Missing the chance to reform the country and join NATO and the EU eventually caused the current tragedy – a war that led to the seizure of Ukrainian territories by the Russian aggression. And the problem is not only in having a neighbor that still lives by the categories of territorial seizures and spheres of influence, but also in the inability to provide for our own well-being and build an effective state. The problem is also in the Ukrainians themselves. To what extent are they aware of what brought this country to the current situation? To what extent do they know Ukraine’s contemporary history, and, what is more, do they know how to draw conclusions from their own mistakes? Unfortunately, as practice shows, not much, even with due account of such serious shocks to the country as the Maidans and the ongoing war. To better understand our recent past and the lost opportunities and to inquire about a “cure prescription,” we spoke to Mykhailo Pozhyvanov, former mayor of Mariupol, MP of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th convocations of the Verkhovna Rada, ex-deputy chairman of the Kyiv City Administration. We began the conversation with a front-page issue – the so-called “blockade” of the occupied territories (on that day, some activists and MPs started to “block” the railway in Luhansk oblast).
“WE MUST MAKE A STRENUOUS EFFORT AND BE PREPARED TO SEIZE THE VERY FIRST CHANCE OF REGAINING CRIMEA AND THE DONBAS”
What is your attitude to the “blockade” of the Donbas?
“I think it is a good idea to block the Donbas. But this requires clear definitions. There should be an information policy so that things can be called by their proper names and Ukrainians on both sides of the disengagement line can clearly understand what the government offers them. What we have is not an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO) but a war because the aggressor attacked our country and occupied a part of its territory. Yes, some of our citizens are on the occupied territories, and we should stay in contact with them in any possible way. But our people were also forced to stay behind on the Nazi-occupied territories during World War Two. The problem is different – the war must not be commercialized. For bureaucrats could use the so-called blockade not for a real severance of links with the occupier but for corruption in order to provide cover to some schemes. Oddly enough, the president keeps on saying that Russia is an aggressor, but, for some reason, the term ‘ATO’ suits him more than ‘war.’”
Under what conditions do you think we will be able to regain Crimea and the Donbas?
“Under the existing reference frame, we will never regain Crimea. But this does not mean that we should speak in a loud voice, as Pinchuk does, about the surrender of Crimea in exchange for the Donbas or peace. There should be external preconditions for this – for example, if Trump-Putin relations develop a wide rift. So far, Trump shows that he is fulfilling his election promises. But we should be prepared for any kind of developments. We must make a strenuous effort and seize the chance as soon as it comes up. Maybe, the world will get back to the Budapest Memorandum and force Russia to make concessions. For Russia needs the Donbas for the only purpose to destabilize Ukraine and keep us in constant tension.”
“OUR SOCIETY IS NOT PREPARED TO SEEK A COMPROMISE WITH RUSSIA, AS PINCHUK SUGGESTS”
What do you think about the return of oligarch Viktor Pinchuk to the public sphere and the so-called painful compromises he suggested in a Wall Street Journal article?
“I don’t think it is pure chance. Indeed, Pinchuk seems to have always been a household name, but he only used to go public in his own international projects, such as YES, Ukrainian luncheon in Davos, and art events. He did not in fact take part in discussing domestic problems. And suddenly… I don’t think he and his father-in-law Kuchma do not keep track of public opinion, so, quite obviously, they knew that these statements would draw a wide response in society. Of course, Russia has turned this to her advantage.
“But in reality our society is not prepared for a compromise with Russia, it is not prepared to surrender Crimea for good. I don’t think, either, that somebody in the current leadership will opt for this. Incidentally, the peninsula was in fact gifted to Russia in 2014, and I still hold Turchynov, Yatseniuk, Parubii, Pashynskyi, Makhnitskyi, and Avakov responsible for this.
“I can remember very well the 1990s, when the Constitution of Ukraine was in the making – I was the mayor of Mariupol and an MP at the time and did not understand why we should grant Crimea special status and enshrine this in the Constitution. Is Crimea better than Donetsk, Lviv, Chernihiv, and other oblasts? Why do we separate people, rights, and duties in the very beginning? There was the same kind of people in Mariupol. But we failed to have this provision canceled, for Hrach, Moroz, and Kuchma stubbornly defended it.”
Incidentally, once Russia occupied Crimea, Kuchma said almost immediately (in May 2014) that “it is no longer realistic to regain it.”
“This statement aptly characterizes Kuchma’s essence. Indeed, there were special sentiments in Crimea as well as in the Donbas. The point is that nobody had seriously cared about these regions in the years of independence. I remember well Yushchenko coming to power in 2004 under right slogans. I was the only deputy chairman of the Kyiv City Administration who supported the Orange Maidan and helped people on Independence Square. I had backed Yushchenko a year before the election, when he was to speak at a rally in Donetsk, but Hryniv persuaded him not to come up on the stage, for it was dangerous. There were a lot discontented people. I was the only to come up and speak. Of course, taking into account that I had been the mayor of Mariupol before, I heard a lot of ‘endearing’ words about me.
“As a result, as we know, Yushchenko won and suggested that I become chairman of the Donetsk Oblast Administration. I agreed. But Pliushch and Zviahelskyi immediately came and persuaded him not to do so because they claimed people would not accept me due to my contentiousness. Yushchenko changed his mind and appointed Chuprun. One or two weeks later the president decreed to appoint new chairmen of district administrations, who supported Yanukovych and Blyzniuk. There was a similar situation about other offices in the region. It became clear that the Akhmetov clan’s economic interest was standing behind this. This resulted in the first conflict with Yushchenko. I said to him: ‘Mr. President, what are you doing? You have surely lost the Donbas after this because you showed that the old Donetsk clan, not the Constitution and the president, is the boss there.’ The same happened in Crimea.
“The humanitarian policy failed completely. Nobody cared about this. But when I was the mayor of Mariupol (a big industrial city, where Ukrainian was almost not spoken at the time) in 1994-98, we drew up a special program that allowed Mariupol schools to teach the Ukrainian language. I was personally trying every year to persuade parents to send their children to Ukrainian-language schools and sent my three sons to a school like this. But once I resigned in 1998, all these programs were canceled. The next mayor, Khotlubei, considered this unnecessary. Incidentally, I am immensely grateful to Yevhen Marchuk who was the prime minister at the time (1995-96). I made an appointment to see him and said that the state was in fact maltreating pensioners – we were indebted to them for a large sum. So Marchuk summoned Borys Zaichuk, chairman of the Pension Fund, who revealed the arrears of state pensions in Mariupol. What was to be done? I suggested the following: the state pledges to repay debts to pensioners according to a schedule, and I deal with Mariupol’s large enterprises about their tax debts. Marchuk and Zaichuk agreed, although many opposed this. Accordingly, Mariupol’s businesses repaid their debts to the state within a year, and the state cleared the pension arrears. It was not easy, but we did it. As a result, in 1996 Mariupol became the first city to have no public-sector wage or pension arrears. As for Donetsk, it only paid off these debts in late 1997.
“We can see, of course, hundreds or thousands of people in Mariupol come out wearing or carrying Ukrainian symbols, but the majority still remains passive. Many active people have left the city altogether. I will remind you that 30 people seized the Mariupol City Hall from Khotlubei, although there were more than a hundred SBU servicemen there, who had always obeyed orders more or less. Then he was one of the first to sign for a referendum. And he was never held responsible for this. He is a local council member today. Had volunteer battalions not entered the city then, no one knows what this would have ended up in.”
“I CAN REMEMBER THE 1994 KUCHMA, SUBDUED AND DRAB, AND THE 1997 KUCHMA, A ‘LORD’ OF SORTS”
Why do things in fact become worse here after every Maidan? Why did politicians fail in the 1990s to pursue the course of building a normal state?
“Maybe, because we received independence rather easily in the early 1990s. Of course, we fought for it but then we let up. I can remember the 1994 Kuchma, subdued and drab, and the 1997 Kuchma, a ‘lord’ of sorts. And I remember the way he was elected in 1994.”
On Russian money in particular?
“It is not ruled out and was, in all probability, done through Tabachnyk. I can say nothing concrete in this case but, taking into account that he had long worked at and then managed Yuzhmash, a strategic enterprise since the Soviet era, it is quite possible that he was still tied up with the Kremlin. His messengers came to me during the 1994 elections. I still remember Kuchma as chairman of the Yuzhmash Communist Party Committee, and I know the way he ‘solved problems’ with the Donetsk clan later. It was a complete betrayal of principles. I can recall him receiving local self-government officials at his presidential office in 1997. My colleagues delegated me to speak at this meeting. They also considered the candidature of the Odesa Mayor Hurvitz, but he was trying to keep a low profile on the national level, for Odesa was enough to him.
“I spoke rather critically at that meeting. ‘Mr. President, you need these meetings on the eve of some important events only. You gathered us in 1995 before signing the Constitutional Agreement, then you gathered us in 1996 before the Constitution was adopted, and now, with the elections a few months away [it was December 1997, and the elections were scheduled for March 1998. – Ed.], you want to enlist our support again. Meanwhile, the questions of municipal police, the local self-government’s revenues, and a clause on us in the Budget Code, which we raised at previous meetings, are not being addressed,’ I said. And ‘lord’ Kuchma says in reply: ‘Have you come here to teach me?’ I say to him: ‘But somebody must tell you about the problems of local self-government.’ Then all hell broke loose: ‘There was a thief premier (Lazarenko), and you licked his ass. A normal premier (Pustovoitenko) has come now, but you’re coming out against him! Get off the rostrum!’ He said it in the presence of hundreds of people.
“People began to calm me, but the now late Razumkov came up and said: ‘Misha, it’s curtains for you, kneel down and crawl to Kuchma’s office room.’ I said to him: ‘Sasha, I won’t do it.’ Of course, Kuchma did his best for me not to be reelected as mayor. Melnychenko even suggested that I pay him for transcribing the tape recordings about me – how Kuchma instructed what should be done to prevent me from being ever elected the mayor of Mariupol, but I refused because I already knew everything.”
“YEVHEN SHCHERBAN’S INFLUENCE WAS GROWING, SO HIS MURDER WAS OF BENEFIT TO BOTH THE KYIV LEADERSHIP AND THE KREMLIN”
As Kuchma appointed Yanukovych as chairman of the Donetsk Oblast Administration in 1997 and Yefremov as chairman of the Luhansk Oblast Administration in 1998, Luhansk immediately saw billboards reading “Russian Heritage.” Did you have a feeling that these regions were in fact placed under local clans’ control?
“Frankly speaking, it was widely presumed at the time that Akhmetov’s team was a criminal financial clan linked to the KGB and that their assets belonged not only to Akhmetov. Incidentally, even ‘red managers’ were unable to tap the former Soviet resources. Take, for example, Mariupol. Even such figures as Oleksandr Bulianda, Volodymyr Boiko, and Anatolii Bandura did not manage to retain powerful assets in their own city. Everybody was robbed of everything, while Akhmetov became the owner as a result.
“The situation was difficult. When Yevhen Shcherban was shot dead in November 1996 at the Donetsk airport, I asked the then Interior Minister Yurii Kravchenko what we were to expect next if a person of this level was killed so defiantly. Shcherban’s influence in Ukrainian politics was growing fast, for he saw an alternative to the path this country followed during Kuchma’s presidency. Shcherban was a motor, and he invited Yevhen Marchuk to lead the Social Market Choice parliamentary group. Shcherban said to us: ‘Marchuk will be the president.’ And Kravchenko answered my question as follows: ‘Look for the answer in your region and see who will grab Shcherban’s assets.’ They had already made a deal on gas, so Shcherban was murdered for other, political, reasons.”
Maybe, they were thus destroying the alternative and clearing the way for those under control? Could the murder of Shcherban be of benefit to both the then political leadership in Kyiv and the Kremlin?
“I do not absolutely rule it out. Shcherban openly supported Kravchuk, not Kuchma, in the 1994 elections and then staked on Marchuk.
“As for the abovementioned Yanukovych, I remember him coming to Mariupol in April 1997 as first deputy chairman of the Donetsk Oblast Administration to ask me not to hinder him from becoming the oblast governor. Both he and I were considered as candidates to replace Poliakov. I did not object because my status at the time – mayor and MP – suited me. I only told him that the law must work and there must be no face-offs or pressure on me. He agreed and we shook hands. But as early as four months later Yanukovych came out against me.
“I also had a face-off with Azarov who did not scruple to use any methods. My serious conflict with him began when Kuchma fell out with Lazarenko. As the Tax Inspection head, Azarov followed the instructions to destroy everything linked with Lazarenko. There was a bank in Ukraine, Sloviansky, one whose managers, Borys Feldman, even served a few years in prison ‘thanks to’ Azarov. Frankly speaking, I, as the Mariupol mayor, worshipped this bank. All the financial operations in the city, including repayments of debts, were carried out through this bank. It was unique and useful. But Azarov decided to destroy this bank and broke an absolutely effective pattern of relationship with pensioners.”
Is it true that Azarov, as the top tax man, made a large fortune on financial schemes, particularly on VAT refund?
“Of course. It was his know-how. There were 35-50-percent kickbacks for VAT refund. Azarov did not take money from the Donetsk group only. They solved the problem in their own way. But the rest of the country carried money to Azarov for refunding the VAT. He enriched himself on this scheme until the last moment.”
Do these schemes still remain?
“Yes. The new rulers came to power on the slogans of fighting these schemes, but once they reached ‘the top,’ they understood that it would be unwise to ruin these sources of personal enrichment. As a song goes, ‘I’ll steal a little and stop, I’m about to go rich. Only then will I obey the law again.’”
“THE 1999 ELECTIONS WERE THE KUCHMA TEAM’S WELL-APPLIED ‘POLITICAL TECHNOLOGY’”
Why did you – those who represented an alternative line in the 1990s – fail to take power?
“It was the time when money began to solve very many problems. Those who were close to Kuchma and whom he made oligarchs are still ruling this country. Even the current President Poroshenko is part and parcel of those times, and his voice is on the ‘Melnychenko tapes,’ where he swears allegiance to Kuchma. The Donetsk group, to which Kuchma surrendered power in the region, ‘arranged’ the 1998 elections in his favor. They hindered me, too, from being reelected as mayor, although I had the highest rating. The Donetsk clan showed that they knew how ‘to do elections.’ And then, as we know, there was a presidential race in 1999. Despite all my hostility to Petro Symonenko, I must say he won along the whole red belt (Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and even Luhansk), but Kuchma won in the Donetsk region. This cemented still more the friendship of Kuchma and the Donetsk clan. On the whole, the 1999 elections were the Kuchma team’s well-applied ‘political technology.’
“I remember very well the period when Yanukovych was nominated for the presidency. So many people would come to Kuchma and say: what are you doing? Take, for example, Kirpa who commanded almost everyone’s respect. Ukrzaliznytsia still recalls him as a powerful and skilled leader who, unlike Yanukovych, left no negative trail behind him.”
Maybe, Kuchma did not view Yanukovych as a self-sufficient figure, while Kirpa might present a serious problem for him later? As Kushnariov did later for the Donetsk clan… Incidentally, the two are no longer living.
“Kirpa really had a powerful potential to become this country’s leader. Incidentally, I failed to establish a warm relationship with either Kuchma or Yushchenko. I have already said about portfolio-distribution policy in the Donetsk region after the victory of Yushchenko, but what was going on in Luhansk oblast? Yushchenko held out here a little. He appointed first Danilov and then Moskal as oblast governor. But that was a very short period of pro-Ukrainians holding the top office in this region. There was a certain Ivan Abramov, or ‘Ivan Ivanovich’ (the name of Yurii Ivaniushchenko rang no bells at the time), who was ‘in charge of’ bootleg coal pits. Danilov raised the question of these pits and caused a stir. But it turned out that Abramov had already struck a deal with Yushchenko’s brother, so the then president dismissed Danilov from office. Then there was Moskal, and a little later Luhansk oblast, like Donetsk oblast before it, was surrendered to pro-Russian forces in the person of Yefremov and Tikhonov.”
“RUSSIA WOULD HAVE NEVER TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF THE GONGADZE-PODOLSKY CASE HADN’T IT BEEN FOR VICIOUSNESS OF THE THEN UKRAINIAN AUTHORITIES”
Taras Stetskiv said in an interview to Khvylia about the Gongadze-Podolsky case that “we got into a trap and played in the interests of Russia.” In other words, a version is being circulated again that it is allegedly a Russian scenario. Moreover, we hear it from Stetskiv who knows only too well about these events. Would you comment?
“Gongadze was killed by the so-called Kravchenko’s eagles. They are perpetrators. Russia just took advantage of this case. But it could have never done so hadn’t it been for viciousness of the then Ukrainian authorities. I trust the ‘Melnychenko tapes’ because the recorded voices, the manner of communication, and the principles to which that system adhered absolutely correspond to reality. We must understand that the Kremlin always was and will be taking advantage of our government’s defect.”
Why then have those who ordered this crime not been brought to justice? Why does Kuchma still represent the interests of Ukraine in Minsk?
“It is a question to society and the current leadership, particularly Poroshenko. All the fortunes of the now influential oligarchs derive from the Kuchma era – accordingly, there is an obvious interrelation. Only the ‘Kolomoiskyi group’ was not so much linked with Kuchma. And we must give Kolomoiskyi his due, for he stood up for his country at a critical moment. Yes, he also had his business interests in this case, but they fully coincided with those of the state. The ‘Kolomoiskyi group’ is not a saint, but we must admit that they did very much at a right time to prevent the aggressor from moving on.”
“THE CURRENT PARLIAMENT IS SHEER TERROR”
What do you think of the current parliament?
“The current parliament is sheer terror. When we were going to parliament, we competed in knowledge (if I saw that I was short of any knowledge, I went on learning things – the Ukrainian language, law, etc.), but these ones are boasting of their fortunes. When judge Chaus was detained with his dollar-filled jar before making an e-declaration, it shocked everybody. But when society saw the fortunes of MPs (in all probability, it was only a part of them), Chaus seemed to be a small-time bribetaker. Besides, all the so-called new faces disgraced themselves very soon. They have zero experience and professionalism but too much populism. In public debates, they usually do not know the heart of the matter and resort to cliches. In the early 1990s we were different by ideological persuasions, but we were unambiguously better than the present-day MPs in terms of quality and professionalism.
“Unfortunately, the authorities do not much need well-trained and educated people today. They need loyal, time-tested, and ‘their own’ ones, while professionalism and moral qualities do not matter much. Again, this tradition comes from the 1990s. If you take my personal history, I was, as is known, persecuted in the Yanukovych era, because of which I had to live in Austria for several years. But I was lucky there. A multinational developer company employed me. In addition to being supported financially, I also acquired a good deal of knowledge. We did ‘turnkey business.’ It may seem that nobody needed me abroad. When, for example, Firtash comes there, he buys himself a house and lives at his own expense. He has firms and offices there. But I began from scratch.”
When you came back to Ukraine after the Euromaidan, what awaited you?
“I am no longer needed here. Yes, my criminal case was dismissed, and then there were a few showcase stories, when the Cabinet held some vacancy-filling competitions, but that was all profanation. For example, do you remember the story of a competition for the office of Mykolaiv Oblast Administration chairman? I submitted documents, including one that explains my vision of regional development. I thought I would be needed there, with due account of my experience. But a person from Poroshenko’s inner circle made it clear to me that I would not win because the winner had been selected beforehand. He also added that there would be other opportunities to be chosen as governor in other oblasts, but in this case I will have to make certain electoral, financial, and economic commitments, and, besides, I will have a trustee. Sorry, but why should I go there under these conditions? They will command and, if I may say so, do bad things, but I will be responsible for this? So I went and withdrew my documents. I am grateful today to Mykola Tomenko who has involved me into his culture and tourism projects. Our work is part of the Free Country project. For example, I speak as a critic in the chapter ‘Problem of Decentralization’ because what is going on today is deception.”
“Under the government-proposed concept of decentralization, we in fact place certain territories under full control of local feudal lords. When this lord is confined to business in his interests, it is more or less acceptable. But when he also receives political power, this represents a grave danger. In the Donbas, power was essentially surrendered to local feudal lords in the late 1990s. We know the result. In my view, village and city councils are the subjects of self-government, and that’s that.”