candidates, even the good ones who lost the recent campaign, have to continue, build their networks and find new people, including from the civil sector and local actors. They must invite them to take part in the future. This is a transitional period and taking this into consideration, I still think the local elections’ results’ are much better than what we could have expected.
Despite everything you have been through, you still seem quite optimistic about Ukraine and its future. What are the biggest challenges that still lie ahead and what can you do to convince your peers to be as optimistic as you are?
First of all, I dream the Ukrainian political elite will be united by their motivation to initiate change, not for personal benefit or popularity, but for the country. When you look at countries like Poland or Romania, when their political elite decided they wanted to become members of the European Union or NATO, it did not matter whether they were in power or opposition; they worked together. They did not criticise each other abroad when working towards these common goals. Of course, internally they competed and disagreed on policies, but in the international arena they spoke with one voice. The Ukrainian elite still needs to learn how to co-operate as one national team.
What makes me an optimist? Ukrainians have the survival gene. We need to understand that although Ukraine’s independence is only 24 years old, as a country and a people we are much older and we have this gene that has enabled us to survive through it all. Look at the 20th century. Russia won the Second World War because of Ukraine’s support. Ukraine protected Russia; it was a joint victory over fascism. In November, we commemorated the 82nd anniversary of the Holodomor famine. We survived as a people. Now, we are finally shedding our fear. This year, we finally passed a law on de-communisation. In Poland and Lithuania, when the Soviet Union collapsed, they demolished all Soviet monuments. Alongside their economic transformation, they erased their Soviet heritage. We are finally doing the same. We are renaming streets that were named after KGB agents who killed Ukrainians during the Soviet period. We will now rename them after new heroes who protected Ukrainians in the east, fighting against Russian aggression.
The new generation, both my age and younger, do not have an attachment to the Soviet Union. It travels abroad and does not belong to any system of oligarchy. It does not focus on just becoming rich. They have a different philosophy and this is what makes me optimistic. Now is the time for a new generation; for change-makers and state builders.
Hanna Hopko is a member of the Ukrainian parliament and head of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. She was also actively involved in the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Adam Reichardt is editor in chief of New Eastern Europe. You can follow him on Twitter (@areichardt)