On 7 July 2015, Chatham House hosted a launch of Ukraine Forum, a new platform focused on Ukraine’s domestic political situation and progress of reforms. The speakers were Nataliya Gumenyuk, journalist, Co-Founder and Head of Hromadske.tv, and Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, First Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada). The event was chaired by Robert Brinkley, British Ambassador to Ukraine (2002-2006), Chairman of the BEARR Trust, and Chairman of the Steering Committee of Ukraine Forum.
Klympush-Tsintsadze spoke about her experience as MP. In less than a year of work of the Verkhovna Rada elected in 2014, some of the initial illusions have dissolved. However, the speaker stressed that there still exists a core of parliamentarians devoted to social change. Legislative anti-corruption activities have been among the key issues discussed. De-oligarchisation, in particular in the context of the energy sector, and deregulation were mentioned as some of the ways of dealing with the current weakness of the Ukrainian economy. Other issues were related to the development of civil society, such as introduction of e-governance to allow citizens correspond with the government and thus be involved in reform processes. Law enforcement and police reform laws were also mentioned. In general, civil society in contemporary Ukraine is much more mature than after the ‘Orange revolution’ of 2004 that was a successful protest against electoral fraud; the authorities are also more open to the engaged dialogue now, underlined Klympush-Tsintsadze; at the same time, there is still no systemic way of producing results. The speaker also warned that populist and heated discussions occasionally happen in the Parliament, and may even increase in view of upcoming local elections in October 2015. While there are certain risks connected with divisive discourse, she still hoped that is would not damage the general unity, since ‘we’re together in the same boat named Ukraine, and we have no chance to lose it’.
Gumenyuk spoke about the current developments from a journalist’s point of view. Continuing the themes of political participation and civil society, she noted her appreciation of the young generation coming to the Parliament as a signifier of the civil society taking political responsibility and understanding the need to act not just in the form of street protest. There is not much naivety among the population about the reforms and their pace, though; this increases the risk of empowering populist moods, especially during the war. Regarding the conflict in the East of Ukraine, Gumenyuk admitted that the war for the hearts and minds of people in Donbas is an important issue that the civil society has to work on. This is more about people in the conflict-ridden territories being tired and frightened of war, than about ideological divisions; economic blockade by the government also problematises the situation. While there is a lot of volunteer help, stressed the speaker, there are also many politicians complaining about supporting the East and thus contributing to the rise of populism. State institutions do not have to be substituted by volunteer groups; rather, they need to be strengthened. Gumenyuk also mentioned the role of journalists as being a critical voice and safeguarding the reality, thus supporting the development of the civil society. Extending her view to the wider geographical region and other countries with breakaway territories, she concluded: if Ukraine fails to successfully implement reforms, then everybody else fails; if it succeeds, then there is a chance that everybody else succeeds.
Questions from the audience ensued. James Sherr from Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme asked what the West should and should not be doing to support Ukraine. Klympush-Tsintsadze noted that it is often more difficult in terms of foreign relations to talk to friends than to enemies, as exercising critical capacity might be difficult for the former. While appreciating the West’s generally supportive position, suggested that the commitment of the Western countries could go beyond expressing ‘deep concern’ and include more action. For example, a tougher stance on Budapest memorandum by Britain as one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was suggested. More active position in terms of economic support, such as credit provision and developing trade relations. Gumenyuk, in turn, underlined the importance of sharing knowledge and good practice by the West, and claimed that a Marshall Plan for Ukraine would be cheaper than lives of people lost in Donbas. Military training also matters, she asserted. As well, there is a need for careful understanding of the situation and debunking of the potentially polarising myths about a divided society. Klympush-Tsintsadze added to this that Putin underestimated the ability of Ukrainians to resist and die for their country.
While discussing the issue of controversial decommunisation laws recently adopted in Ukraine, Klympush-Tsintsadze spoke about Ukraine trying to get back to its roots and trying to work with its uneasy and controversial history. In this respect, she pointed out that one of the positive aspects of these laws was opening access to the archives. Toppling Lenin’s statues and outlawing communist and Soviet symbols is about getting rid of ‘Soviet mentality’, rather than reinforcing the divisions between Russia and Ukraine, claimed the speaker. Gumenyuk had a more critical opinion on the laws, however she admitted that such processes have been awaited by the community since 1991.
When asked about possible Putin’s agenda, Gumenyuk said that it was not about territorial gains, but rather about different kinds of destabilisation. At the current stage of its intervention in the Donbas region, Russia seeks to maintain a frozen military conflict that one could awake or revive at any time. It is also about demonstrating that it does not allow people to govern. As well, the situation has currently become more geopolitical, and Russia’s efforts are also focused on dividing Europe and enforcing ideas of revanchism. Russia’s communication with the West is based upon speaking with separate countries, instead of speaking, for instance, with the European Union as such. Klympush-Tsintsadze agreed with these assertions, stressing the importance of ‘divide and rule’ approach for Putin’s regime in the long run.
Speaking about decentralisation as a possible way to resolve the conflict, Klympush-Tsintsadze said that it is very expected by communities and regions of Ukraine who are eager to go through the process. The crucial issue here is to make sure that the community becomes the most important unit; the country should remain a unitary state and federalisation is not an option. Donbas and Crimea should have their own political voice, as other regions of the country; however, the occupation of the territories makes it problematic, since the situation is less about politics and more about military decisions.
Gumenyuk was critical about the speed of reforms, saying that they are being implemented slower than they should be. She noted the lack of institutional capacity in the country, and suggested that there should be a system of institutional reforms first; lack of people who can possibly implement changes was also mentioned as an issue.
As a media professional, she also spoke about information war. The speaker stressed that Russia’s participation is not limited to the media: it involves a complex of methods and resources, from public diplomacy to agents in the West and military intervention in Donbas. On the West’s part, increasing international news agencies interest and participation in the events in the East of Ukraine is needed: there are still few journalists covering the conflict on the ground. Supporting independent Russian-speaking media is another objective. She noted that participation in the information war can be difficult: even StopFake, the fact-checking initiative that has been rather successfully debunking propaganda since early 2014, struggles to find funding as a volunteer project.
Klympush-Tsintsadze also said that the speed of the reforms was too slow, and they still haven’t tackled civil service. On the lower levels of the state system, not so many people have been changed, and the system in general has been very self-preserving so far.
In general, the event provided a brief overview of Ukraine’s reform process, the progress that Kyiv has made, and the challenges that remain. While it was impossible not to mention the role of Russia or the West, a significant part of the discussion was devoted to Ukraine’s own development process, and this should set the agenda of Ukraine Forum as the newly launched platform.