Volodymyr Tsybulko: ‘To deal with aggressive Russia, Ukraine needs direct security agreement with U.S.’

July 14, 2014

In the third installment of the Ukraine Crisis Interview Series, CGI spoke with Volodymyr Tsybulko, Ukrainian politician, writer, and poet. Tsybulko was a longtime advisor to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and served in the Ukrainian parliament. He is a prominent political commentator in Ukraine, yet little known in the United States.

Tsybulko outlines what he sees as the main political, economic, and military challenges for the new government. Arguing for a direct security arrangement with the United States in the face of Russian aggression, he also sees a political future for the right-leaning Svoboda and Right Sector parties that are considered fascist by many in Russia and Eastern Ukraine.

CGI: Does the Poroshenko government have the support of the Ukrainian people? How stable is the government under the current conditions?

Volodymyr Tsybulko: Throughout the history of modern independent Ukraine, the Rada [Ukrainian Parliament] has had a public approval rating of between five and seven percent. It’s a Ukrainian political tradition that the people see any government as unrepresentative—almost like an occupation force. However, President Poroshenko’s victory in the first round of elections raised popular trust in the Presidential political coalition.

Right now the government looks relatively stable, although there is some worry about the formation of a parliamentary coalition. There is a lot of intrigue and deal-making within the ruling coalition. It is not clear whether these apparent disagreements are a signal to the president from parties in the current government that are in danger of being excluded from the next parliament. Most likely, this is simply blackmail in order to not allow early elections, where some of the political parties might lose enough seats to not be included in the next government.

CGI: What does the Ukrainian elite want?

VT: Naturally, they want to maintain an already established governmental structure. However, most of them realize that an overly centralized system is not economically viable. Therefore there is currently a search for the best way to decentralize, while at the same time making sure that the central government has enough resources for things such as infrastructure, military, science, pension funds and so on.

Probably the biggest fear among the elites is that they will lose their traditional sources of revenue after economic restructuring. Each regional group of elites had its own economic specialization, in fact creating local monopolies. For example, Poroshenko comes from agricultural business elites, others from gas and oil, still others from metallurgy. In addition to internal markets, these monopolies managed to conquer some external markets as well, and right now there is concern that changing the economic specialization of regional elites will result in Ukrainian companies not being competitive in the international markets. Consequently, it is crucial that the Ukrainian economy does not lose its competitiveness in the face of restructuring private property and tax codes.

I believe that is the most serious challenge that will have to be addressed sooner or later. Currently there is no such plan, because many are afraid that such talks will disrupt an already fragile economic situation.

CGI: If Eastern Ukraine can be brought back into Kiev’s political orbit, should the radical groups on both sides (Svoboda, Right Sector, and the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists) be integrated into the government—or do they have to go?

VT: Right Sector and Svoboda are not simply paramilitary forces but have political wings as well. In that sense, they are similar to the IRA [Irish Republican Army] that had Sein Fein as its political structure. Right now, the military elements of these groups are not that strong and can easily be dealt with by the government.

These entities are also supported by the regional elites. For example, Svoboda is backed by small and medium businesses in Western Ukraine. Right Sector is supported by other businesses. As a result, they will be able to make a break with their paramilitary elements and transform into political forces more easily than similar groups in Eastern Ukraine.

Eastern Ukrainian separatists do not have the support of the local population but are simply Russian creations. Therefore, it will be very easy to find common ground with Donetsk once Russian support for the separatists stops.

CGI: Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed parliamentary speaker of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told us in a recent interview that one of their main qualms with Kiev is that Donetsk gives the central government more money than it receives.

It is true that exports from the Donetsk region used to account for a large part of the state budget. But due to mismanagement by local monopolies, the exports from Donetsk, such as metal, lost market share over the years. They [Donetsk elite] simply ate through the resources left after the breakup of the Soviet Union and did not invest in improving these enterprises.

There are local particularities as well. In its mentality, the Dnepropetrovsk region [Western Donbass] differs from the Eastern Donbass [where Donetsk is located]. [They are like] North and South Korea. The Dnepropetrovsk region has always been a net donor to the state budget, while the Donetsk region took more money than it put in. This is largely due to the unique population structure in the Donetsk region, where a lot of people receive pensions in professions that usually retire early and have many disabilities, such as coal miners. And even then, their coal was not competitive against domestic competition.

Moreover, many people who wanted to learn new professions left the region for a better professional environment. Those who remain are low-skilled workers who have no desire to learn new things or innovate. Some of the coal mines in the region function at 19th-century levels.

CGI: What do you think Russia wants from Ukraine?

VT: Russia wants to use Ukraine as a mirror, to show that authoritarianism is better than democracy. The Russian elites want to educate their population using Ukraine as an example. That is to say, look at us, we [Russians] are a successful political class whose power the world respects, while Ukraine is portrayed as a small, powerless, and provincial European country.

CGI: How do you feel about the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO?

VT: If Russia didn’t meddle so much in Ukraine, than we wouldn’t need NATO. Before NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia [in 1999], more than 50 percent of the population favored NATO membership. After Serbia, NATO’s prestige in the country took a hit. After Russian aggression, however, 50-55 percent of Ukrainians favor joining NATO.

NATO functions as political protection. To deal with today’s unpredictable and aggressive Russia, we need a direct security agreement with the United States. Much like the ones [the United States has] with South Korea and Israel.

CGI: What is, or should be, the European role in Ukraine’s security?

VT: The EU decision-making structure is too complicated. It would have been sufficient, if Russia did not pose such a serious threat to Ukraine and others, such as Georgia and Moldova.

CGI: Some commentators have suggested that while Yanukovych was blamed for a number of deaths during the Maidan protests, few paid attention to the 300 deaths in eastern Ukraine due to the government’s military operation.

It is true that a lot of people have died. However, the majority of them died from actions by the separatists. Another issue no one really talks about is the thousands who have died in recent years in the Caucasus region as a result of security crackdowns by Russian troops.

CGI: Pro-Russian commentators often argue that what happened in Ukraine was a military coup, and therefore illegitimate. How would you respond?

VT: There could not have been a coup, because Yanukovych left the county and the Rada was the only legitimate political structure left.

CGI: Why did Yanukovych leave the country?

VT: Because he acted unconstitutionally and pushed the country into an open revolt.

CGI: Was there not a February agreement to hold early elections?

VT: Yes. But Yanukovych did nothing after that and simply prepared to flee the country by shipping his valuables to Russia. He has been Putin’s virtual hostage for the last year and a half.

In order for Ukraine and Russia to have any kind of constructive dialogue, Russia must return Yanukovych and others to Ukraine for trial.

CGI: What do you think should be done about Crimea?

VT: What happens with Crimea is a decision for those living there. In any case, the Russian economy is not strong enough to support Crimea. Russian elites are leading the country toward collapse.

CGI: There are reported disagreements between the protesters still camped out on the Maidan and the Kiev authorities who want to remove them by force. Is this a serious problem for the new government?

VT: It is a problem. On the one hand, the new authorities need the Maidan to get their message out. At the same time, those who are left on Maidan are marginal elements who are tarnishing the legacy of the Maidan. In the end, there is no reason to allow the movement to remain active after the parliamentary elections take place.

CGI: Do you think the West and Russia have different values?

VT: Yes, there are big differences. Russians are collectivist in nature. They feel more comfortable and secure in a group. They want someone to take care of them. Ukrainians are more individualistic. They do not want a paternalistic government. Ukrainians desire a limited government and the ability to show individual initiative.

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