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Fact-Checking Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s “State of the Union”
13 September, 2017
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Ukraine’s MPs have returned to parliament after vacation. Earlier this week, President Petro Poroshenko gave his annual address before the legislature. What’s on the political agenda this season, and what can Ukrainians expect?

Hromadske spoke with Olena Shkarpova, editor and project leader at VoxCheck. Her organization fact-checked the President’s speech, and was largely impressed with his accuracy: “He was right on many things—many economic things.”  

Political scientist Olexiy Haran, a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and research director at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, was also pleased with the truthfulness of Poroshenko’s address, but worries about the promises the president made: “In general, the speech was good. The question is how to deliver it. Here we will face many difficulties.”

You’ve done this fact checking. The president wasn’t speaking about the plans but rather about what had been achieved by him. What is your take?

Olena Shkarpova: I would say that the speech was quite good and adequate, but actually the President speaks pretty well in terms of facts. When you try to fact-check, the facts are truthful. When you find some manipulations or some falsehoods then usually you pay very much attention to that because he cannot say anything unintentionally. I think he really understands what he says. In this speech, he was right on many things—many economic things. But when it comes to the Supreme Court procedures, when the judges are chosen to the Supreme Court, there was really high manipulation. I would say it was even false what he said.

He said that the society…the Commission or Council of Integrity—the activists who are following the process of choosing judges—he said that 80% agreed with this council.  But actually it was not true.  There were many things that this council didn’t agree with.  Which means that the President really manipulated in this field.  

So how have you read this speech, if we speak more like a political statement for the government priorities?  There was a lot about the financial support of the military, there was something about the EU successions. Can we understand what was from the government and from the president himself will do during the next political season?

Olexiy Haran: The short answer is yes, we can.  But first of all I would like to react to what my colleague said because I also checked the material you prepared by your organization and I actually found it very useful. Basically what you mentioned that was untrue or a manipulation is only one example. There is another example of some kind of manipulation but that’s it. All other points made by the President actually said that is true. And that’s very important for me because I am not an economist. Judging the economic things, I rely on what the economists said. For me it was a pleasant surprise that what the President said wasn’t manipulation but was the truth.

So imagine you are an MP, a Ukrainian citizen, or a foreign diplomat who would look to understand where the country is heading and where the most important person in the country...and understand that the president has a lot of power and influence moving his country, what are your thoughts?

Olexiy Haran: I would say that, frankly speaking, the perception of all these people would be different. Because if I am a foreign diplomat, I would say that this is quite a balanced speech.  It’s about achievements, but it’s also about problems.  And usually I would say that the estimation of western experts is more positive than our Ukrainian perception of what is going on here in the country because we feel all the difficulties. And experts are talking from a comparative point of view, comparing Ukraine to other transitional countries and economies.   From this perception, the country is moving.  It’s moving.  If few are talking about MPs, those MPs supporting the President and the Government they will say, ‘OK, everything is fine.’ While opposition deputies will say, ‘No, everything is wrong.’ And common citizens, I would say, mostly unfortunately distrust the authorities because they feel economic difficulties and we have economic difficulties, and we have macroeconomic stabilization but common people do not feel it. They need to feel it in their pockets.  So that’s why all these perceptions would be different. I, as a political scientist, would stick to the group number one, the expert community, which would say that the country is moving forward with all the zigzags and problems but nevertheless the trend is right.  

So Olena, that is exactly your job to say, the President was more or less boasting—that’s how I would read it—he was saying all the good things the government said, that the economy is growing and things are moving in the IT sphere, so there is a bit of progress. Olena, I understand you fact checked the text but if we are speaking about the general situation, or the positive assessment of the President of the situation of the economy, and your organization is also tracking the reforms…Is there any disproportion?

Olena Shkarpova: I want to say there is disproportion because the economy is moving forward and the Ukrainian economy is really recovering but very slowly, I would say. Nonetheless, there are many things to do. For example, in this political season, the parliament will have to vote for land reform, pension reform, healthcare reform—or at least they have to start discussing them. And this means these very sensitive things are not solved and the President hasn’t mentioned them, as I remember. And it’s really important to start moving forward in these fields.  

Olexiy Haran: Actually, he mentioned all these problems. He mentioned other problems as well regarding corruption, lifting MP’s immunity…

He hopes, at least, that the present parliament would make a decision for future MPs. So it would be possible to move forward here. So he was talking about that. But the problem is again how to reach all of these things, how to build a majority in the parliament in order to vote for this. What was important is that the President said he is not in favor of early elections and he will not let them happen. So basically this is a strong message and we understand that it’s not in the interest of the President or the Government to have early elections. Moreover I would say that this is not in our national interest because it would lead to destabilization, a kind of unstable situation. Also, opposition would definitely say differently. They would say, ‘Yes, we are in favor of pre-term elections.’   

Also there was an issue which was pretty important, about the e-declarations. I would listen first to what the president said.

President Poroshenko on E-Declarations:

“In July, I introduced a bill to abolish E-declarations for civic activists. I ask you to support it. I admit that these declarations were our collective mistake.”

That was the promise of the President. But is it the case? From what we understand, there is something else.

Olena Shkarpova: Yes there is something else and he missed a lot of important information in this case.  He offers to abolish the norm of declarations for anti-corruption activists but at the same time he didn’t say that the new bill makes for very strict financial reporting for these kinds of organizations. And as far as I know, the Human Rights Information Center, they are really against this future law. So it’s really a problem. And he didn’t mention it.

Olexiy Haran: The main thing here, because I belong to this category — if it doesn’t happen I must also submit a declaration like our MPs, which I do not consider to be just. So basically, what the President suggests is to cancel this norm, so I will not do that. But my organization and other organizations are to show it publicly. Basically it’s not a problem for organizations because we are doing this for our tax administration. So everything is known to our tax administration. There’s nothing new. But the problem would be to make it public. It would create some problems for these organizations.

What do you see as a priority as a citizen? What do you expect this autumn from the parliament, from the president? In particular from this speech, the war agenda, the economic agenda, anti-corruption agenda.

Olexiy Haran: In general, the speech was good. The question is how to deliver it. Here we will face many difficulties, I think some of the reforms would be adopted — we saw that the reform of the education law has been adopted, hopefully the pension reform would be adopted, which is not very popular, which would be a positive move. Regarding peace, I think the strategy here is right because we understand it would be almost impossible to see the military solution of the conflict so we rely mostly on diplomatic efforts. An in this regard, one of the things that is in question is the U.N. Peacekeepers, which actually would be helpful for Ukraine if it is implemented.

Olena Shkarpova: To be honest, I don’t think any reforms would be accepted, because I just see what the opposition is saying. Their rhetoric is getting worse and worse, regarding the reforms I mentioned. So their support is very low.  

We are all following what is happening on the Ukrainian-Polish border with Mr. Saakashvili crossing it and breaking into the Ukrainian territory. What can we expect from this? How important is this for Ukraine, and the political fight taking place?

Olexiy Haran: I think we can analyze the roots which are different than what happened. Basically, it looks like a huge provocation from Saakashvili and he doesn’t care about Ukraine. I think he cares only about his political ratings and unfortunately, he created this situation where Ukraine is losing, not those in power, not the authorities, but Ukraine itself. Because the question of when the border can be crossed by force, by a group of people including politicians, or persons who pretend to be Ukrainian politicians…

Olena Shkarpova: I agree. I think that Saakashvili is not thinking about Ukraine.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk