The first year of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency has produced mixed feelings in Ukraine. Sometimes it’s important to hear an opinion from outside. Thus, readers will be interested to hear the opinion of Bruce Jackson, the president of the Project on Transitional Democracies. He has gained repute as a successful lobbyist in the US Senate, notably having contributed to getting former-communist countries into NATO. He recently visited Kyiv, spent half a day in Bankova Street and met the Ukrainian president, the head of the Presidential Administration and the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). In his exclusive interview for The Day Bruce Jackson kindly agreed to share his impressions about his meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych and assessed the political processes taking place in our country.
Mr. Jackson, you usually visit our country in critical moments. You may know that early this year European Commissioner Stefan Fule and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia visited our country. They both expressed concern regarding the “selective” political prosecution of the opposition during their negotiations with the Ukrainian authorities. What can you say about it?
“Yes, this is a critical time. If we look at the objective facts, President Viktor Yanukovych and the new government had a very good year in 2010. They reached an agreement with the IMF, initiated intense negotiations regarding the free trade area with the EU, signed the Action Plan on visa regime liberalization. They saw the country growing again, and did not go bankrupt like Greece. Generally, we can consider Ukraine a ‘new Poland,’ not a new Belarus. This is all very good. But Yanukovych isn’t getting any credit for it. Everyone hates the government.”
Why do you think this happens?
“I would say there are three explanations. First, the judiciary in Ukraine is a disaster.
“Second, the mentality of the SBU is not helpful. I met the head of the SBU. Maybe he is a little naive, a little young, and maybe not everything is under his control. But this is not a thug. He is trainable and we can fix it. I’ve been in Bulgaria and Romania and I’ve seen much worse. The third reason is that now that political ‘water’ has receded and there is no political fighting, we can look directly at the economy of Ukraine. We see a serious corruption problem. People are saying it’s getting worse and worse. I am not sure it’s worse. I think it’s the first time we really looked at it. If there were no big companies here before, now those who came here are drawing more attention to it. The corruption here is a precondition of doing business. And I don’t think it’s all government corruption, I think we’ve got traffic police, doctors, education — it’s the entire structure of the economy.”
Do you see a way out of this situation?
“I think the SBU mentality issue is easily fixable. Because I’ve done it four times in the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. That’s not difficult. Political persecution is a really big problem. And now that you’re in the global economy, people look at corruption. I don’t blame this on Yanukovych or any other party, I blame it on the Soviet legacy.”
Could you explain it?
“If you come and you kill kulaks, and take all their property, what you do is teach people to steal from the state. The most difficult of the issues is the political persecution problem.”
The opposition, European and American government officials and politicians speak about this, while the Ukrainian government doesn’t consider it political persecution.
“Yes, that’s correct. I’m not sure there is a real answer. The Ukrainians I talked to are absolutely certain Tymoshenko is guilty. But they are also certain that the reason she’s been persecuted is the political benefit of the people who are persecuting her. Meanwhile, the West used the word ‘appearance,’ it didn’t say it was so, and the political persecutions took place. And I think it’s true. ”
“My point is that the witch-hunt is far more dangerous to the future of Ukraine than an occasional witch. And I think everyone I talked to agree with that proposition. But Ukraine has walked into a trap. There were elections in October 2010. If any opposition leader goes to jail in the next 18 months, we will crucify Ukraine. It will be as in the last years of Kuchma. Nobody in the world will think well of Ukraine if the leader of the opposition is in jail. But if somebody from the government, Tymoshenko or anybody, stole 100 million dollars and you release them, and tell us ‘it’s okay, there is no problem,’ we’ll crucify you for that, too.
“We are a little bit stuck here, and we can do nothing because every day you get a letter from President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek or some angry European parliamentarian and Ukraine starts gradually bleeding, until you bleed to death in European politics.
“I don’t think Yanukovych is to blame for this. The judiciary is not mature enough, it is not competent or has enough credibility to manage a high level corruption case and come up with a fair outcome. And it hurts Ukrainian legitimacy in international politics. I think Yulia is probably guilty but I don’t think courts can be trusted.
“My advice would be that you need to build institutions before you go after criminal charges. And I don’t see how to do that until the parliamentary elections in 2012.
“I understand it’s a real dilemma. I thought the president was excellent today (the interview was recorded on February 2 – Author). The president is really tormented by the corruption that is killing his country, preventing recovery, stopping reform. He talked to me for about an hour and was very sincere. He thinks the idea of dropping all the cases because of the failed judiciary will mean he’s abdicating his responsibility. And people will criticize him for his fear. It’s a big dilemma. And the real problem is that the entire defense strategy of Yulia, the diaspora in America and Taras Kuzio, and all these people is destroying Ukraine. They are telling everybody Ukraine is corrupt, people are corrupt, and everything is wrong.
“Tymoshenko is not defending herself and doesn’t try to prove she didn’t do anything, she’s now actually filing a case against Ukraine. In two or three years the government will probably win the conviction but there will be nothing left of this country.
“On the one hand, if the prosecutor really has any kind of evidence, not ambulance cars or quotas for greenhouse gases used to pay pensions, if there really are bank accounts in Raiffeisen [Bank] in Vienna with tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, the origin of which you could trace, then Yulia has a big problem, since they can’t just disappear. On the other hand, unless you can present that evidence and convince the Ukrainian people, you can’t deny the right to be a political candidate in the elections. So it’s a very difficult situation.”
Experts in Ukraine and abroad say that today’s government is trying to reel back the democratic achievements of the previous government. Do you see this threat?
“The easy answer is no. I don’t see the danger. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As a strategist, I do not believe there is a great danger for Ukraine in this. I spent a lot of time with Yanukovych and all these people. I worked for intelligence and counterintelligence and dealt with thugs, war criminals. I really saw a lot of bad people.
“People in Yanukovych’s administration aren’t really bad people. Maybe they lack confidence, maybe they are poorly educated, and a bit provincial, without good knowledge of the laws and the Constitution. But they are not stone-cold killers and these are not the kind of people that try to establish an authoritarian state. And when I talked to them, most of the people of this political elite are as angry with the situation as ordinary Ukrainians are.
“I had this discussion with Khoroshkovsky. He is smart and young, he should be running a software company in Washington state. Speaking about the situation with intimidating journalists, with one of them missing, depriving two television channels of their licenses, I explained to him that in the US rules and procedures on how officers of this service should deal with mass media representatives were elaborated long ago.
“I told Khoroshkovsky to ask the FBI for a manual and translate it into Ukrainian the next time he is in Washington. My guess is that in Ukraine they never wrote down the procedure and that’s why they do whatever they want.
“I was in the intelligence service and I know how to do it, I actually was in counterintelligence as well. I don’t trust counterintelligence or security officers. You watch them on camera, check their bank accounts, follow them day and night, to make sure they are not cheating, they are not criminals, to be absolutely sure.
“We have to train Valerii to understand that the enemy is within, and it’s not the Catholic University or the NGOs. When I asked whether president or the Party of Regions have an organized plan to guarantee freedom of the press, they said no, they didn’t.
“I think there are some cultural issues here. Every time an SBU officer comes to a freelance journalist, the latter has the right to refuse to communicate and say he needs a lawyer.
“My strategic assessment says that the accusations of Tymoshenko, Nemyria or Kuzio are well organized, competent and ruthless, and insidious; you really don’t see the strategic objective of imposing an authoritarian system like the Kremlin’s.”
You really can’t see the power vertical being forged in Ukraine? Notably in the prompt amendments to the Constitution and return to the strong presidential republic.
“I think there is a significant political difference between Ukraine and Russia. In my opinion, all parties exaggerate presidential power in a democracy. Authoritarianism is fundamentally different from presidential executive power. The power of an executive in a democracy can be unpleasant. You can’t get rid of him for five years. In Ukraine most of the embarrassing, stupid and somewhat cruel actions are random, there is no pattern: a journalist disappears in Kharkiv, they arrest wrong people, they present the wrong charges. While in Russia the Khodorkovsky case was beautifully planned and ruthlessly executed, and had a very obvious objective of seizing 30-40 billion dollars.
“Yulia Tymoshenko bought 100 automobiles at a price. What crime was that? Maybe a misdemeanor, maybe a campaign funding violation.
“It looks like selective justice is targeting her, but reality shows otherwise. The first thing Yanukovych told me: ‘Yulia is not going to jail.’ And what everybody says is that Yulia is not going to jail. Why summon her to the Prosecutor’s General? They said they didn’t know.
“Yanukovych is a relatively simple man, coming from a mining town. He wants to realize certain things. And this government really did more [than the previous one].
“You had two failed presidents in a row. Kuchma failed and Yushchenko completely failed. And Yanukovych is worried he will fail as well. Because everyone will forget about Ukraine if a third president will fail, too. The problem is not that the state’s becoming too strong, but that a third president will fail. That’s what you should worry about. Not being too strong but being too weak.
“Looking at this situation, the president can say: I’m working with 46 million people. In the 20th century they tried to kill you twice, the first time when they came and killed the kulaks, and the second time when they came with the agricultural famine. You lost your middle class, and now you’re trying to rebuild. I think the Americans and the Europeans are testing Ukraine every day against perfection.
“Poland was selling tanks to Sudan in the middle 1990s and we hushed it up, we said they were freedom fighters. The Czechs are still heavy in corruption, the Bulgarians shot 123 journalists in the streets of Sofia and we didn’t say anything, we got them into NATO. Romania, I don’t even have to tell you.
“And we punished your country for one murdered journalist and a Kolchuga no one sold to Iraq. I think it’s not fair. The SBU has a communication, image and modernization problem.
“Regarding the corruption issue, we need at least 20 years to solve it.”
Don’t you see the problem of communication between Yanukovych and the Ukrainian people, contrary to what was promised during the campaign? Yanukovych is now the head of state, he must take into account the opinion of those who voted for his opponent.
“What I like about Ukrainians is that they want me to talk but they never take my advice. This is rather annoying. Yushchenko was my friend. Tymoshenko was not. The first thing she ever said to me was that she wanted to start the French revolution. She talked a lot about revolutions and that criminals should go to jail. I asked her, what are you talking about, the French revolution or the American revolution. ‘The French revolution, it’s a good revolution,’ she answered. I said I’m an American conservative, and that’s a really bad idea. But she was a complete French revolutionary. I liked Yushchenko more because he was essentially a humanist, a liberal, but he turned out to be a mystic.
“When I first met Yanukovych, he was a prime minister who just came from Donetsk. He was very direct and struck me as very Soviet. But he is serious, disciplined, he wants to change and he is working hard. I got very interested in his offer of providing stability. Essentially Yanukovych is like Ukraine’s Truman. A simple man. He is not Nietzsche, a playwright or an artistic man. Ronald Reagan was not an outstanding person either. I don’t think that’s bad.
“I’m writing stuff now about how America never really understood how profoundly broken the post-Soviet system is. The problem in Romania is that it missed the Renaissance. You won’t get 500 years back to do the Renaissance. I think the same thing is true for Ukraine, which went through the Bolshevik revolution, the Holodomor and the absence from Europe. A hundred and some years of isolation, three different churches, killings of Jews and economic oppression of Russia — can one expect everything to work fine first thing in the morning.
“When I’m arguing with the White House and other offices, I say we are not talking about three years like with Lithuania, we are not talking about six years like in Poland, for NATO membership. If we are going to get serious about Moldova and Ukraine, we’re talking 25 years — a serious generational change. And I agree we should give them perspective as early as possible in that process. Just to tell them we are going to get married soon but not right now.”
Didn’t Yanukovych tell you what Ukraine he wants to build?
“I don’t know what the PR people and all political technologists or Yanukovych himself have said. He hasn’t talked to me about that. He never talked about power. Frankly, Poles are more ambitious about the European power status than Ukrainians. What Yanukovych, personally, and the Party of Regions, want is legitimacy and the recognition of equality. Particularly, because they are from the East. They feel like everybody treats them like European Negroes. That they are second-class citizens, that Europeans count them as less, that their culture is less worthy, their institutions and the word of Ukraine in international politics is less worthy than everybody else’s.
“I think Yanukovych told me more today than I heard before. He said that even compared to Slovakia or Slovenia, the Ukrainians’ rights are denied to Ukraine by prejudice, by racial discrimination, as Poles and Russians did. It’s hugely important for him. Symbolic things are very important. He doesn’t want money, favors, personal rewards, he doesn’t want to take his wife to the White House. He wants symbols that show Ukraine is a normal state, that people in the East of the country are not morally less worthy than the people in the West. And that’s really important to him. It’s self-image, it’s self-respect. It’s all about respect.
“It was rather touching how he was talking about this corruption, how hard it was, that the security forces couldn’t cope with it. He was almost tearful. ‘I cannot explain why my country does it to itself, why the country I’m trying to help keeps stabbing itself,’ he said. That’s a rather strange thing for a president to say, ‘I can’t understand my own country, why does it do it.’ This is typical for a president in the first year. He faces the bureaucracy, private interests, etc. He looks good and strong. He is a reflective president and realizes everything is not so easy, he writes a decree and people don’t do it, they do whatever they want.
“I think he probably emotionally understood that being a successful governor in Donetsk is not the same as being president. Though looking at the streets, towns, universities and stadiums, one can see a huge transformation. But it’s like being a mayor in Chicago: you just order it and they build the stadium, university, you can do all by dictate. But in a big democracy you cannot do that. And I think he finally got the message how difficult it is to introduce constitutional changes, that this is not done in a week, and reforms are not done for three days. It took us 17 years in the 1800s to do constitutional reform in the US.”