It Is Not worth It That Ukrainians Die for Donbas

An Interview with Mykola Riabchuk by Filip Memches

The West turning a blind eye on the imperial ambitions of Moscow only emboldens it—says Mykola Riabchuk interviewed by Filip Memches.

Two dramatic years have passed since the Maidan. From the Ukrainian perspective, should all that has happened since that time be regarded as a success or a failure?

No revolution solves underlying problems. Countries develop through evolution. Revolution only becomes necessary when evolution is blocked. It was so in 2004—Leonid Kuchma and Victor Janukovych wanted to block the development of Ukraine. And then the same happened in 2013. But when a country returns to a normal way of growth, you cannot expect miracles.

The situation in Ukraine is conditioned by our unique political culture. We have here the legacy of the First Commonwealth, its territory covering a large part of today’s Ukraine, then of Byzantium, and then of the Soviet Union. It is a large obstacle, but that does not justify omissions or mistakes on the part of the Ukrainian elites, including both Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

I can understand why the legacy of the Soviet times, of the totalitarian era, is a burden for Ukraine, but the legacy of the First Commonwealth, the Polish democracy of the nobility, is not so clear-cut.

This is obviously a problem not only for Ukraine, but also for Poland (laughter). The legacy of the First Commonwealth is a very important factor differentiating Ukraine from Russia. In the Russian case, the Soviet tradition is combined with the Byzantine tradition. There is also the legacy of the Golden Horde, absent in the Ukraine. And the First Commonwealth, considering its times, was a country of law and freedom. This is why Ukraine—as opposed to Russia— does not have a very fertile ground for political paternalism, for authoritarianism as practiced by Vladimir Putin. Hostility to such forms of power is visible even in opinion polls. And even if in Ukraine there are Russian-speaking people, in the political sphere they behave differently than the inhabitants of Russia.

Unfortunately, the tradition of the democracy of the nobility also has its drawbacks. For Ukrainians the state never was a value, it always was a foreign element. In some situations also the individualist trait in Ukrainians reveals its negative features. I mean here looking only after your own interest—it is very much visible in the Ukrainian parliament, which in this respect resembles the Sejm of the First Commonwealth.

And after the Maidan it goes on as if there was no tomorrow…

We are largely dealing here with yesterday’s people, although they are better from the earlier ones—for example Victor Janukovych. For the president, for the prime minister, and for very many deputies the best political and economic order is the oligarchic pluralism from the era of Leonid Kuchma. This system allowed for democracy, but under its cover various interest groups could achieve their goals through manipulation and bribery.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian society has great expectations and may be disappointed.

But there are almost no other elites. Therefore despite the resistance or even—for that also happens—sabotage on their part, you need to force them to introduce reforms. And our society is doing that. Since the Orange Revolution it has changed a lot. It no longer trusts politicians, who make nice-sounding promises, for it realizes that each of them must be held accountable. Non-governmental organizations are monitoring our politicians in this respect. One example is VoxUkraine—an independent institute with experts analyzing the implemented reforms. They assess them on the scale from -5 to +5. So far the assessments were above zero, roughly +1.5. This of course is not much—if we want Ukraine to really change for the better, we need reforms assessed at +3, +4. But the very fact that the assessments are all above zero may prove that the country is moving forward rather than going back. Let us take, for example, public tenders—they are much more transparent now. And there is also international support.

But it is probably not satisfactory?

Indeed, the EU support is not enough— you cannot compare it with what Greece is receiving, to name just one example. But we do receive some aid. And the fact that the West helps Ukraine gives it the right to monitor it, to enforce reforms.

From what you’re saying, after the Maidan some oligarchs replaced others. Is it possible in this situation to speak about empowerment of Ukrainian society—which was one of the main demands of the forces which stood against Janukovych?

First of all, we need to note that Poroshenko’s administration differs from such oligarchs as Janukovych. They are people who built their capital on production, on producing goods rather than on making clandestine transactions in natural resources and so on. This administration is much less corrupt. If Western standards were imposed on them—such as equal terms of market competition—they would comply with them. In the absence of that they simply play games according to the rules established in Ukraine.

There is one more thing—some argue that since media reports on officials arrested under corruption charges are more frequent than during Janukovych’s presidency, it may prove that the scale of corruption has increased. In fact, the government really started to fight against such pathologies. And some behaviors started to be revealed. As for the public mood, we can truly observe some impatience. It results from great expectations which clashed with complex reality. We should also compare how Ukrainians behave today and how they behaved 20 years ago. The level of social involvement has risen greatly.

As reflected in the activities of the non-governmental organizations you spoke about. But will they replace political parties? Do you not overestimate the importance of NGOs?

It is true that we do not have genuine political parties, for what we are seeing is rivalries between groups gathered around various oligarchic clans. But I hope that such parties will come into existence on the basis of the evident social involvement of our people. People from outside current politics and business start to enjoy increasing authority and they may begin to play an important role. It would be enough if we had one grouping founded on some values, which would be a point of reference for other groupings. We could say then that there is one party, and the rest are clans.

You are bringing in foreign politicians for high governmental positions—does it not speak volumes about the weakness of Ukrainian political cadres? There are many of them in Yatsenyuk’s government, and Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia, is governor of Odessa.

In the era of globalization, this is not a problem. In the case of Ukraine, you have to take into account the huge scale of corruption in the state apparatus. Bringing people from abroad is necessitated by the need to purge the structures of power. These persons have an important asset—they are not involved in the local connections. And Ukraine is no exception in this respect. Political outsourcing is practiced by some African countries.

But this may mean reducing the sovereignty of the state.

This is how the whole world functions now. Various international organizations limit the sovereignty of their member states. In the case of Ukraine, you also need to emphasize that these politicians from abroad hold executive power. They are not deputies. They work on the same basis as experts from abroad hired by a company. Georgians in Ukrainian administration have crucial experience in fighting corruption. Georgia has achieved very good results in this area. And there is one more aspect—hiring politicians from post-Soviet countries is a signal for Russia that Russian dissidents may find work in Ukraine. Maria Gajdar, Saakashvili’s deputy, is an example here.

After the Maidan, the Party of Regions lost very much politically, has been marginalized even. The Communist Party was outlawed by Ukrainian authorities. Does that mean that the pro-Russian option, invoking the nostalgia for the Soviet Union, is becoming history?

I do not think that the Party of Regions has been marginalized. It has a loyal constituency in the East of the country. Of course, it has been reduced by half since the Russian occupation of the Crimea and Donbas. It now means some dozen percent of the vote. The Party of Regions does not represent an openly pro-Moscow option, for during a conflict with Russia such a position would be suicidal. But it uses demagogic arguments such as that we must be friends with Russia—as if making peace was up to Ukraine—and that America is behind the outbreak of the war.

On the other hand, nationalist forces have come to the fore, and as we know, nationalism is not welcome in liberal opinion-making communities of the West. Would you say that Svoboda, the Right Sector, and the Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko are now the principal curse of the Ukrainian political scene?

As far as social support is concerned, the recent parliamentary elections showed that these are not powerful groupings. The nationalist groups in Europe achieve much better results. The problem is that such parties as the Right Sector emerged in wartime conditions. And when in the face of the Russian aggression it turned out that Ukrainian army had been incapacitated— by Russian agents in fact— it was the nationalists who took up arms. They managed to organize themselves efficiently, to gain authority in the Ukrainian society—although not political authority, for very few people voted for them—and now they cause trouble for the elites. Poroshenko wants to incorporate them in the system. The authorities realize that the state should have the monopoly for violence, so they cannot tolerate radicals active in paramilitary groups. When it comes to Lyashko’s party, it best exemplifies the dependence of Ukrainian political class on oligarchs. This grouping has no ideology, it only promotes simple populist slogans. It is a media project generously financed by one of the oligarchic clans. And Ukrainians buy such projects. But usually only once. This is why Lyashko’s party will end like other groupings of this kind in the past (for example the Social Democrats of Victor Medvedchuk), which proved to be one-time projects.

Meanwhile, Yatsenyuk government’s opinion poll standings suffered a severe blow. Who can take advantage of this?

Politicians from the government coalition are convinced that in wartime conditions and faced with the necessity of obtaining foreign loans they should rise above their political differences. Perhaps we will have some reform-minded party on the basis of Self-help, a grouping which is perhaps closest to European standards in terms of the mentality of its politicians. Some alternative is needed. As a voter I am not satisfied with the current offer. The greatest political challenge for Ukraine still is the transition from oligarchic pluralism to a system where genuine political parties compete. Therefore the laws recently passed by the government are of great importance, they regard such things as revealing who really controls a given bank or a media organization. Such solutions also allow people to see which parties are sponsored by which owners.

Are you not afraid that the war fatigue will lead to the emergence of a grouping seeking settlement with Russia at any cost?

For the time being I do not see such a trend. Anyway, there is no need for a new grouping to appear. The Party of Regions is such a pro-Moscow force. Pressure from abroad is more dangerous—France and Germany want Kyiv to accept Putin’s plan. And this compromise is unacceptable for Ukraine.

Perhaps the West failed the Ukrainians? Initially it supported Ukrainian aspirations to EU membership, it supported the Maidan, and then, when Russia took the Crimea, it virtually left Kyiv alone with the problems which emerged from the new situation.

I haven’t noticed that the West cared much for Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. There is a different problem here. The EU does not want trouble—it wants the neighboring countries to be stable and not be a source of threats, such as mass migration caused by war or ecological disaster. And the Association Agreement with the EU did not mean an economic miracle for Ukraine. It only created the possibility of monitoring the oligarchs by Brussels and offered some hope that fair elections would be possible in some time and Janukovych would be removed from power. Abandoning the agreement was a signal that Ukraine would go the way of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

It is also worth recalling that this year the Dutch will hold a referendum on the EU-Ukraine agreement regarding a free trade zone. This initiative appeared under a wave of anti-immigrant sentiments. It is a disgrace for Europe that such a small country as Holland is to decide about the fate of 40 million Ukrainians. By the way, the agreement is more beneficial to the EU than to Ukraine, for a large new market opens for the rich Western countries.

You said that the Union does not want trouble behind its eastern border. If it turned out that the price for peace would be relegating Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence, Western countries would have nothing against it?

Some Western politicians say it directly. But evident problems turn up here. If you hold up such values as democracy or human rights, you cannot relinquish them easily. Abandoning your principles and making concessions to Russia require a serious justification. There is also a practical matter. A Russia absorbing Ukraine would be more aggressive and hence more dangerous for Europe. The West turning a blind eye on the imperial ambitions of Moscow only emboldens it, so it does not lead to a trouble-free Eastern neighborhood. If Europe loses Ukraine to Russia, then Estonia and Latvia could follow suit. In 2008, after the Russian invasion in Georgia, many people laughed upon hearing that the Crimea could be the next target of Moscow. It is good that the Union at least imposed sanctions on Russia, for individual European countries would probably not have done it.

And could they have gone further than imposing sanctions?

The idea is that the cost of waging war by Donbas separatists would be too high for them. Therefore Ukraine needs weapons for defensive purposes—to seriously implement the peace plan. In fact, Kyiv made a political error: It did not designate Donbas an occupied territory, as it did in the case of the Crimea. For the aggressor is Russia rather than separatists, who are Moscow’s puppets.

And what if an agreement with the Kremlin proves impossible?

Then let them take Donbas. This region is not worth it that people die for it.

How do you see the future of the Crimea and Donbas?

As a liberal democrat I recognize the right of inhabitants of any territory to self-determination. There is only the question of procedures. We have the examples of Scotland, Québec, Catalonia. There are aspirations for independence, but pursued within the law. There is nothing like that in the Crimea and Donbas. What we had was a brutal Soviet occupation.

Today the matter seems open. Japan does not recognize the Russian occupation of the Kuril Islands. It will be the same with the Crimea. As for Donbas, it is not as important for Ukraine as the Crimea, practicality governed by Crimean Tatars. It is their country. In a sense they were betrayed by Kyiv, for they had always been loyal to Ukraine, they had always supported it. Ukrainians from the Crimea who are not happy about its annexation by Russia have places to go to—Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa, while Tatars have nowhere to go. In 1944 they were deported by Stalin to Central Asian Soviet republics. This is a moral issue—not only for Ukraine, but for the whole world. The Tatars are persecuted by Russian authorities.

And why do you not care about Donbas?

It is a Sovietized region. Politically, I see no prospects for it. And economically it is very backward. It would be best to freeze the conflict going on there. And in the future, inhabitants of Donbas would perhaps want to vote in a referendum for their region to join Ukraine, as Eastern Germans wanted their country to join West Germany.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.