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Biden and void

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was the second high-ranking American official to ever speak from the rostrum of the Ukrainian parliament. But, unlike the speech of U.S. President George W. Bush (in 1991), there was more understanding of the Ukrainian reality in his address.

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The Verkhovna Rada was preparing for the arrival of an important guest in advance. The area around Rada was tightly guarded by hundreds of law enforcers; the Ukrainian and U.S. flags were flying before the main entrance; the accredited journalists were re-accredited, the assistants of MPs were not allowed to enter the parliament building before the end of the visit. “Good morning!” the State Guard officers greeted the press in English… Tighter security measures in the Ukrainian parliament were not annoying, at all.

It was not boring, either, on the streets outside the Verkhovna Rada and in the square in front of the building: a small rally with numerous party flags was set up, there were the adepts of the lower exchange rate, there were drums and an armored vehicle as an improvised stage for the speakers. There were posters and slogans of every kind one could imagine: from the banal “Help! SOS!” and “Where is the reform?” to “Mr. Biden! Ask our President about political repressions!” and "Do not support the corrupt prime minister!"

It wasn’t boring outside the Verkhovna Rada, either / Photo from UNIAN

A key requirement of the protesters was the dismissal of the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk for "the failed social and economic policy that protects the interests of oligarchs, for corruption and inability to lead Ukraine out of the crisis." All of this was repeatedly declared from atop of an armored vehicle.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the American guest, the deputies amazed themselves, it seemed, with plenary agenda. Considering traditionally low attendance of parliament sessions in recent weeks, the bills scoring over 300 votes seemed a miracle.

Joe Biden’s address scheduled for 11:00 was delayed, and the MPs almost covered their monthly quota for passing draft laws. But finally, an hour late, Joe Biden came up to the Rada’s rostrum.

A talented speaker

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A half-hour speech of a professional speaker and a real politician (in the Western sense) in a session hall, where no one usually listens, was quite intense. U.S. Vice President spoke of Independence, war, a moral and political responsibility of Ukrainian politicians before the country ("the whole world is watching you"). He even cited Taras Shevchenko and spoke of some episodes of the American history. Biden reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine, showing Moscow that Kyiv is within a zone of Washington’s strategic interests. However, not a word has been said about the fulfillment of earlier U.S. commitments to Ukraine, voiced 20 years ago in the shape of guarantees of security and territorial integrity in exchange for renunciation of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the vice president of the United States drew the attention of the Ukrainian authorities on the need to adopt an IMF-agreed state budget for 2016, and on the importance of implementation of the Minsk agreements. In particular, he spoke of amnesty to those who have not committed capital offenses, passing constitutional amendments, granting devolved administrations to Donbas, and holding the local elections in the occupied territories under the Ukrainian legislation and close supervision of the international community.

Not a word was said about the fulfillment of earlier U.S. commitments to Ukraine, voiced 20 years ago in the shape of guarantees of security and territorial integrity in exchange for renunciation of nuclear weapons.

It’s encouraging that in this part of his speech Joe Biden understands that meeting all these requirements is problematic, especially because, to date, it’s not Ukraine who is the violator of Minsk agreements. And that, he says, may be the reason that the “cost imposed on Russia will rise."

However, there is a fly in the ointment of Biden’s speech. According to the U.S official, Ukraine’s major threat is corruption, of which Russia takes advantage.

Ukraine is threatened by corruption / Photo from UNIAN

Biden stressed that Moscow uses corruption as a tool of coercion. “Russia is trying to undermine the stability and sovereignty of Ukraine any way they can, including squeezing Ukraine financially, trying to undermine your economy. They view it as a cheaper way than sending tanks across the line of contact,"

“Ukraine must be strong enough to choose its own future,” he said. 

"Corruption siphons away resources from the people, it blunts the economic growth… The Ukrainian people know that.”

According to the American official, it’s “not enough to set up an Anti-Corruption Bureau and establish a special prosecutor fighting corruption.” “The judiciary should be overhauled, the energy sector needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles, not sweetheart deals,” he added. 

“Senior elected officials have to remove all conflicts between their business interests and their government responsibilities,” Biden said, adding that the oligarchs must learn to live by the same rules and pay taxes, “settling their disputes in court, not by bullying judges.”  "Corruption siphons away resources from the people, it blunts the economic growth… The Ukrainian people know that,” said the vice president of the United States. “Ukraine can not afford for the people to lose hope again," Biden said.

The corrupt against corruption?

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Actually, Joe Biden said nothing new to the Ukrainian political elite. Civil society activists have talked about it many times before. But while the messages of the activists often fall on deaf ears of the MPs, they listened to the U.S. Vice President very carefully. Sometimes, they even applauded. And after the speech, not without pleasure, commented.

"This was a speech by Ukraine’s great friend -- emotional, full of hope that Ukraine will be able to overcome the obstacles of the old system,” Yulia Tymoshenko has told the reporters on the sidelines of the Rada. “the particular emphasis was put on overcoming corruption... Today, it’s the biggest flaw ... But it’s all in the hands of our state and our nation."

The Opposition Bloc was anything but shy. "Indeed, when Biden spoke about corruption, he looked in the direction of the Cabinet," said Opposition Bloc MP Yuriy Myroshnychenko.

According to him, it is obvious, as it’s not the lawmakers who are involved in corrupt schemes but the executive branch.

While the activists’ messages often fall on deaf ears of the MPs, the lawmakers listened very carefully to the U.S. Vice President / Photo from UNIAN

In response to such statements, the MPs from the pro-prime minister Popular Front faction noted that the representatives of the Opposition Bloc suffered from bad eyesight. MP Ihor Lohvynskiy said: "I think that the Opposition Bloc’s sight is flawed."

The leader of Samopomich Party, Oleh Berezyuk, called Biden’s words about Ukraine and corruption a "moral beating" of the government, adding that "the President and the Prime Minister, and the whole government should resign" following these words. "Many officials have to resign if there is morality. But I think that these moral messages sent by Vice President of the United States were not heard by these exact people, who are immoral. They are not able to hear about the moral values, and, therefore, they have brought the country to its low," said the official.

Instead of the real fight against corruption, the lawmakers often engage in self-PR.

The MPs from the pro-presidential Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, which suffered an ugly  episode of mutual corruption allegations between the deputies a while ago, spoke of the global things. For example, Vladimir Aryev noted thatб instead of the real fight against corruption, the lawmakers often engage in self-PR. "There is a problem in all of us... We shouldn’t fight, scream and make loud statements, but rather come in here, read into the bills and vote," he stated.

Steak Kyiv

Joseph Biden became the second high-ranking American politician to ever address the Verkhovna Rada. The first speech was delivered by U.S. President George W. Bush on August 1, 1991. It was the infamous “Chicken Kyiv Speech.”

24 years ago the U.S. president warned Ukraine against "suicidal nationalism," saying that the Americans will not support those who seek independence, to establish a local despotism. Bush noted that the United States supports the establishment of a soft federation with the participation of nine Soviet republics. The Verkhovna Rada also applauded that speech, but the address was harshly criticized by supporters of Ukrainian independence. And in a few months after the U.S. president's visit to Ukraine, a referendum was held on independence from the Soviet Union.

The address of 1991 sent the wrong message, indicating disorientation of Bush administration.

"The difference between that speech and the present one is the same as that between heaven and earth,” said the diplomat, former Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine for European integration policy, MP from Batkivshchyna Party, Borys Tarasyuk. “The speech of 1991 sent the wrong message, indicating disorientation of Bush administration, which has not felt the atmosphere of change. And it was a big mistake."

"Today, there was nothing in Biden’s speech that could provoke sharp rejection... I have not heard any words indicating fatigue. I heard the message that the U.S. is concerned about the situation in Ukraine - corruption reform, the war with Russia. But I have not seen signs of indifference," he said. However, he added that, although the message was built correctly, that does not mean that he agrees with them fully.

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For example, Biden said that Ukraine must implement in full its obligations under the Minsk agreements. "The United States voiced the already-known position of the Normandy Four, in particular, that of Germany and France... But this does not mean that we should yell ‘Yes, Sir!’ and follow the order. This is a vision of the situation by the world powers. But we have to think on our own and to act in accordance with the national interests of Ukraine," said the Ukrainian politician.

"If we draw an analogy [with remarks by George W. Bush], then Joe Biden’s speech should be called “Steak Kyiv," considering how the U.S. Vice President’s pounding messages regarding the fight against corruption,” said the political consultant, director of Berta Communications, Taras Berezovets. “Today Biden certainly spoke on behalf of [U.S. President Barack] Obama. And if these words are not heard, the steak will be served rare. That is, there will be blood dripping, for those who don’t get the hint."

Just as the U.S. vice president was leaving the parliament building, the session hall of the Verkhovna Rada got empty again, in the middle of a working day.

...In fact, there were many MPs in the Rada who did not get the hint. Just as Joe Biden was leaving the Ukrainian parliament building, the session hall got empty again, in the middle of a working day. The 300 votes present earlier this day have evaporated… Just like the hope that the lawmakers, impressed by Joe Biden’s speech and speaking nicely of moral values, national interests and the need for changes before the cameras, will actually change anything.

Tatiana Urbanskaya

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