Everything You Know About Ukraine is Wrong
Dr. Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Mr. Yevhen Hlibovytsky, Founder, ProMova
ANDERS ASLUND: Good afternoon and welcome, everybody. My name is Anders Aslund, and I’m a senior fellow here at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. And it’s my great pleasure today to introduce our guest Yevhen Hlibovystsky, who’s a leading Ukrainian intellectual. He’s connected both to the Kyivv Mohyla academy in Kyiv and to the Catholic University in Lviv. And he is a founder of ProMova think tank, a consulting company. And the specific interest of Levhen is not only that he thinks in big terms about Ukraine, but that he tries to think differently about Ukraine, and the title here was what Melinda Haring put up for the event today: Everything You Know About Ukraine is Wrong. And what we thought we should have here today, is simply a broad discussion about Ukraine. So please, the floor is yours, Yevhen.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Thank you so much. I was afraid that the title is a little pretentious, but I was told that it fits the market economy influence upon democratic institutions and the intellectual life in the free world. I was also told that it’s a hint not to be boring. So I will do my best to try to tell you things that are not boring and that you probably do not know. I tried to work hard in my professional life not to read the news, because one of the things that happens in my field of study is the news creates buzz that basically works as a smokescreen. You can’t see through that. There are many things that are happening that are important, but they’re not bright enough to make it to the front pages and I want to talk about some of these important things today, and I want to see what’s beneath the radar that we should be paying attention to in the case of Ukraine.
I was asked to bring in some cases. So let me bring three cases from different parts of Ukraine that are important and that are not reported. We’ll start with Ivano-Frankivsk. Ivano-Frankivsk is a small city of about 250,000 in western Ukraine, and this is a place where some people took initiative that was quite different from what we usually see. We are very often conducting discussions about business or about the nonprofit sector, but we’re kind of tending to separate them one from another, and this is exactly the case where things merged. 100 people, mostly business owners, threw in $1000 each. They got 100K and they invested that into a restaurant. Not because there are not enough restaurants in the city, but because then the structure of ownership would allow that restaurant to become a meeting place for very different people with very different agendas. Basically making sure that there isn’t a voice that is shut out in the city. 80% of the profits off that restaurant go as grants for local initiatives. And when we finally learned how much that is in money, that was about the amount that all other donors were bringing to the city. And this is a rare case of how a small initiative by 100 people can turn into something much bigger. This is the place. This is how lively it is. This is how it basically lives on an everyday basis. This is me talking at four o’clock in the morning, almost four years ago there when they had US elections night. If someone told you that you can have 100 people in the facility that only seats about 80 at four o’clock in the morning in Ivano-Frankivsk, and no one’s paying these people – well, that was the case. People were watching live coverage from the United States, and they were discussing, and they had panels with the future minister of economy at that time — I’m sorry, he was already the former minister of economy — and some other respected experts.
This for many people came out of nowhere because there wasn’t a model before, and what was important was that urban space has created a new model. And then that model went on as a franchise to Kyiv. Now it’s going further to Mariupol, and it’s expanding further and further and further. 500 people in Kyiv put $1000 each, me included, created a restaurant, Downtown Kyiv, which now hosts multiple events and is an important meeting place that basically multiplies the social capital that exists in town.
Then further, this initiative developed into something much bigger. These are the remains of the old factory in downtown Ivano-Frankivsk, with about two acres of land, two hectares right in downtown Ivano-Frankivsk, can’t get more downtown than this. And the same organization that created this restaurant thought that it would be interesting to buy out this old plant and transform it not into commercial property but into a set off public spaces with some commercial activity in them as well. And this is how the plant looked. This is how it looked from the inside. This is what it was. It used to do gas meters. They were exported to 60 countries during Soviet times. They were exported to 60 countries of the world, including Cuba. And this is the render of what it should look like. And one of the floors is already renovated, and it’s incredibly lively.
And it’s hosting NGOs. It’s hosting different initiatives. It’s hosting artists, etc. The important thing is that to collect $5 million to buy out this property was probably one of the biggest fundraising efforts ever in Ukraine. The people who started the initiative made sure that they’re not taking toxic money, made sure that they’re not taking money from the oligarchs. And as a result, we were taking this money in very small contributions. And as a result, collecting $5 million this way was quite an effort. This shows the capacity, the growing capacity of Ukraine. It’s developing new models. It’s coming up with new ideas. It’s coming up with new senses.
Another thing which I think is also under the radar is the religious landscape in Ukraine, which is very important. We have three religious leaders from the two major Christian denominations and a Jewish religious leader in one picture, which is a very common thing. When I was Googling for this picture, there are tons of them in different settings. You know, you can have one with the dark background. You can have one with the light background. You can see there’s a number of them. The important thing is that all of them are stressing something that goes beyond the spiritual life. They’re talking about the importance of democracy. They’re talking about importance of accountability of government. They’re talking about issues that allow Ukrainians to change their culture to, for instance, pay more attention to being result-oriented or be becoming more productive, in this way impacting many areas of life, including those that, for instance, defined the productivity of the economy. Almost all major Ukrainian churches were talking in the last year how important it is to save energy, which is a big political thing. But at the same time, it’s also a lifestyle thing for many Ukrainian households who have been brought up in a culture where energy saving is not one of the treats that people were living with. The church is an important player. Out of all institutions in Ukrainian society, it has the highest level of institutional trust. Therefore, it has incredible ability to set things on to the agenda. The church is able to influence agenda very much, and having the church as a productive player in Ukraine’s transformation is extremely important because the church is one of the very few players that can actually talk to society about things that are unpleasant, and bring bad news to the table in a way that is taken as constructive criticism, not in a way that is taken as a cause for a fight, and this is the third case that I want to bring. This is the picture from Donbas. This is a famous picture because it depicts a building in Avdiivka that is mostly abandoned. Some people still live there, but it’s mostly abandoned. It’s been shelled and one of the European artists came to Donbas and saw the picture of one of the residents of this building and decided to turn that picture into a mural. This is a living person. This is a schoolteacher, local schoolteacher who actually lived in that building. But when you look at the apartment building like that, you pretty much understand that it can come from any Soviet city. The entire former Soviet Union is full of buildings like that. And the question, how do you transform Soviet life into a livable life, is probably one of the most difficult questions we have in the entire former Soviet Union.
So here’s the picture from about 30 miles away from where the previous picture was. I’m sorry. I was told not to push that button. Okay. Let me put it here. Well, it’s the same picture. This is a fountain in Kramatorsk. Kramatorsk is an industrial city in Donbas, and it’s one of the cities that reflect the economic model that Soviets built there. Basically what you have is a huge plant, and then you have many barrack-style apartment buildings where people lived and there is no other life but work and sleep. That’s it. And the city of Kramatorsk has brought this fountain, and it’s quite fashionable and popular now in many European cities to have a fountain where water streams from the ground, so it doesn’t have a basin but it just goes from the ground itself instantly on the central square, which used to be deserted. Every day you have hundreds of people. For the first time in many years, hundreds of people spend time together and talk to each other. In Christian terms, they call it a miracle and basically, this is the beginning of the transformation that further blossoms with greater entrepreneurship, greater private initiative, greater pluralism, greater openness to diversity.
So basically what we’re talking about, we’re talking about cases that are showing how life is becoming more and more diverse. We’re talking about new scales. We’re talking about people who can help themselves and we’re talking about at the same time innovations in terms of models. But at the same time, we’re also talking about achieving new standards of social life, achieving new standards of self-governance that weren’t there before. So this is the short introduction that I was told that I can do and then I was told that I will be thrown questions.
ANDERS ASLUND: Yeah, thank you very much. I thought that I should moderate the discussion for 40 minutes or so and then open up the floor at about 4:30 for questions. So let me start here. What you’re providing us with, Yevhen, is a contrast to this idea of a messy transformation, corruption and war with Russia. And instead you’re offering entrepreneurship, lively local initiative and also churches that are contributing to civil society. So how strong is this? Would you argue that Ukraine has become a sustainable democracy today, and how European has Ukraine become in its values? Does this hold?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Okay, we’re gonna finish about tomorrow morning if I thoroughly go into every aspect of this. First is I’m not trying to be over-optimistic. Many of the issues that you’ve mentioned are real. We shouldn’t close our eyes and say there is no corruption or the war with Russia doesn’t exist. These things are very real, they’re daily challenges. We live with them every day. What I’m saying is that life is not limited to these factors and there are other factors that are as important or even more important, that we should be taking a balanced view.
The view of Ukraine has been quite special. You know, I was asked at Dulles Airport upon arrival where I’m from, by a gentleman. I said from Ukraine, and he was like, Oh, uh uh. The good thing is, by the way, that I no longer have to explain where the hell Ukraine is. That’s a good thing after about 30 years, at least, that I remember. But to make democracy sustainable — it’s a long path. Ukraine has some good starting positions because it’s a very diverse country. If you are in any group of Ukrainian society, then one or the other way you are in a minority. So in that sense, there’s acute understanding that winner-take-all is not a good formula for Ukraine’s existence.
Now, if you want to ask about sustainability of democracy, then it’s a tricky question because you can’t have sustainability of democracy if you don’t have security. What lack of security means, it means that every actor is out there playing a zero-sum game against all other actors. What presence of security means is that you are capable of playing win-win, capable of playing positive-sum game. Security is exactly something that Ukraine doesn’t get. And that’s a very good thing to say that well, isn’t that the Ukrainians’ task to make themselves more secure? Yes, but in a modern world, we do not know an example where this was done from the inside successfully.
If we look at the European countries, the European countries received an incredible loan right after the Second World War not with money but with security from the United States through NATO. If you look at the Asian Tigers: Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, these countries are democracies. These countries are democracies because they have put trust in being protected by the United States, in the US presence in the region. We can continue with Hong Kong, maybe Singapore, that those are city-states that don’t have resources to protect themselves against China. So if we’re talking about sustainability of democracy, Ukraine has to fix its security problem, and fixing security problem basically means that there should be an effort from inside Ukraine, from the inside. But also it should be complemented by assistance from the outside, and this outside assistance, let me be frank, is lagging behind.
Ukraine doesn’t have the assurances off the kind that it needs. The Budapest Memorandum has turned to be a different treaty than many Ukrainians hoped. The assurances that Ukraine gets from other countries, in some cases come too late or in some pieces are insufficient. The important take from the whole situation with impeachment here is that something that Ukraine was very assured of before is now questioned. How steady is the US support for Ukraine? How strong is it? It’s very clear that there is no change in policy. But at the same time, the question is, how will it work operationally? And it’s a good question, and it’s a big challenge.
Now, when we were speaking about how European Ukraine is, we define European through the criteria of the values that the European Union has been founded on. I would claim that in many cases when Ukraine deals with the EU it’s a good question which side is more European. And Ukraine obviously lags behind in institutional development. Ukraine obviously has very weak institutions. Obviously the country has problems that it will have to solve before it becomes admissible. But at the same time it doesn’t get a fair play, and partially it’s homework that the EU will have to do, that question of what kind of union remains? Is this the union of a new line of political thought between Macron and Orban? Or is this a country where elections actually matter? And that’s gonna be a tricky thing because, you see, to the sustainability question, I think if anything now there is lack of sustainability in general.
ANDERS ASLUND: Yes, when institutions are weak, then the leader is a little more (inaudible due to technical issues)…an enigmatic new leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And so far, we don’t really know where he’s taking your country. What is your reading of Zelenskyy? What does he really want? What does he really stand for, and what do you expect from him?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Well, Zelenskyy has won with a landslide of 72% of the voters. And the first thing that I would like to say is in no way I would question the good intentions of the 72% of Ukrainians. 72% of Ukrainians felt that there’s something fundamentally wrong and that they have to correct it. And they voted for Zelenskyy. If 72% of the people do this, then it means that there is a solid reason behind it. We rarely have figures like that in our democratic election outcomes. Actually, if we’re talking about 70 plus, it’s only the second time. The first time was the referendum on independence in 1991 when we had 90%. So what I think happened is that the voters felt that something was wrong. And considering that it’s a young democracy, they have sent a signal that something hurts. Now how will this signal be interpreted? Because, good intentions of voters do not necessarily translate into good intentions of the very people they elect. And Zelenskyy has been very enigmatic as you said. And actually it was his intention. He was put in billboards saying, and I quote, “no promises.” And now I think we are witnessing the end of the transition period for him. He now feels firmly in control. He has made a huge step by replacing his head of administration, and that basically means that from now on we will be receiving more clear answers as to where he stands and what he thinks is going to be the right policy for Ukraine.
He is an interesting person because he represents a very Ukrainian-Soviet background. He comes from a Russian-speaking background. He comes from a background that feels itself very connected to the Soviet entity, that is culturally close between people who share the same past in Russia and Ukraine, Belarus, elsewhere. And the changes that happened in the Ukrainian political culture over the last five years, the new senses that have arrived are in many cases fresh for him. But at the same time, we see that he’s a fast learner. He catches concepts incredibly fast. If I was confronted with a question if we saw any sign of malicious intentions when he willingly would cause trouble to the country that he represents, the answer would be no. In some cases, he has surprised, actually, by being able to handle difficult negotiations quite well. So I would put it this way. Give him credit for learning fast. I would give him credit for understanding the importance of the office of the president, and I would say that it would be easier for me to give an honest answer to your question in about a year. And if that puts me in the seat a year from now, then it’s a good deal.
ANDERS ASLUND: And you mentioned here that his chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, has just been replaced by Andriy Yermak. And we are now asking: What does this mean? Yermak has been in charge of foreign policy, and Bohdan has been in charge of all domestic policy. Both economic policy, pure domestic politics and law enforcement. What do we know about Yermak? What would he change in the policies that Bohdan has been in charge of?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: We don’t know what the policy is. What policy will exist? Because one of the things that we have noticed from his actions from the last year was that he is the one who’s trying to personalize diplomacy very much. He’s the one who’s trying to see what can come out of particular negotiations. He is operating within the limits and outside the limits, and at a time when the society is requesting the government to stay within the red lines. Red Lines is a very popular set of two words in Ukraine right now. And there’s a lot of stress among those, particularly among those who don’t trust the current administration. Zelenskyy has done some moves that have strategically changed the layout. For instance, the prisoner exchange has definitely saved a lot of people from extreme tortures and terrible life that they had in prison. It’s incredible that the sailors are back. It’s incredible that the political prisoners are back. Oleg Sentsov was here recently. It’s great to see him free, but at the same time understanding how the Russian legal system works, understanding that Russia will have as many prisoners, as many hostages, as it will decide that it wants to have.
It’s a question what’s Ukraine gonna do next? Are we strategically weakening our position for quick gains, and where do these quick gains lead us? There is lack of policy that is camouflaged with assurances that everything’s fine. And I think the faster it becomes clear where the actual policy is, the easier it will be for everyone to build understanding. One of the things that I’m afraid is intoxicating the Ukrainian political scene is that every party, every major party, including Zelenskyy and including Poroshenko, his opponent, are still in the campaign mode. They’re still running a campaign, so the voters are not demobilized, and they’re still trying to sting each other, often forgetting that they’re actually already on the same side, on the responsibility side. So that’s another transition that we will probably have to see this year, how it goes.
ANDERS ASLUND: That immediately raises two questions about Donbas. You mentioned already there have been two prisoner exchanges. If I’ve got it right, Zelenskyy has had three telephone calls with Putin. And then they had the Normandy meeting in Paris on the ninth of December, and clearly something is going on. Both countries have now changed. Or rather, Russia has changed the person in charge of Donbas. But it’s Dmitry Kozak, rather than Vladislav Surkov, which can only be an improvement from my point of view and from Ukraine. Andriy Yermak, who’s the point man for Donbas, has a stronger position. Do you expect that they will really take big steps forward, and then beyond the question is what you touched upon. How will that be interpreted by the people most suspicious about Zelenskyy’s policies on Donbas?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Yeah, I think some of these, tactically some of these replacements and changes open some opportunities. But fundamentally, I am very critical of this process because there is a very clear problem that Ukraine has with Russia and Russia has with Ukraine. Russia wants to stay an empire. Ukraine wants to stay free. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. And then whatever tricks each side will be using to strengthen its position will be to the benefit or not of these sides. For Ukraine, it’s a geography question. Ukraine is not going to escape Russia in any way. We share 2000 kilometers of common border. It’s by far the biggest neighbor we have, and it’s a question whether we’re gonna be able to conduct life as good neighbors or we’re gonna be draining resources on both sides into standing off against each other. To do that, either Russia will have to change internally, or Ukraine will have to basically cease to exist as an independent state. Now, I don’t think that anything that Zelenskyy or Yermak can offer can change this paradigm. It can bring us closer to victory or the loss, but it can’t change the paradigm, and that’s the point.
In that sense, let me stress another thing from the Ukrainian perspective. Probably the ousting of Vladimir Putin would be something that could be a potential risk because the problem is that any replacement, any feasible replacement for Putin is just as imperialist. All major Russian political players have consensus that occupation of Crimea is a good thing for Russia, and if this is the consensus that we’re dealing with, it doesn’t matter what the particular agreements we have on the ground, the problem will still be there. And it’s not about freezing or not freezing the conflict in Donbas. Donbas is only one part of the big equation. It’s important that we stop losing our servicemen every day. It’s important that people on the lines stop suffering, but then the question is at what cost? If the result will be lack of hope for millions of Ukrainians who are on the occupied territories, if the result will be, for instance, extinction for the Crimean Tartar identity, then that cost is unacceptable. And I am not sure if there’s acute appreciation inside the Ukrainian government of the complexity, and I’m not sure if the concepts are clearly understood. But I’m sure that as Ukrainian history has taught us for the last 30 years, every Ukrainian president who wants to leave the office as a president has to learn it fast. Kuchma has been willing to be on good terms with Russia. He ended up by writing a book called Ukraine Is Not Russia. The same things we can talk Kravchuk, Yuschenko, Poroshenko. All of them have been willing in one way or the other to have workable relations, and it didn’t work out. So I think as much as we want this conflict to be over, it’s gonna last.
ANDERS ASLUND: Well, I’m trying to draw out the logic from your position here. You say that any resolution off the Donbas conflict will not change the paradigm. While it’s a major risk to any government to move seriously on Donbas, which means that the odds are very strongly against any resolution off the Donbas conflict.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: I think in some cases, the Ukrainian government will have to act (inaudible). economic reform is important in any case. Free market is important in any case. Sustainability of democracy and decentralization is important in any case. Basically, Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver. It has to conduct reforms. And at the same time, it has to build its own security system. Would that mean that, for instance, the democracy will be weakening at some points? I don’t know. I hope not. Does that mean that Ukraine will have to come up with creative solutions how to strengthen itself? Maybe; Israel had to come up with very creative solutions. And what we see with the lack of support from the West, Ukraine is in many senses turning towards Israeli experience and trying to drive to learn what is the Israeli experience about protecting itself. Basically, it’s a challenge because Ukraine is in nation-building, in strengthening its identity, at the same time as it has to globalize, at the same time as it has to delegate part of its sovereignty, at the same time as it has to be very open, for instance, to immigration.
One of the factors that is keeping that is keeping the economy from growing is lack of people who can work, as many Ukrainians have left to work in the EU. The question is, who’s gonna come and replace them? And it’s a good question, because every people, every group of people that moves in doesn’t move in only to participate in economic life. These people will be participating in cultural life. They will be local residents. They will be someone’s neighbors. I’m sometimes joking that probably 10 years from now, Ukrainians will know well what is the difference between Uzbek and Tajik cloth? And that’s another side of this same globalization. How will it affect the perception of Ukrainian identity? It’s a very good question. It’s a very important question.
I would put it this way. It’s not all rosy picture, but at the same time at every moment, Ukraine has better and better and better capacity to deal with these issues. In the end of last year in December, I participated in annual conference of Ukraine’s think tanks. About 10 years ago, we could say, probably we could mention like 10 brands. Then think tanks in Ukraine that were visible we’re now counting beyond hundreds, and these are the think tanks that at least once a year can produce a solid paper. The institutional strengthening is enormous. Sometimes we don’t give Ukraine enough credit because we judge things at face value. I would put it in a little different dimension so it’s easier for us to understand where Ukraine stands.
Say Ukraine was conceived in 1991. Ukraine as an independent actor was born on Maidan in 2014. You know, for a six-year-old, Ukraine is doing pretty good, for a six-year-old that’s conducting an independence war at the same time, I’d say that the record is close to outstanding. So it doesn’t mean that we can’t have a fatal risk anytime soon. But so far, so good.
ANDERS ASLUND: Yeah, I notice here you have mentioned oligarchs only once, that this initiative did not take money from oligarchs. Normally, every discussion about Ukraine is almost dominated by the problem of oligarchs. You don’t see it as a big problem? Or what should be done in order to handle the problem of oligarchs?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: I was told by Melinda that I will be stripped of microphone if I’m conventional. Let me give you an honest response to this. Oligarchs are a big part of deciding power in Ukraine. They are the ones that are coming up with sophisticated decisions. They are developing solutions. They are implementing these solutions. They are taking decisions. But there are several things that we have to understand about oligarchy in Ukraine. It’s very different from oligarchy in Russia. The oligarchs in Ukraine are not a choir. They’re not singing together. I’d say it’s more of a jazz, sometimes they go in tune but sometimes they fall out of tune. Then every year there’s more and more of them. If say, 10 years ago, we could clearly say that these five people are oligarchs, then there was a popular phrase about minigarchs. And now I would say that oligarchs are a pretty big group of people, and it’s more like herding the cats. They’re moving in all different directions, some for the better, some for the worse. But there is significant pluralism involved, which is, I think, to Ukraine’s benefit in the long run. Second, the weight of each particular oligarch falls with greater foreign investment, with greater number of factors coming into the markets. So they basically, they are on the melting iceberg. Some of them are trying hard to modernize and to keep up with the changing time. For some of them it works. But for many it doesn’t. Third is the demography. At least we had one case with succession. And it’s not particularly a sound case of succession. That means that as long as the person who has become an oligarch is alive and upbeat, things are being taken care off, but delegating that doesn’t work.
And so I generally say that where I see the risks, I see the risk with decentralization, that when all of these amalgamated communities are finally formed, we will have particular communities where there will be tremendous lack of debate and lack off pluralism on a very local level. But if we’re talking about national level, I think the influence of the oligarchs is becoming less and less and less visible. They have played their role in national security in 2014. They have been instrumental in many cases and are trying to be instrumental in many cases dealing with the government, basically saying that, ok, we’ll do this, but you close eyes about this. And it’s becoming more and more difficult. Will they have enough power to transform into a big business? I don’t think so. I think they will stay within the framework of the time when they were basically born. So this is a phenomenon of transition. This is a phenomenon that bad decisions were taken in macroeconomics, of the kind of privatization we had, of the kind of protection of property we had, but at the same time I wouldn’t say that this is the single biggest problem that Ukraine has. It’s probably not.
ANDERS ASLUND: This is in 2003 I talked to a senior representative of the industrial union of Donbas, and he told me that Ukraine can never be a dictatorship. First of all, the East can never agree with the West and vice versa. And then we are four big oligarchy groups and we can never agree on anything. So therefore he thought that Ukraine was condemned to be a democracy.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: I would say if we’re trying to understand where modern Ukraine stands, basically there is a coalition among the voters off western and central Ukraine that Ukraine should move in a Western direction. And that coalition exists since 2004. It’s very solid, and it’s basically capable of winning any elections. Now if we want this to be sustainable than the question is, are the voters of the south and the east going to join? So what’s happening is there is a very interesting transformative process right now among the voters in the south of Ukraine, and the weight of the voters in the east of Ukraine has fallen because over a million people have moved to other places in Ukraine, because of very low birth rate and high mortality rate, so it’s a diminishing number of voters. So I would say that from the point of view of voters’ preferences, Ukraine is very solidly on the track. Now the question is whether the democratic procedure will follow, and that’s been a problem. We see how difficult it is for the parliament to adopt a new election law. How difficult it is for many people in power to come to the idea that one day this may be it. I think a lot of people were frightened by the victory of Zelenskyy’s party, because it literally swept everyone. It didn’t matter how much money you put into campaign. It didn’t matter how popular you were, how much you cared about your constituency. People who were wedding photographers were winning against well-established representatives of the industry in the places where, if you would say before that someone can be challenged, you would probably be laughed at.
But these things are happening. And I think that the change of the game, the change of the rules of the game, is pretty much unavoidable, making Ukraine more and more diverse, making it more and more a place where the elites are accountable to the people who are making the decisions.
ANDERS ASLUND: Thank you. Let me open up to questions and comments. I think I saw Alexei first.
ALEXEI AJINCA, independent consultant: I would like to go back to Mr. Yermak. Many people here and in Ukraine consider him one of the most ardent proponents of rapprochement with Putin. Actually, yesterday I heard that Kolomoisky’s man was replaced by Putin’s man. So if this is true, I hope not. But if it is true, what kind of response would be from the Ukrainian society, specifically veterans of (inaudible). And namely since you are from Western Ukraine, namely in western Ukraine?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: It’s a good question. As I said I’m trying not to follow the news. So, I’m trying to see the big picture and you outlined it I think in a very right way. The more there is feeling that risky political decisions might be taken, the greater there will be response from the grassroots. The response from the grassroots, and I think many of these — understanding a little bit how the sociological machine works in the government in Ukraine — I would say that many off these issues that we hear, that kind of spill out, are not actually political intentions, but rather probing. They’re throwing in a message and then seeing what the response is. And if the response is active, they’re withdrawing it. We see this with the idea of there is a limit to harmonization of the laws with the EU, and the response was huge. Yesterday, there was another idea that maybe the flow of water to Crimea should be considered. And the response is huge again. And what we see at least from the experience of the last several months is once the response, the negative response, is very strong and has broad coalition behind it than the idea is shelved. And this is part of the accountability that I’m talking about.
I think the government is in a position when it’s trying to listen because it’s not completely sure if it will have the backing from the society, and it understands that it doesn’t have the backing from the society. There can be different options in Ukraine. What happens with the government then? So I wouldn’t risk claiming that I know anything more than that. We still don’t know exactly who Mr. Yermak is. And we still do not know exactly what kind of positions he will be standing on. But I think we’re moving towards understanding these things better and pretty soon we will understand better what kind of new layout we have. We should be looking for promises that are given to the constituents. We should be looking for policy proposals. We should be looking for particular moves in negotiations. I think we should generally be alert.
ANDERS ASLUND: But what you’re generally saying is that nothing too much can happen on Donbas or Crimea. Because then people would say no.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: I would rephrase it differently. If there’s a very strong position in the society, then any Ukrainian government is weak enough to change its stand. Yeah.
ANDERS ASLUND: Please introduce yourself by name and institution.
PETER HUMPHREY, intelligence analyst and former diplomat: The Northern Ireland solution is one in which you fly our flag. You use our money, we handle foreign policy. Everything else is up to you. I want to look at a far future in which we are past Putin and ask whether the Northern Ireland solution could work for Donbas. And on an even bigger picture, can we sort of look at the reality of Crimea and say, 1954 was probably a mistake? Khrushchev’s mistake. The place is overrun with Russians who are Russian leaning. Can we make a big deal with Russia, which is you get the hell out of southeast Ukraine, southeast Ukraine gets the Northern Ireland solution, and you let us into the EU and we’ll look the other way on Crimea?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: I think that’s exactly what the Russians are trying to do. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to advance further so they have something, they have some concessions that they can do, and then they would stop somewhere in the middle by actually gaining something. The whole idea is to have a bargaining chip and turn people of Donbas into bargaining chip about Crimea. Once we allow that they will move further, and so there’s gonna be no stop to that.
I don’t think Northern Ireland solution is something that we can use as a model because Northern Ireland solution had a very distinctive identity issue behind it. It had a very clear religious issue behind it. We don’t have such religious issue behind it, because even if we’re trying to go along with the modern sociologists flow, and I’m part of the community that’s following academic discourse and treating, for instance, communism as religion, interpreting communism is a religion. I would say that from the values survey perspective, there is no difference between the composition of society on either side off the separation line in Donbas, but the outcomes will be very different. Now, if you take a look at the satellite picture, you already see the difference in the intensity of light. And I think probably we will not be talking about any of the existing models that we can take and adapt.
Probably the sophistication and the scale of this problem will be basically forcing Ukraine or other players involved to come up with a new original solution. It’s going on, but the fighting is going on much longer than it has been going on in any of the conflicts that we’ve seen, for instance in Transnistria or Ossetia or you name it. So we’re beyond these precedents. And I think the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is already at the stage when it’s a precedent by itself.
(Name Inaudible) Polish American Congress: Thank you for taking my question. I’m member of Polish American Congress and in other political organizations. But you say something very important: security. Don’t you think that security never could be accomplished without law and justice for all like we have in US. If we have the politicians who are easy to be bribed, and sending the nation left and right. The population? No. I have been in Ukraine. I talked to the people. I watch them very carefully. They talk about nothing. The bribery and corruption people get rich. And what in democracy is good for, is good for the rich, not for the poor. And people still don’t understand that in order to have the pure Democracy — United States is not democracy, it is a republic — so there’s a difference. So I am so glad when I see the youth. Perhaps they got the message: go and pass the strong law against the corruption and politician. No more. We’d be rich.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Sir, I think that’s a very important question. Let me address kind of from in depths in Ukraine. The conventional response to an issue of corruption is greater law enforcement, stronger judiciary, unavoidability of punishment for misconduct. That’s incredible. These are textbook solutions; I’m all for that. It won’t work in Ukraine. Let me explain why. We have a country that within the existing living memory has had at least two generations fully formed under totalitarian rule. This is something — Western World understands pretty well how colonial issues work. Totalitarian issues are different. The people in the West have not been exposed to them that much. So there isn’t basically firsthand experience in understanding what it is. When you are in a totalitarian system then the state has complete power over an individual, the state decides, what do you do, what you work, what your profession is, where you live. The state actually decides if you live, and if the state decides that you don’t live, you have very little that you can do. And the strength of the rules that totalitarian systems have, corruption becomes the ultimate security tool. And this is something that’s very difficult to understand for many people in West.
So when you have a deeply traumatized society with totalitarian trauma in case of Ukraine, it’s also coinciding with the trauma of colonial trauma. Then it means that conventional option won’t work because the society is fearful of strong rules per se. Society — and this is exactly if we generalize all Western advice to Ukraine, it’s “You have to make your rule strong.” Well, that’s exactly something that frightens any Ukrainian, because strong rules interpret into rules that can be unaccountable and if they’re unaccountable. Nobody killed more people in Ukraine than the state in the last 100 years. And we’re talking about tens of millions, we’re not talking about 100 people here and 100 people there. We’re talking about tens of millions of people who died, every second male, every fourth female. We’re talking of enormous loss of human life that is very visible in the demographic bell if you look at it.
And the response to corruption issues — and I agree with you completely that corruption is a terrible problem. It’s a taxation of efficiency of any existing system. Government system and economic system, any system. If we want to fight corruption in the case of Ukraine, we have to start with greater security of the individual, greater security of individual against the rules that that individual has to live by, greater accountability, greater inclusion, and this is exactly something that’s not happening. Security doesn’t come only from human security side, and human security, by the way, is sometimes also very difficult to explain in many Western audiences. It also comes from national security. It’s the freedom from an external attack and security is exactly something that Ukraine doesn’t have. And before we have security, it will take a lot of extra effort to gain little advance in fighting corruption.
But if we do security first, then it’s going to be much easier to fight corruption. Then there are a lot of local cases that you can see, for instance, it’s a bit easier in western Ukraine but more difficult in eastern Ukraine because the institutional memory is different. You know, eastern Ukraine has institutional memory that comes from experience of Russian Empire and Soviet state. Western Ukraine has Austro Hungarian Empire, Polish state and Soviet state. These are very different precedents and they allow very different models to be taken out of this experience out of the living memory, which extends, I would say, for about 100 years. But in fact I think that we need to rethink the conventional approach towards anti-corruption in Ukraine, and I think it’s important that we understand the greater complexity.
Corruption to a great extent is a cultural problem, and it has to be dealt through the tools that are dealing with culture. Totalitarian experience has been a trauma. It has never been faced. It has never been healed. One of the reasons why I’m showing the churches here on this slide is because the church is for the first time ever in Ukrainian history, modern history, have said okay, it’s a problem. We’re gonna try and do something about it. The state is slowly recognizing this trauma as a problem. The professional community is slowly recognizing it as a problem. The problem is the scale. The challenge is the scale. In every society you have people who have, for instance, PTSD is a professional illness. In Ukraine, we have PTSD in the size of the entire society. When you have everyone traumatized in the society, it reaches the point when trauma is no longer visible because it doesn’t stand out.
I’m not saying that to say that we should write off any responsibility. No, no, we continue to have to live by the rules where we are completely accountable. I’m just saying that we have to be acutely aware of where we’re coming from so we can address the problem in a proper manner. Russia knows that very well. Russia knows that very well. But Russia itself — this is also important — Russia is a unique type of empire that has colonized itself. It has colonized not only the other states, but it has colonized itself. So Russia has the same problem and this is exactly what my message is. If we learn how to fix this in Donbas, we will be one step closer to understanding how to fix this in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Donbas is not a problem of Ukraine. Donbas is an opportunity for the entire macro region, and this is very important.
MARY KRUGER, former State Department: And thanks for that really interesting explanation of your viewpoint on culture. I have a question about the mood and public opinion mood, whether it is changing on the longer-term future of the state of Ukraine. What I have in mind is some, after 2014 people were very strongly united in feeling that Ukraine had been wronged. Territory had been taken from it wrongly, and justice had to be done. Is the mood changing at all? Are people thinking, Well, this is really going to be difficult to get the territory back? Maybe we should just forget about it and try to move forward. How are people thinking? And are there differences in sociological approaches? Thanks.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: There’s a lot of ambivalence. There is a lot of difference in positions. What amazes me is how different this war is from other wars. It’s a cyberwar in many senses, and you don’t see cyberwar until your electrical grid doesn’t operate anymore. You don’t feel it on kind of a daily basis. You open up whatever application you’re using, it seems to be working, and you don’t know if it has a bug inside or something. For me, the experience has sometimes been overwhelming. I wake up at five o’clock a.m., I get another fast train at six o’clock, it takes me to Donbas at noon. I’m on the front line at one. I’m working at the front line, for instance, with the military or other people involved until four. I’m driven back five o’clock again on train. At midnight I’m at home again.
You can actually make a day trip from Kyiv to the front line. People in Donbas, half an hour driving from the front line, sit in cafes under the umbrellas and lead their daily lives. It’s a very different war, and I think it’s difficult in many cases to understand between shopping and taking kids to school, and running other errands that you are actually in a state of war at the same time. And I think the Ukrainian society is learning how to live with it. And in many cases denial is part of coping. In many cases, acceptance is part of the solution, and it’s taken different paths with different people.
The Ukrainian society is composed from people of different backgrounds, and obviously there are groups inside Ukraine they’re saying that, where we would still like to be in one state with Russia. There are groups that are saying it’s unwinnable. But then I would say what’s important is the dynamics. And if we look at the dynamics, it’s very clear that there are more and more self-conscious people. There are more and more responsible people. The size of the groups that value, that treasure, the Ukrainian independence and Ukrainian statehood and ability to be actors, not subjects, is stronger every day. We see record high support of Ukraine’s independence. We actually see a whole new generation of people who actually understand what the Ukrainian anthem stands for.
And in that sense, I would say that there is huge qualitative change. It sometimes transforms quality into quantity, and sometimes it doesn’t, or at least not yet. But I would generally say that even though Ukrainians would not like to be playing a long standoff against Russia, I think in that sense, if need be than Ukrainians will pull that through. I think, if anything that we’ve taken out of the last 100 of years, is that Ukrainians are champions of survival, and this is something that is our great asset. We know how to survive. This is something that is our curse, because knowing how to survive limits our ability to actually have a life. And I think one of the side effects of what the Russian state is doing against Ukraine is that yet another generation will live in the state of survival, in the mode of survival, instead of actually being able to join the rest of the developed world and contribute and become part of much more fun agendas.
MARK TENITSKY, freelance writer: I’m a freelance writer, had a couple opportunities with the Atlantic Council and others. Hoping you could touch a bit on the brain drain in Ukraine and how that will affect future democracy-building. For a little bit of context, Kyiv Post put out an article last month saying that about 20 years ago there were 48 and a half million people in Ukraine, and today there’s 37 million. Of course, that’s partially because of occupation of Crim and the War in Donbas. But if the youth, the educated people are supposed to be the future leaders, and they’re leaving for other European countries for work opportunities, what does that mean for democracy in Ukraine? Thank you.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: I think that’s an important question. Because, okay, let’s try and put it in perspective a little bit. If we’re talking about brain drain, the greatest brain drain in Ukraine was under Yanukovych. The number of young people, educated people who are leaving Ukraine has actually decreased. But there’s, it’s a moving target. We have to understand the changes that are happening. Mobility is growing. As mobility is growing, people generally move more. I would say that I would put it this way. The majority of those who wanted to leave Ukraine for good have. What we see right now is the so-called pendulum migration. People go to Poland or Czech Republic or elsewhere. Work for several months. Then they come back. They go, they work, and they come back. Some of them choose to stay. With every iteration there is a number of people that chooses to stay, but the majority come back.
And these people who come back come back with experience of living in a different system. They come back enriched with knowledge of how, for instance, Polish state works. They come back with ideas for their communities, for instance that if you have the streets lit at night, you feel safer. That’s a big step I had. But then we have to understand that it’s not only brain drain, it’s also brain gain. My friends at the MFA are telling me that about 50,000 people from Belarus live permanently in Kyiv, and most of these people are qualified professionals. We see that Ukraine becomes the place that attracts talent from, for instance, Southern Caucasus. If you’re in corporate business, you can make a career in Kyiv branch
much faster than, for instance, in many Central European capitals.
I was — just an anecdote. I called an Uber one night in Kyiv. And I noticed that it was a very nice car with very intelligent driver who spoke many languages. And I asked him, and he had a Polish accent. And I asked him, what the hell are you doing driving Uber in Kyiv? And he said, well, my HR has put me here. I said, what do you mean? He says, well, I’m running, I’m a country manager for a big IT company. But I can’t understand exactly how the country works. I had difficulty — he was actually a person of Polish origin from Canada, and he said that he had difficulty adjusting to the Ukrainian society. So his HR, instead of putting him through training, said, you know, if you drive uber three hours every day for three months, you will know that much better than anything else. The thing is, a Canadian is coming to Ukraine to make a career in Ukraine. So you see more and more and more of that. Ukraine’s economy opens up.
So from that sense, I would say that young people are leaving Britain for the United States, and vice versa, and Ukraine is part of the same process. Now the question is what’s gonna happen further. Will Ukraine be able to attract talent, for instance, from Central Asia, from Belarus, from Russia, from other countries? A good question will be, will Ukraine be able to retain people who went abroad and came back? In a growing economy it helps a lot. And strong Hryvnia helps a lot because people who are going to Poland, very often they find out that their disposable income at home was greater. So they earn more in Poland. But their disposable income, what they have in their pocket, was actually better at home. That’s also a big, big discovery. They learned that there are some things that are working much better at home. For instance, one of the things is we don’t pull out plastic payment cards to pay in the stores anymore. We do it contactless. And then you go to the EU and you learn that they still live in the 20th century with regard to that. And you start noticing these little things that work differently.
And it’s a tragedy that a lot of people actually have to enjoy the suffering, that they have to just motivate themselves to go elsewhere. I never heard people saying, I want to go to Poland because it’s interesting for me to see what’s there. People always complain. They say, Oh, no, no, no. We were so poor. The opportunities were so scarce that we had to do that. But I think eventually there will be greater appreciation of mobility, greater appreciation of freedom. Non-visa regime is not connected to work, migration. That’s one thing that is important to understand, because these people who go to work to Poland or Czech Republic actually go to work officially with work permits issued by these respective states. But non-visa regime made foreign countries very close. It’s now 15 bucks and a passport, and you’re in Vienna from Kherson, which is if you drive, it’s I don’t know what 30 hours? And it’s very close. The distances have shrunk.
Now here’s where the serious problem is. It’s not about migration. It’s about low birth rate. I’m talking to many Ukrainian security experts and what their general narrative is, that there has been many cases in world history of a country that is much smaller, that has won a war over the country that was much bigger, many cases in world history when the country that had very little resources but knew what it was fighting for was winning against the big country that had little idea why it was doing so. And that’s the case with many, for instance, prisoners that Ukrainian side is capturing. When they’re questioned, and the question is asked, why the hell did you come to Donbas, what have you forgotten there? And they often have difficulty rationally explaining this. But the problem is the birth rate, and low birth rate, actually it’s the same problem that Ukraine has, that Russia has. And It’s not only because we are part of this urbanization process of the 20th century, it’s also because there is low security, and the more you have threatening factors in everyday life, the more you have feeling of uncertainty, the more reluctant parents are to bring new life into existence. And I think that if this conflict will be a long one, one of the biggest tolls that it will take will not only be the people who have died on the field of battle or elsewhere, but it will also be the people who were not born because of this war. And this is something that, in my opinion, is much more serious problem than people moving out of Ukraine. I wish them bad luck. Oh jeez. This was bad. This was bad.
Yeah, I thought, I should not do anything like that in the Atlantic Council, especially as we have — I wish them good luck because they’ve been coming from the background when they were expecting bad luck. Their previous history, their parents’ history, was a history of terrible events, Ukrainian peasants who died of famine in the Thirties, have not seen it coming. If you look at the classical Ukrainian literature, there is no death of mass famine because food becomes scarce. There is famine as such because of bad decisions, social factors, but not because of that. Terrible, terrible Second World War. Chernobyl. All these things are bad luck. And I think a lot of people genuinely think that by moving out, they can actually kind of stop this curse. They can. They can cancel it out. I hope that in many cases, when they move out, they get a better clear understanding of the value that Ukraine actually is giving or was giving. And I hope that a lot of these people will rejoin the society back, even though from the, for instance, experience of Polish migration or other nation immigration, we know that not everyone comes back. But in the modern world, okay, they don’t come back.
A lot of you guys were born in Ukraine. You stay here. It’s incredible that you are here because then we can rely on you as a part of Ukrainian global network. Incredible.
ANDERS ASLUND: I think that we can take one last, two last questions.
NAME INAUDIBLE: You showed the picture of the three religious leaders. You identify the Jewish leader. I assume the other two leaders were the heads of the Ukraine, the Kyiv patriarchate, and the Moscow Patriarchate. No, that’s one question, and the other is, I have also studied religion, and in Soviet times Ukraine had the largest number of evangelical Protestants in the Soviet Union. So I’m just wondering how this all ties together.
ANDERS ASLUND: I’ll take one more question here.
JEFF STACY, former State Department currently doing UN work: And my question is not so much to your extraordinary presentation you’ve given us. But it’s really to our audience who are Ukrainian-American and from a number of other countries. I never thought I’d see the day, sir, when there would be skepticism about U. S foreign policy with regard to Europe and what we used to call for at the State Department, at other places in the US Government, for a Europe whole and free, and why that is waning these days. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, isn’t populism the first refuge of a Eurasian autocrat? My friends, when our valued guest here talks about every second male, every fourth female and gives other statistics, what are we supposed to do about this in the world we’re living in today?
He’s absolutely correct, is he not? I’m asking all of you, if we sacrifice any of this. The state that he referred to responsible for most of those losses of life in his country. What state do we think that is? What do we think it will do if we give in to these principles? And maybe you’d like to answer on behalf?
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Let me start with what you said. I just want to correct one thing. When I said about every second male and every fourth female, I was referring to the time of, the totalitarian time frame of the Soviet history because we can’t expand it all the way to modern times. Of course the figures would be different. Now, with regard to this picture we see, left to right, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. it’s a Unity Church, so it’s not Roman Catholic. It’s Greek Catholic, so it’s an Eastern Rite Church. Center is Metropolitan Epiphanius. He’s the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is the church that is, as an institution, a new church. It has been founded from Kyiv Patriarchate from Ukrainian (inaudible) church, and a few bishops that joined from Moscow Patriarchate. But this is the church that actually bears the tradition, all the way from 1000 years. Just as the Ukrainian Catholic Church is part of the same tradition. And of course, the Jewish leader. And the religious landscape of Ukraine and for instance for me, who’s involved in cultural studies, this is very important, is less reminding of the landscape of the European countries and is more American.
And basically, what it says, that there is no one big church or one big church and there’s another notable, sizable next to it. As in most European countries, what we have in Ukrainians is we have many different denominations. In some communities some prevail, and then the others prevail in others. So there are places in Ukraine where, for instance, Protestants would be the second biggest denomination. Protestants are very visible. They’re very noticeable in public discourse in religious activities, in civil society life. Protestants are important part of Ukrainian religious landscape, and in that sense, they’re not united. They’re married. Many different groups within the Protestant community. But I think it, this picture could have been expanded into a greater number of leaders on. And I think the fact that such composition exists, basically, it is the answer to a question. Do Ukrainians think the same? No. They think in many different ways. Every religion has its own social paradigm. Every religion has its own, any denomination has its own ways, and these ways are translated into different approaches that people take within the society. And this is basically something that the pluralism in Ukraine is based on, it stands on. So the basis for pluralism is huge. And it’s incredibly strong. So I think religious factors are underestimated. They play differently than they usually play in Europe. They also, in some senses I would say you can compare to how it works in the United States, but only to an extent.
But I think it has very long consequences, the fact that religious sphere is different in Ukraine than many European countries. And this will be something that will make it difficult to adjust our cultural policy and our identity policy to the one that is, um, in the EU Church. I would say the mainstream Church has made some decisions in the EU that have led to marginalization of Church in public life. In Ukraine, Church is trying to avoid the same mistakes and that puts us in a situation when, if the church stays away from the temptation of becoming a political player, and that temptation is always there, then we can have a very interesting combination of influence that different institutions — religious, non-religious – have in society.
ANDERS ASLUND: Yeah. Thank you very much indeed, Yevhen. This is a great performance.
YEVHEN HLIBOVYTSKY: Thank you so much.
The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.