KYIV – The Samopomich (Self-Reliance) party has emerged as among the most popular in Ukraine, even ranking first in some polls.
And although its founder and head Andriy Sadovyi is among Ukraine’s most popular politicians (having served as Lviv mayor since 2006), a key reason for Samopomich’s success has been the passionate pursuit of reforms by Yegor Soboliev, the 39-year old deputy head of the party’s parliamentary faction.
His occasional brawls in Parliament have drawn the television spotlight, but his biggest contribution to politics stems from his chairmanship of the Verkhovna Rada’s Committee on Corruption Prevention and Counteraction, which has been at the lead in lustration efforts that are being resisted by the political establishment entrenched from the Yanukovych administration, with the president’s backing, he alleges.
For at least half a year, he’s led several drives to dismiss the highly unpopular Viktor Shokin as procurator general, collecting the necessary number of signatures to force the vote after the first list mysteriously disappeared. The Rada finally ousted Mr. Shokin in a March 29 vote. Mr. Soboliev also led the signature drive to dismiss his allegedly corrupt predecessor, Vitalii Yarema.
During a late December protest to hold new mayoral elections in Kryvyi Rih, Mr. Soboliev was widely criticized for storming the Parliament in the company of soldiers, threatening to throw a grenade if they weren’t allowed in. He denied uttering the words and refused to apologize.
The elections were eventually approved by Parliament, owing to Mr. Soboliev’s fierce efforts, but the attempt to unseat the incumbent mayor, Yurii Vilkul, a member of the local oligarchy, ultimately failed during the vote held on March 27.
Under his leadership that began in January 2015, the committee has filtered, approved and in some cases rewritten anti-corruption laws, including those needed to establish a visa-free regime with the European Union.
He spearheaded legislation that created the National Agency to Search, Recover and Administer Illegally Gained Assets, also part of the package of laws required for the visa-free regime.
Born in Russia and having spent most of his youth there, he arrived in Ukraine in 1995 and immediately become involved in journalism. Mr. Soboliev is among the leading critics of not only the Putin regime, but also the Russian worldview and political culture.
The world’s governments should understand that their problems will only begin if Ukraine is conquered by Russia, he said in a March 15 interview with The Ukrainian Weekly at his office in the Verkhovna Rada committees building on Sadova Street.
“All of Russian history is a story of wars of conquest. When Russia stops, it begins to experience ruin,” he said.
Also participating in the interview and posing questions was Vasyl Troubich, a master’s degree student in international affairs at George Washington University. A native of Manhattan, he is working on a group project on reformulating Western policy towards Russia for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The interview is being published in two parts.
Zawada: Your faction left the coalition in mid-February after the unsuccessful vote to dismiss the prime minister. Moreover, it occurred when it was critical to get the latest tranche from the International Monetary Fund. So why did you make this difficult decision to leave the coalition, as a result of which we have this crisis?
We were given a mandate by the people to make everything different. How they have wanted things to be throughout the Euro-Maidan and the wars for independence. And it’s not working out. As to why, there are several explanations.
The first explanation is that there’s a great resistance from the country’s leader, who is practically continuing the politics of [his predecessor, President Viktor]Yanukovych but with new rhetoric. He’s keeping Yanuko-vych’s people in place. He’s the first violator of the lustration law. And we can’t change that. We can condemn it and expose it, but we can’t change the president.
The second problem is a problem of law enforcement bodies and courts. They are all practically as they were under Yanukovych. They don’t want to change, cover up corruption and often themselves are the main source of corruption. We are making great efforts as parliamentarians. We passed several laws – open register of ownership, accountability for deception in declarations, the need for completeness in declarations in order to reduce the number of corrupt officials in these prosecutorial offices and courts. But we are not successful because this same president and his large faction are keeping Shokin in his post and are maintaining control over corrupt courts with the help of the Higher Justice Council, which is also led by a person allied with [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko.
What we’re left with is only a third mechanism, which is the unsuccessful government. The government is not the main target of blame, but one of them in this situation. The prime minister doesn’t have either the will or the desire to rid the management of large state enterprises of the corrupt representatives of oligarchs. Corruption is thriving in the practice of using taxpayer money for various state programs.
That’s why we said already in the fall that the people trusted us to introduce changes in Parliament and we should be making that happen. If we form a new government with a principled prime minister who will chase oligarchs from state enterprises, it will enable us to at least partly go down the path that had been hoped for by the people and brought about the Euro-Maidan. If you don’t agree with us, then we can’t be together. Then we’re a fig leaf that covers very shameful things, and we’re a smokescreen for the same kind of corruption that occurred under Yanukovych and [former Prime Minister Mykola]Azarov.
You’re right that this is a difficult time, but it seems to me that it’s difficult precisely because too many words about the “European choice” and “Ukrainian independence” cover up for preserving this Asian-style corruption and the sabotage of the very defense against it.
I was the first advocate of our faction and party saying a clear “No” to this. We’re supposed to give the people a chance to see at least one [political]force that doesn’t participate in this “deryban” (illicit divvying up of property). Then others can join us. Many months before the Maidan, I said that in order for a decent government to emerge, a decent opposition had to emerge. It seems to me there’s a historic task before us now – what the Narodnyi Rukh didn’t accomplish to form a true, principled European opposition.
Zawada: But isn’t the fact that the dismissal of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk failed a sign that he has enough support in Parliament? Why do this in February when the vote showed there’s not enough opposition to him?
That support is mainly based on this same corruption. There are no political, patriotic or logical reasons for this. The absolute majority of the public believes this government should be dismissed because everyone feels it’s not successful. And the reason politicians are preserving it is corruption. They together are gaining an advantage from these corrupt methods of managing state enterprises and stealing from various state programs. We can’t say, “They are ready to keep this corruption going, so let them because we don’t have enough votes.” If the president decides to keep Yatsenyuk and if the oligarchs decided this, then we don’t have the right to have the same position. People didn’t give us a mandate for this. They want a completely opposite form of politics.
Zawada: As a result, Poroshenko is in a very difficult position. He needs to form a new coalition somehow. And the head of your party [Andriy Sadovyi] declined to participate in forming a new coalition. As a result, the president doesn’t have anywhere to go except to form a coalition with the so-called Radicals. If that doesn’t happen, it’s an enormous threat to gaining the next tranche. Western investors are very concerned about this, as are politicians. There is the feeling the country once again is on the edge of collapse.
The country is truly on the edge of collapse. I understand that it’s unpleasant for many people to realize just how bad things are. But if we know very well just how bad things are, if we spent a year on proposing how to emerge from this bad situation with proposals, arguments and sometimes conflicts, regardless, we don’t have the right to deceive the public and say, “Everything is good. Let’s preserve unity” and “Everything will be good some day.”
Zawada: But in order to gain the next tranche …
The loans of our Western partners are not given in order to be stolen. They are given to conduct the necessary changes in this difficult time, in order to earn money on our own and to create the appropriate level of wealth for the public and strength for the national currency. We see that the politics being conducted are not leading to that. It’s leading to the latest economic crisis, the weakening of the national currency and even more loans. We’re practically standing before the choice of having to offer the alcoholic another drop of vodka or tell him, “Stop. You have big problems. You need to seriously change your attitude towards yourself and your life.” And it seems to me it would be honest to go down a different path.
Zawada: We’ve seen strong statements on corruption recently. [Justice Ministry Lustration Department Head] Tetiana Kozachenko said yesterday that this government is practically Yanukovych II. A week or so ago, [Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecution Head] Nazar Kholodnytskyi said the Procurator General’s Office is not responding to his inquiries. You just spoke about this a bit, but how would you describe the condition of anti-corruption efforts today, perhaps in the National Anti-Corruption Bureau or the specialized prosecution?
Regarding Ukraine’s anti-corruption fight, it is similar to a fight of pro-Ukrainian citizens on the occupied territories of the Donbas. Truly, in the Procurator General’s Office, the courts and the Verkhovna Rada, only certain individuals have emerged in law enforcement who don’t want to merely talk about this but to truly implement anti-corruption policies. For the majority, this is a means of covering up the same corruption but by using the very same language used to fight corruption. We’re probably the world champions in this respect. Society needs to realize this, as well as our Western partners. In essence, we have partisans [activists]in large governing bodies – the courts, law enforcement – and it’s needed for these partisans to grow in strength and numbers. And then their activity will be more successful. So far, in many cases we are losing because that same procurator general and the absolute majority of judges are covering for corruption with the president’s permission and that of the parliamentary majority.
A very simple example. Under Yanukovych, there was a High Economic Court Head [Viktor] Tatkov. He was a symbol of corruption as these courts reviewed cases involving business, which is the most profitable corruption. We were able to dismiss him in accordance with the first lustration law on renewing trust in the judicial system. But he remains a judge with great influence on the economic court. Now the Higher Justice Council submitted a complaint for his dismissal as a judge because he isn’t reviewing cases. He is so immersed in corruption that he doesn’t have time to hold court hearings. It’s a unique case of a judge who doesn’t review cases at all. This decision isn’t being submitted to Parliament, which is supposed to review his dismissal, because [Parliament Chair Volodymyr] Groisman and other participants in this process are waiting for Tatkov to win his case against the Higher Justice Council in another court and cancel the request for his dismissal. This is an example of how the system works. They support each other and they block anti-corruption cases that are launched at the demand of the public or as the result of scandals. And the results are very meager.
Regarding anti-corruption as a whole, it consists of three components. The first is the availability of laws that enable strong policies. Here everything is good. We passed all the necessary laws, without exception. From the point of view of creating anti-corruption legislation, we did our homework five years ahead, maybe even 10. Further, the will of society is needed for these laws to work, and they’re not just nice declarations. Matters here are going in the right direction. More people are saying that bribes are bad, I won’t give them and won’t allow others to give them, though such people are far from being an absolute majority in Ukraine. But their numbers are growing. Third is the presence of officials who will execute these laws, particularly law enforcement officials. Here we have a full catastrophe. Only a few partisans have appeared on this hostile territory, which includes the police, the procurator general and Parliament.
Next week: Yegor Soboliev on Western support for Ukraine.