Iryna Gerashchenko: Many deputies come to Donbas. However, they make a couple of photos and get out of there (PART II)
Vice Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, a Ukraine’s representative to the Trilateral Contact Group Iryna Gerashchenko in the second part of the interview with UNIAN has recalled how took a British Lord to the frontline village of Pisky, how limitations of immunity will cleanse the parliament of businessmen, and why visiting Donbas and doing something for Donbas are two different things.
Read the first part of the interview here.
You said that this year you’ve already participated in at least 80 meetings with Ukraine’s Western partners. Do you feel any frustration on their part over corruption or other problems Ukraine has?
Actually, they have a great attitude toward Ukraine. Obviously, we have problems. Indeed, in many respects, we need to demonstrate greater Europeanism, more progress, and do our homework better. This is obvious to me. And it is very important for Ukraine to respond to signals coming from our partners, including on combating corruption, transparency of the economy and strengthening of democracy. But my personal position is that we don’t make all these changes for European or American partners, we make them for ourselves, for our country. I want Ukraine to change.
Even the most vocal critics of Ukraine admit that over the latest period, Ukraine has come a great way forward. I know for sure that there is no other country that has done so amid war. Therefore, when our partners visit Donbass, their eyes open up. And I do not mean visits to Kramatorsk or Slaviansk somewhere in a deep rear. It’s about Avdiyivka, Maryinka, Maiorsk, Shyrokine, where everything has been completely destroyed. There you realize a bit differently, in what conditions Ukraine is working on reform.
One time a British Lord even went to Pisky. In early 2015 there were such intensive shellings there that the British Embassy constantly phoned me and Maria Ionova, begging that we get him out of there and have him return to Kyiv immediately.
So what did he do?
This lord - he was then a member of the British Parliament, a very respected man - said: "No, let them shoot. If they kill me, then perhaps the British government will pay more attention to what is happening in Donbas."
As I have said, after personal visits to Donbas, our European and American partners look differently at Ukraine, at the conditions under which the Ukrainian economy has to survive while allocating 5% of our GDP for strengthening our army and security forces.
Incidentally, this was something that left U.S. President Donald Trump very impressed. During the conversation in the White House, the president of Ukraine told him that Ukraine allocated 5% of GDP for the army, for modernization, reform, maintenance, and protection of the country. Trump was impressed by this figure.
But criticism is being voiced anyway, and frankly, it has its grounds ...
I don’t wear pink glasses. But I don’t understand people who criticize without offering, who only see the dark side and refuse to admit changes. It can’t be this way, it’s unfair.
By the way, several times during the meetings, in the presence of European ambassadors and politicians, when our well-known critics began to paint Ukraine in dark colors only, some diplomats would appeal along the lines of: "Are you sure we’re talking about the same country? I live in Ukraine, I see change. My dear, come on… You are telling us about some kind of North Korea, not about a country that has changed over these three years, while repealing Russia."
Indeed, there are problems in Ukraine. Indeed, we need to focus, identify them clearly, and change the situation. But it wouldn’t be fair to Ukraine and ourselves to always paint Malevich’s "Black Square.”
I have been in opposition for a very long time. I’ve always been in opposition to Yanukovych and his team, that’s since 2002. But, even being in opposition, we voted for all pro-European laws. We would visit various international institutions, PACE, European Parliament, begging them not to perceive Ukraine and the Yanukovych regime as one. We would always tell them that Ukrainians needed to be granted a visa-free travel; Ukraine needed to be given an association agreement…. After all, we said, if Ukraine breaks off and goes to Russia, then you will have problems...
You cannot confuse sinful with righteous - your political and ideological opponents with Ukraine. These things are different.
Once you touched upon the topic of Ukrainian politics, do you think that ten years ago Ukrainian politics was, say, more honest? Hasn’t it evolved to the worse ...
You know, politics used to work more in a real world. Now there is a problem that very often politicians only live in social networks. I myself am an active user, but I am well aware that social networks are not the entire society, not the whole of Ukraine. This is an important part, but only a part. It is necessary to understand that it’s not Facebook or Twitter who elect authorities, that the Maidan was not made by Facebook or Twitter, it’s real people who took to the streets in real life. There are issues that must not divide the society into politicians and non-politicians, doctors or teachers... There are issues related to Ukraine. There must be no division here.
Ukrainian politics is often very virtual. But you can’t draft laws, exchange positions and create state policy on social networks. This requires a real dialogue. And, by the way, the return to dialogue is very important for the political elite in the context of our fight for Donbas and Crimea.
We will face a very difficult task - speaking with people who take a different stand on many of our values, with people who often take an anti-Ukrainian stand (I’m not talking about gangsters now, they will have to answer for the crimes that they have committed, I'm talking about people who have been exposed to propaganda). Therefore, it is necessary today to learn to speak and return to the real life dialogue.
My office of a Vice Speaker is open to everyone. Deputies from different factions come to me, and we happen to fight a lot. But we have to seek understanding. By the way, if I get emotional, I feel anxious afterwards, so I can apologize if I was wrong.
Another problem of Ukrainian politics is a poor professional level. I agree that good education is OK. English language skills, too. This is a necessity these days, but this is just not enough. Therefore, in this parliament I respect not those cute young people with excellent education but zero political skills, but such people as Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov. I seek to learn from them who to be a patriot, retain firm stance, and be courageous.
The third problem is narcissism of Ukrainian politics. Our politicians forgot how to work as a team. Of 420 MPs, 400 see themselves as potential presidents, prime ministers and speakers, while few can be true team members and work, work a lot in their actual office.
The team spirit has been lost, and very little attention is paid to ideology. Deputies often have no clue whether they are right-wing or leftist, liberals or conservatives. In the earlier convocations everything was clear – Communists and the Rukh, black and white. Today, I cannot tell the difference between ideologies of, say, Samopomich, and the BPP or People's Front. There’s no difference. So why is it so hard to find common language? That’s because in the foreground is their ego and the question of who will be the next president, prime minister or speaker.
Do you think deputies in their squabbles realize that there is an actual war ongoing and thy are part of the parliament of a warring country?
And is there a mechanism that would help them understand and made them work more effectively? Perhaps, as you have already talked about visits to the ATO zone of foreign officials, there should be some kind of field meetings of the Rada?
It would be useless. In fact, many deputies come to Donbas. But they make a couple of photos and get out of there.
Firstly, sometimes you don’t need to go to Donbas to help Donbas. Let's take a look at the bills that are being submitted and the voting in the session hall. While half of the parliament fails to vote for the budget stipulating an increase in army expenditures, for some reason they later run around shouting that meals for our troops are bad… Come on, that was you who failed to vote! That’s because in that budget you saw some secondary issue you had some problem with. See, the budget is always a compromise. We’ve never had an ideal budget, but let's find a compromise and identify the priorities.
The second question is, how can the parliamentarians of the country at war be so aggressive toward each other?! What message does it send to people? Is it the message of hatred and contempt for everything and everyone? Third, how can you skip your work? Fourth, I do not understand how we can work under such regulation? On Friday, for example, you come to the session hall, for an hour you read out requests, which, I am convinced, should have long been published on the Rada website so that everyone, by the way, could see whether there is any lobbyism or not. That would be evident. Then there are addresses in “miscellaneous” section,” where you can just go crazy. And that’s it, the day passes just like that, with no bills passed.
How can be changed?
We should vote as soon as possible on amendments to the regulation. I'm in favor of voting by majority of those present in the session hall. This would discipline deputies and factions, because then there will be an understanding that your voice really affects the outcome.
In all foreign parliaments there is a debate process. It's sort of like our "miscellaneous" routine, but not so much. In other parliaments, they debate on a definite pressing topic, and this helps deputies develop a position, which then forms the basis of parliament resolutions or statements. It is important to look for a common position in a discussion, in this public debate! We do not need so many committees, in my opinion. Therefore, I stand for changing the regulation.
Speaker Andriy Parubiy has been trying to do it for almost a year. He offers various options, registers bills together with all faction leaders. But everything is in vain. This question has never been put on the agenda. Perhaps, the current situation suits everyone...
Moreover, many deputies have no respect for the legislature (you can’t possibly humiliate and destroy the authority of the parliament). Some people don’t even see the difference between a bus stop and the historic premises of the Rada – sticking those signs on balconies with various demands from some “blabla” parties. This “blabla” party may be part of this parliament today but it won’t be there tomorrow... But this building has its history, it’s not a bus stop with chewing gum stuck all over the place.
We need to restore the authority of parliament, including through introducing a higher level of political culture. Deputies today don’t realize that with their loudspeakers and trumpets they are responsible for destroying the authority of the Verkhovna Rada.
Well, all kinds of things happened in previous convocations, too - same megaphones and smoke bombs...
I do not say that we did not do this when we were in opposition. Everyone remembers the amendments to the Constitution, NATO issues, and the “Kharkiv agreements.” But these things can’t be compared.
Obviously, when there is a threat to the state, it is necessary to utilize all means to stop it. But now, when some important law is being considered, it’s just plain wrong when instead of a discussion, some poster is unfolded or a loudspeaker is turned on putting a halt to parliament work.
How do you feel about the show-off patriotism of some people's deputies?
Often it is pharisaism. I can’t understand why people sport military uniform at a civilian office. McCain was also a former military, but I have never seen him wearing khaki at work. I have great respect for the Ukrainian Army and, I think, it’s those who are on active duty who have the right to wear uniform. Secondly, deputies shouldn’t devalue the holy slogan "Glory to Ukraine," or "Glory to Jesus Christ," beginning and ending with those phrases their addresses – sometimes rather strange ones, to put it mildly. It seems to me that these things shouldn’t be abused. In general, as for me, it is better to live with Ukraine in the heart then shouting out patriotic slogans at every opportunity.
What leverage does the parliamentary leadership lack in order to bring the Rada to order?
For me, honesty is very important in any negotiations - no matter if it’s parliament work or Minsk negotiations where your opponents are sitting at the same table. If we said that we would do something, if we have already agreed on this, we must do it.
In Minsk, it sometimes happens so when we have agreed on some, albeit tiny, act of concession, on someone’s release from captivity, and then you come the next time, the opponents pretend that we have not agreed on anything. It's just awful. But it also happens in the Rada! Often after conciliation councils or meetings, where it seems that we have agreed to work on certain agenda, we come into the session hall and two factions request to make a statement and say "we demand ..." something absolutely different from what has been discussed at the meeting. They block the rostrum or leave the hall... Things like that. So what have we been negotiating for an hour for? Why has none of you said that you are going into a deep denial for the entire session week? Just say that you’ll be blocking, demanding, but not working today ... At least it would be honest.
And is this often the case?
There were several working days we have lost over the past two session weeks, and I was just shocked. It is really shocking.
For example, on the day of stripping several MPs of their immunity, it was agreed in advance that this issue would be voted at 17:00 when the prosecutor general was supposed to come. And before that, we were supposed to consider other important bills. We come to the session hall, and one faction jumps to the rostrum and says: "We demand that he come immediately..."
That is, it is more painful to see such behavior of your fellows, the people who are on your side of the barricade, than to negotiate with opponents in Minsk?
You do not have any hopes for enemies. And here, they are my colleagues, sometimes opponents, but certainly not enemies... And it seems to me that if a certain agenda is agreed upon, the parliament of the country at war must be aware of the responsibility for each working hour, for each session minute and every second.
In our last session week, two days --Tuesday and Thursday – saw blockings, demands, and constant breaks...
We often hear that MPs have very small salaries, given the amount of work that needs to be done. That’s especially so in this convocation, compared to the previous ones. How do deputies get by?
If you call things for what they are, today it's obvious that the salaries of civil servants, ministers, deputies should be high enough not to have them look for side earnings. But, of course, when the country has a minimum pension of UAH 900, deputies cannot be paid more by hundreds of times. We need to look for parity. It is rather strange when judges or representatives of anti-corruption institutions receive hundreds of thousands of hryvnias in wages, while the salaries of decision-makers – ministers and deputies - are many times lower. I believe that we need to hold a serious discussion about the philosophy of remuneration in the state sector and state institutions, to reach a common denominator. Now the level of salaries in different institutions is determined by dozens of different laws. We talked about this with Prime Minister Groysman several times.
Is there now an earlier-applied practice of money additionally paid to MPs by their factions?
I am non-factional deputy.
Do you think that raising salaries to deputies will prevent legislators from dirty dealings such as "submitting a bill" or "submitting an amendment" for $3,000-$10,000, as we have witnessed in this convocation?
I believe that, in order to increase the parliament’s responsibility, we need to do a few things. The first is to limit parliamentary immunity. We must come to a European denominator. There is an immunity that is related to the political work - and that’s it. Such a limitation will cleanse our politics of business people because they will not be interested in staying in parliament.
The second thing is that I am a supporter of open party lists. And I am a supporter at this stage of gender quotas for one gender. In this parliament there are 12% of female MPs. But our European colleagues think that it’s some 40%. Women are so active and working so well that nobody believes we have only 12% female legislators. And there should be more.
And the third stage is the state service should provide decent salaries, so that the state institutions don’t suffer from brain drain. Basically, it’s the assistants, lawyers, experts from secretariats, who work on bills. For these professionals to remain in office, they should be paid decently. And politicians should also enjoy some European standard and level. It would be right. This would help ensure that not only businessmen and underpaid staffers remain in politics.
You mentioned the share of female MPs. How is it to be a woman in Ukrainian politics? Do you happen to use some kind of female charms?
All those "charms" is not about me, I don’t like this and neither do I use this. I think the major feature women have is wisdom. For women in politics, as a rule, key priorities are people, their life and health, the State.
How do you see an ideal parliament?
I think that an ideal parliament is a mix of experience and young blood, which streams the right charge of positive changes, pushing to keep pace with time. That is, people of different generations must work together in parliament, and mutual respect is very important.
By the way, you mentioned the secretariat… How has the story ended with your driver who was stealing fuel? How does the Rada tackle such issues?
It was a systemic offense. There was an audit, and the guilty were fired, as far as I know. But since then, I receive a report every month. Before this incident, our drivers and their managers reported 5,000 km for each car per month, and now we see that it is about 2,000 km. It's kind of a trifle, but still... On the other hand, I understand that the driver will not work for UAH 3,000. This is also not normal, so I want people in state institutions receive normal salaries and not look for where they can steal something.
In general, this is the first parliament with no head of staff. This is not normal. Neither the speaker nor the vice speaker should be dealing with car fleet and maintenance issues. It's not their job. But there should be someone to do this job, of course.
I once went to Kyiv hotel, which is on the balance sheet of the Verkhovna Rada and where deputies from other cities reside. I never noticed it before, but there is a “Lulu” beauty salon there. Maybe I have some distorted ideas, but, as for me, the “Lulu” salon is a little too much. And someone has to deal with all this post-Soviet mess. At the same time, the reports on Rada expenses should be made public.
And what's the problem with appointing a head of staff? What needs to be done to this end?
This official must be selected. This requires 226 votes and there should be no bargaining on the issue of whose guy he’s supposed to be. This position simply requires a professional organizer and manager.
What do you think of the idea for a deputy to be elected only some limited number of times?
If people elect deputies, they have the right to work - this is a global practice.
But this reality is a bit distorted in our country. There are deputies, such as Zvyahilsky, who do not work in the Rada, they’re just on the list...
If voters in his constituency have been electing him for so many years, this is their right. I stress that I’m for open party lists.
Given how and how much you engage in parliament work, the issue of hostages and their families, you have not yet burned through. But do you have enough time for your own family?
You know, I’m not one of those people who publicly discuss their private life. So, I’m sorry.
But does the family influence your career, your work schedule?
I would say that children discipline me. When you have no small children, you can spend the whole evening with your friends and stay up late. But when there are children, you want to spend your free time at home.
TV channels sometimes get offended that I refuse from coming to night shows or a Sunday broadcast. But for me, this time belongs to the family.
But there is one sin which my family has a much problem with than the time I spend at work. This is when I continue to sit at my computer and work while at home. This is really wrong, too. You need to learn how to put off all gadgets and the like while at home ... That’s because it is terribly offensive to the children and husband when you seem to be at home, but in reality – you’re somewhere else and not with them, you are living in a virtual world. And I am fighting with this, so far not very successfully.
Do you cook at home?
No, and this is not work-related. I just do not like it. And I've never hidden this. Of course, I can cook something, but I do not like the kitchen.
If you ask me about my specialties - it's funny but I make a wonderful omelet – good job! – and I make a wonderful oatmeal porridge – good job! (laughs)
You are right that if a woman wants to make a career, she needs help from her family. There must be partnership. There are such days when I'm on a business trip, but I know that my husband will cope with everything. Of course, if you have to get up at seven o'clock, do the girls’ hair, make 15 plates of porridge, go to work, and then cook 15 plates of borsch after work and there’s no help because “kitchen is for women,” nothing will work out. To unite family and career, there must be partnership.
Where do you find strength when everyone is falling on your head and you’re about to give up?
You shouldn’t ask questions like that. Deputies shouldn’t complain about their lives. And where do our troops find strength at the front line? And where do hostages’ mothers and spouses find strength? Where do these hostages find strength?
There is no heroism in the life of a deputy. It seems to me that we all have to work more each in their spheres.
What is your dream, besides the end of the war?
Dreams are not to be disclosed. Of course, I have personal dreams related to my family. There are some smaller dreams, more realistic ones. For example, the vacation at sea is a dream come true. But some global things are better not to reveal to others while working hard to make them come true.
And if we talk about our common, global dream of every Ukrainian, it’s peace. This is what unites us and should unite us all.