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Irish Jesuit addresses Ukrainian crisis

Edmond Grace SJ, Director of the PeopleTalk Democracy Project, and former MEP Pat Cox were in Ukraine recently addressing the crisis the country is facing. They were invited to Kiev by the  Veritas in Caritate Social Academy to speak at one of their sessions before Christmas.

They also spoke to a group of students in Kiev University where the student body played a leading role in the Maidan [Independence Square] protest last year. Finally they addressed a Church and Society Forum presided over by the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Ukraine was in the news only last weekend after a number of residents in Donetsk were killed on foot of shelling by Pro-Russian separatist forces. This Tuesday the rebels said they had pushed Ukrainian government troops out of two districts on the outskirts of their main stronghold Donetsk, and their aim was to expand their control to the entire region.

This rebel advance launched last week has dashed a five-month truce and reignited a war that has killed more than 5,000 people and brought threats of new sanctions on Moscow.

Pat Cox is a frequent visitor and well known figure in Ukraine, having been one of the EU observers of the Tymoshynko trial, which meant that he was able to organise further more informal meetings with politicians and diplomats. He says real dialogue with Russia is vital but Ukraine has many problems to face on the road to recovery. “Ukraine is fighting on many fronts, the war, the economy, the public finances and the currency.”

Whilst in Kiev with  Edmond Grace he gave a wide ranging interview to Fr Mykhaylo Melnyk of the Veritas in Caritate Social Academy  about  the issues raised by these problems and solutions to them that might be envisaged. That interview is published below in full. Both he and Edmond have been invited back to address students in four other state universities in the Kiev area in April.

Interview with Pat Cox

Mr. Cox, from your point of view, how should Ukraine build a dialogue with Russia?

I think a willingness to dialogue is important. There has been a difference between words and deeds when it comes to fulfilling the terms of the Minsk process. This so far has robbed the process of the credibility needed to succeed. Dialogue that ignores realities on the ground would be an illusory road to nowhere. To succeed it requires good faith by all parties involved. It is complicated by Russia’s implausible deniability of the extent of its engagement in this proxy hybrid war.

In particular, if Ukraine is the front line in the battle, Berlin and specifically Chancellor Merkel have become an EU front line in the diplomacy of defending your interests. She is in regular contact with Mr. Putin while her foreign minister, Mr. Steinmeir, is in regular contact with Mr. Lavrov. It is clear that both have become increasingly frustrated at the failure of the Minsk protocol to create the conditions that people hoped for and see intransigence on the part of President Putin as a root cause. Mrs. Merkel, absent progress, is determined to keep the sanctions in place in order to send a moral and political signal to Moscow that this behavior in Ukraine is not acceptable.

A willingness to dialogue but also to be firm on promoting and defending values strikes the right balance. Europe cannot afford to contemplate going back to an era where might is right and where the force of arms trumps the rule of law. It is the kind of balance of which I am in favor.

As a former journalist, how would you recommend to tackle Russian propaganda?

From the very beginning the propaganda campaign has been a big lie as regards Maidan – misrepresenting Maidan, as it has done, as a neo-Nazi conspiracy against the state, as hating Russians and hating Jews. This is a total travesty. The big lie as a technique was invented by Joseph Goebbels and widely used by the Nazis before and during WWII. The annexation of Crimea carries many echoes of Hitler’s annexation of German speaking co-ethnics in the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, in 1938.  In behavioral terms Putin’s self-serving hostile rhetoric about Maidan added to his conduct in the lightening speed annexation of Crimea is more reminiscent of Nazi tactics than anything that has taken place in Ukraine in the past twelve months.

What to do? I know that Ukraine has created a new ministry of information and that this has sparked an interesting political debate. I think that telling Ukraine’s side of the story is important, as is the need also to resist the temptation to counteract one fiction, the big lie, emanating from Moscow with an equal and opposite version from Kiev.

How to distinguish between so to say good information and bad propaganda?

Where the dividing line between good information and bad propaganda rests is a difficult judgment sometimes, but I know this about wars, that the first casualty in every war is the truth. I follow daily reports about the situation.  Day to day it is not possible at my distance from events on the ground to assess the accuracy of claims and counterclaims. However, if one follows events on a daily basis then patterns and trends emerge and these do not lie. Russia’s hybrid war in Donbas may be denied officially by Moscow but cannot be denied from abundant evidence on the ground.

I hope that the Ministry of information will tell Ukraine’s story, will tell the story of Maidan which is a story of individual dignity and of a society’s collective wish for a new direction. And there is the story of the war, not a civil war between Ukrainians but the product of Russian aggression within and against Ukraine. These are things worth telling and they should be told. For the rest, as remarked above, I hope Ukraine’s message will not lapse into ritualistic propaganda.

What do you think about the composition of the Verhovna Rada? Do you think it has the potential to provide the basis for the necessary reforms?

My first sentiment is one of optimism. This has been a very difficult and challenging time. Ukraine has successfully held two elections – Presidential and Verkhovna Rada elections – these in spite of the difficulties confronting the state. They clearly reflect the democratic will of the vast majority of the electorate. The Verkhovna Rada has produced a government supported by a parliamentary majority and one that can act. This is important because Ukraine needs institutional stability in order to confront its multiple crises. The new government program is lengthy and complex. To deliver on its promise will take enormous effort. It will not be an easy task to accomplish but it is a beginning, an important first step. I wish the Verkhovna Rada success, because its success, if it happens, will be the beginning of the success of a new Ukraine.

What is your impression of the governmental program and how do you think it should be implemented in the light of the situation in the eastern Ukraine?

This is a program that must be seen, accepted and respected as the product of the recently elected and legitimate government of Ukraine.

That the issue of national security and defense is the first item in the program is no surprise in the light of events in Eastern Ukraine. The country is facing an existential threat to its territorial integrity and to its sovereignty as a nation and so it is indispensible that security should be high on the list of priorities.

I note that a part of this program is dedicated to aligning the standards of the military equipment of Ukraine with NATO standards. That does not mean NATO membership but rather that Ukraine would develop modern platforms capable of absorbing standard NATO weapons and software systems.

I think that the amount of money that will be spent on defense and security, at 5% of national income, is a very high cost, especially when understood in the context of Ukraine’s significant macroeconomic crisis. This is a measure of the cost of the threat and insecurity of the crisis today. Most EU states spend a much lower share of national income this way, but these are not fighting an undeclared war for their very survival against an enemy within and from outside possessed of an overwhelming military advantage and capacity.

What about the economic and energy parts of the program?

As regards economic policy, I think that one part of the program – rooting out embedded and systemic corruption is absolutely vital. If the economy is to be freed from the past this is absolutely critical for success.

On the energy front there is increased emphasis on trying to secure what the program called energy independence. This is understandable. There is a reference to improving energy efficiency through better building regulation. This comes near the end of the priorities listed. Perhaps it should be higher on the list.

My observation, from having spent significant parts of several winters here in Ukraine, is that you suffer from energy overdosing, like a drug-addict, because of extraordinary energy inefficiency. This relates is to the design of buildings, the post-Soviet legacy of old style inefficient district heating, offices and apartments in many cases with no individual or thermostatic control over energy consumption and the absence of well insulated buildings up to modern standards.

One of the biggest ways to produce energy is to produce energy efficiency. To give an example, if you were to design new buildings in Ukraine or to refit existing buildings to the standard of the German Passivhaus Institute you could save up to 80% of the energy cost of heating such buildings. Imagine over time the saving that could be for a country like Ukraine. These standards exist and they are available free of charge to anyone who wishes to use them. This is a choice that Ukraine and Ukrainians can make for themselves which depends on no external power or influence, not on Mr. Putin, not on Russia, not on international energy prices.

Do you have any other issues of concerns with regard to the governmental program?

The state of the economy is a major concern. Rising prices, falling exchange rates, declining output and the additional costs of the war in the East add up to a serious challenge for the government and for its providers of external financial support.

The emphasis on reducing bureaucracy and trying to free the possibility for the small and medium enterprise sector is important. What the detail is remains to be seen.

Ukraine has enormous unrealized potential one measure of which I occasionally use as an illustration. I come from Ireland, an island that is far much smaller than Ukraine in size. The population of the Republic of Ireland at four and a quarter million people is less than one tenth of the population of Ukraine. Yet when one examines World Bank statistics Ireland has a bigger national income measured in US dollars than Ukraine. This to me is shocking.

What kind of explanation would you give to this situation?

That is not just about innate smartness of the respective populations. It is to do with systems and in particular high levels of corruption, the need to reform economic policy and incentives and disincentives. It is a whole package of things but this is not essentially about the quality of ordinary Ukrainians but rather about about the lack of quality of their governance and policy systems and structures.

Frankly, if the economy is to improve over time reforming structures and getting rid of the corruption that has held back Ukraine is vital. Curbing the opaque political role and influence of oligarchs needs to be part of this appetite for change. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union look at what happened in Poland as compared to Ukraine. As neighbors Poland and Ukraine started out from a broadly similar point of departure. Today the Polish income per head is nearly three times that of Ukraine, infant mortality today is much lower than in Ukraine and in Poland people live eight longer than in Ukraine on average.

Why is that?

Structures, systems and policies changed and new energies were released. This too can potentially be true for Ukraine. One cannot transfer the Polish nor the Irish experience to Ukraine, but what is evident, that when the right conditions are created for fundamental reform and change huge energy for self-advancement can be released.

Right now, however, Ukraine is fighting on many fronts, the war, the economy, the public finances and the currency. It is a very tough point of departure. It is not an easy challenge in any democracy but a word of caution as regards expectations – Rome was not build in a day.

What do you think about the lustration process in Ukraine?

Several eastern European states had lustration laws so it is not new. I think that wider civil society and the Verkhovna Rada are the places to debate this in a very transparent way. There are choices to be made in defining and applying such a law. Will it be evidence-led, proportional and based on a sense of fairness and justice in assessing individuals or will it be misused for the more base motivation of revenge and settling scores?

So your question regarding the lustration law is not just about the law itself but also about its implementation and the values and attitudes that accompany such implementation. Every time any law is abused as an act of revenge it diminishes the rule of law while conversely every time law is applied with integrity it enhances the rule of law. Due process and fair procedures matter. These have not been among Ukraine’s strongest features for too many years.

The Verkhovna Rada has a duty to hold the government, the executive, to account for the application of all laws including the lustration law. In this way society can take ownership of reform through transparency. The time for hidden hands manipulating public administration and the judicial system in dark corners and behind closed doors needs to cease. Maidan was a cri de coeur for fundamental change.

There is an unhappy history in Ukraine of changes of government being defined by changes of personnel but not of practices. The separation of powers between politics and the administration of justice is an essential reform. The law needs to be applied without fear, favor, malice or prejudice and to be seen to do so. Without an independent judiciary Ukraine will continue to struggle to liberate itself from the things that in the past have prevented a better future for your people.