KYIV – A key reason for the Samopomich Party’s popularity (it ranks first in some polls) has been the passionate pursuit of reforms by Yegor Soboliev, the 39-year old deputy head of the party’s parliamentary faction, who holds the chairmanship of the Verkhovna Rada’s Committee on Corruption Prevention and Counteraction.
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. Mr. Soboliev spearheaded legislation that created the National Agency to Search, Recover and Administer Illegally Gained Assets.
The Ukrainian Weekly interviewed Mr. Soboliev on March 15 at his office in the Verkhovna Rada committees building on Sadova Street. Also participating in the interview and posing questions was Vasyl Troubich, a master’s degree student in international affairs at George Washington University.
Following is the conclusion of the two-part interview with Mr. Soboliev.
Troubich: Would you say that Western policies towards Ukraine coincide with Ukrainian national interests? How can they be improved?
If we talk about the attitude towards Ukraine and support for Ukraine in its fight for independence from Russia, it would be a sin to complain because there has never been such a supportive attitude towards Ukraine in its history as there is currently. The U.S. and the EU are on our side. Many neighbors are helping. Even Turkey has become our ally, thank God, and the Crimean Tatars. Never in Ukraine’s history has there been such a positive attitude and such a geopolitical situation. This is a unique chance.
If we talk about the policies of Western governments, then we see a very big influence of Russia on the governments of the EU, including Germany, France and Eastern Europe, with the exception of Poland. This influence is insidious and in the shadows. We see that with the referendum in the Netherlands, where they’ve very skillfully ignited fears that Ukrainians are stealers of paintings, human traffickers and very corrupt people in general.
Regarding the policies of the U.S. government, I think undoubtedly this is our strategic partner, but this administration is weak in all its foreign policy and perhaps we are a hostage to this. I don’t see in President [Barack] Obama’s actions – nor those of the State Department officials and even the U.S ambassador – enough realistic thinking and readiness to deal with the challenges of the world seriously. It seems to me that this sometimes is more a flight from problems than a realistic approach to solving them. I don’t think this is related to Russia’s influence on European countries. I think this is related to domestic factors and the personalities of the current president and the people he has chosen for his team.
Troubich: Have Western sanctions imposed on Russia been an effective tool to address Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine? Will the West remain unified going forward?
I don’t have data to determine the effectiveness of U.S. and EU sanctions in influencing the Russian economy. What’s certainly very effective is the policy of supporting weak oil prices, which ruins Putin’s power. I wouldn’t want to say much on this because Ukrainian sanctions policies are a complete imitation. We truly don’t have sanctions. A third of our banking business is Russian, 75 percent of the energy business is Russian, 100 percent of our mobile business is Russian. And it would be ridiculous for us to talk about sanctions not working because we haven’t introduced them.
Troubich: The U.S. is providing non-lethal military aid to the Ukrainian military. Should the U.S. provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine if Russia and the separatists continue to escalate hostilities?
This is a very difficult question. On the one hand, it’s clear that the more the most powerful nation in the world helps us militarily, the easier it will be for us. On the other hand, I understand this aid is hard to give to Ukraine. I met with the representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces who said openly that the aid in creating special operations forces that was formally requested by the Ukrainian president is being ignored. People are simply wasting time, efforts and taxpayer money without effectiveness, at least in what it could be. So I’m afraid that once again, the main responsibility is with our Joint Chiefs of Staff, and with our ability to receive this aid and use it. Everyone knows the sad story of the radar that wasn’t destroyed in Debaltseve during our retreat. [Editor’s note: Donbas war journalist Yurii Butusov confirmed that Ukrainian soldiers carelessly allowed parts from U.S. radars to be captured by the Russian-backed forces.] I think that has a lot to teach us above all. We as a country don’t do a lot in order to increase this aid, including the transfer of attack weapons, lethal weapons.
Troubich: What policy initiatives of the Ukrainian government need the most financial support?
I am an enemy of financial aid. I believe that what Ukraine strongly needs now is diplomatic aid. Ukraine strongly needs military instruction. But allocating funds raises the risk of theft, which is not monitored at all. Plus, this merely extends the trouble with the alcoholic, who needs more and more vodka and he will never refuse. I don’t think financial aid is a top priority for Ukraine. I simply know what enormous reserves are in the country that we could have if we eliminated the top corruption. International aid is a small addition to that. This doesn’t apply to IMF loans to stabilize the hryvnia. Those were justified in that difficult time, though to be honest, we set a devaluation record during the horrific period of the early 1990s and this opened up large possibilities for beginning a stream of currency. But what’s needed for that is for business to begin working. Currently, imports have increased in value by 3.5 times, which is a fantastic chance for domestic business to develop. But devaluation is not enough. Also needed is tax reform, free conditions for business, guarantees of private property rights, and peace. These are all our reserves and when it’s all replaced by loans, it’s a wonderful opportunity for our kleptocrats to continue their theft.
Troubich: What would you personally recommend for Western countries to do not only on behalf of Ukraine but against Russia?
It’s very important to understand that the Russian national idea is usurpation. It’s a very large historical phenomenon that takes its greatest strength from the days of the Golden Horde, when enormous territories were controlled by conquering and enslaving those people who lived alongside. It was preserved to this day, and in essence is the identity of the Russian people. The mentality is, “We are poor and we may have a very unjust life, but we are distinguished because we can subdue and conquer anyone. Unfortunately, this is not only a problem with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, just as it wasn’t just a problem with Nikolai II, who wanted to conquer the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and make the Black Sea internal. This is the philosophy of the existence of the Russian state.
All the world’s governments should understand that their problems will only begin if Ukraine is conquered by Russia. The enormous, highly populated Ukraine will be mobilized as part of the military strategy of conquest by the new Russian empire. Very many Ukrainian soldiers who are excellent soldiers will be mobilized into the Russian army. They will begin to wage war along traditional directions, toward Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and Turkey. Russia will never stop. They have short periods of peace; when domestic problems reach a high enough level the leaders need to make declarations about modernization and relaxing authority in order to simply win time for new expansion. All of Russian history is a story of wars of conquest. When Russia stops, it begins to experience ruin. People will start to think, “If we aren’t conquering Poles, Turks, Ukrainians and others, if we are going to be normal neighbors, then why do we live so poorly? What’s the sense of our lives? That we are poor? That we are backwards? That everyone laughs at us? We can’t even be free among free people.”
Throughout the world, Russian tourists are a brand with a negative meaning. It’s very important that is understood in Berlin, Paris and throughout Europe, because it will be the first target of Russian aggression. The hope of the Russian people is to conquer everyone. Thank God they never achieved that, though in the times of Stalin and Catherine the Great, Russia stormed Berlin and even took it over. This is fully within the bounds of the national idea that we’re poor, we’re unjustly governed but despite that we’re able to conquer everyone.
Zawada: Then why are [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Francois] Hollande not convinced of that and why are they supporting the establishment of the special status in the Donbas?
That’s a riddle. I’m not an expert in German or French politics. I can assume, firstly, that Europe doesn’t believe and doesn’t want to think about serious risks. It has become reactionary – reacting to problems, but not trying to resolve them by forecasting.
The second problem is the large influence of Russia, because Russian reconnaissance, the Russian Church and this entire machine of Russian foreign influence is perfect. I believe that it’s much stronger than the U.S. Russia invests more in its foreign aggressive approach because that’s its national idea. The American president’s support depends on the condition of the U.S. economy. The Russian president’s support depends on where we’re waging war and whether we’re winning in these wars. Putin has fantastic poll numbers now despite the enormous economic problems faced by the Russians precisely because of these wars. They don’t want to make the link. Instead, it’s interesting for them to see how they’ve bombed Syria and conquered the Ukrainians. That’s the second reason.
The third reason is that European politicians, like all politicians, don’t think about what will be after tomorrow, but they are thinking about what’s today. They don’t want to foresee these long-term risks. Europe turned out to be very unprepared for a very large wave of immigrants that was, by the way, fully planned and organized by Putin. When he saw the unity of all the civilized world against him, particularly Europe, it was an unpleasant surprise. So he launched the invasion of Syria. Why? To show his people one more example of a conquering war. On the other hand, his analytic services easily forecasted the chain reaction. We will launch a war, a large number of people will begin to flee to Europe, and European politicians will switch to these problems because they’ll be focused on resolving domestic problems. That’s an example of the sharp geopolitical vision of the Russian president. Despite it backfiring with suffering for his people, Europeans and Syrians, but from the viewpoint of his logic, he triumphs when acting in this way.
The last time I saw [German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, he came to the Rada with the French foreign minister and reminded us about how on February 21, he led talks on giving Yanukovych more time to remain as president and keeping everything quiet and calm until early elections are held. I simply felt sorry for him and didn’t want to put him in an uncomfortable position in the presence of all the leaders of the Ukrainian Parliament. I wanted to tell him that this shows just how inadequately you are assessing the situation. Russian soldiers were already landing on Crimean territory just as you were trying to convince us – I was also in the Rada during the Euro-Maidan, it seems to me, with the Polish foreign minister – to give Yanukovych time, not chase him away and recognize his government until early elections. Russia’s special forces were already landing on Crimea territory. That means you understood absolutely nothing about what was happening. And now you, relying on that same experience, are telling us to reach an agreement based on the Minsk accords. That’s a catastrophe. If you don’t realistically assess situations, then it’s clear your result will be very bad.
Troubich: Do you think Ukraine will successfully integrate with the West and the EU in the coming years?
I think there are enormous obstacles on the way that we spoke about. But I think it’s very important for Western states and governments to see the Ukrainian people themselves. Just as the geopolitical situation has never been as supportive of Ukraine as it is now, never has society been as unified and active in its desire to build a successful country as today. Never. I understand when our Western partners – who see the same kleptocrats in the Cabinet, the Presidential Administration and the Joint Chiefs – are disappointed and say Ukraine once again didn’t lose its chance to lose its chance. But we need to look at the longer term. It’s what we explain at all international meetings. That Ukrainian society is excellent and it has changed very strongly. It still doesn’t know how to install its political representatives. They are still lured by advertising, propaganda and other election manipulations. But it’s now different. It doesn’t want to surrender and is actively working towards building an effective democratic state. If we will see this together, then successful Euro-integration and the creation of a successful Ukraine will occur during our generation, though, of course, that will be with large obstacles and difficulties.