Donbas De-Occupation Plan Must Prioritize People, Not Politics – Ukrainian MP
16 July, 2017

This week, the Ukrainian parliament debated the so-called draft law on "de-occupying" the country's eastern Donbas region, which is currently under partial control of Russia-backed separatists.

The parliament will supposedly consider the bill in autumn.

Back in June, Hromadske obtained the draft of the Ukrainian government’s plan for Donbas after de-occupation. The draft does not contain transitional provisions as bills normally do. The draft law is the first document on the national level that formulates in writing that the Russian Federation is occupying Ukrainian territories. The bill also states that the President of Ukraine is empowered to make decision on the use of the Armed Forces and other military formations to deter and repel the armed aggression of the Russian Federation. The President could also decide to impose the martial law.

However, according to Ukrainian MP Alex Ryabchyn, this document was leaked for political gain, which is “the most dangerous thing.” Pointing to its unprofessional draft quality and untraceable origins, Ryabchyn says the leak is not an accurate reflection of the reality of the Ukrainian parliament's position on this issue. Furthermore, the leak was meant to stir a reaction among Ukraine’s international partners and Russia, and it succeeded.

Ryabchyn emphasizes that it is important to focus on policy that will aid Ukrainian national interest and abide by its constitution, rather than simply following the Minsk Accords. Above all, Ryabchyn says that Ukrainian lawmakers need to focus on winning the hearts and minds of those living in occupied territories: “This is the key solution to winning this war with Russia.”

Hromadske sat down with Ryabchyn, an MP from the Batkivshchyna Party who is originally from Donetsk, to discuss this issue.

I know you yourself have implied that it was difficult to get the text of the law, to get acquainted with this, we’d like to discuss the essence of the draft. First, why do you think it’s so hard to get?

Alex Ryabchyn: First of all, I would like to thank you for choosing the topic for this program. But my first remark will be regarding the definition, because in your introduction, you said about the draft law, about the bill, about the law. But I would call it a document. Because you say about the draft law, it’s one that’s registered in the parliament. We already have three laws on the so-called de-occupation of Donbas registered by our colleagues. That one which we are discussing right now, the document, the text that was leaked out in the media, it is not a draft of a law. It’s a, I don’t know, a project. It’s hard to debate about some concept, let’s say, about the document, but not about a draft law. This is a really big component, because what we have seen in the document and the document itself is non-professionally drafted ideas that are yet to be developed. And the question is, myself personally, my colleague Alyona Shkrum from the “Batkivshchyna” faction, some other colleagues who already dealt or registered that type of laws. They have an intention to join the working group, because this is a very serious issue.

But do they know who is in the working group?

Alex Ryabchyn: Yeah, we started to ask people who started to communicate from the, let’s say, from the presidential side, from the people’s front side, and other political parties that somehow formed a collation and communicate in this. And they said that you can’t not enter any working group. And I said, why? We would like to, for example, I, in a previous working group, representing the universities in exile, made a great impact trying to solve this issue, and we already solved it. The colleague of mine, Alyona Shkrum, for example, when studied in Cambridge, she studied in the…one of her professors is the current judge for the United Nations, in the case of Ukraine, and she knows international law. So we have a lot of great ideas, how to protect the national interest and we were stopped by our colleagues, by entering this working group.

And when we try to find where was the facility, where was the person who sits at the computer just doing the draft of the law, because it’s not the politician itself drafting the text. Politician give the idea and a lawyer or somebody is putting it on paper. Where is this roundtable? Where’s the discussion? People couldn’t find it. It was done so secretly. It was so closed. So we had a lot of questions. Whether it exists or is just a communication, and what we find out according to my understanding of the situation, this is not the gene of a text of a law that will be presented by the President, by the cabinet of minister, by the security council. So this is just like a test ball to receive some ideas, to receive some comments. This is the usual type of thing that current government or current authorities are doing. And I don’t think this is the best way to communicate with the people.

What can be most delicate issues that they tried to avoid by publishing or by leaking a document which is not actually a document if we take your words for what they are?

Alex Ryabchyn: The worst thing, and the most dangerous thing, is the political gain. Because the document itself should be the policy in process, but this is not a policy, it’s politics. It’s pure politics, and this is the thing that worries me the most. Because in this text you should unite, first, national interest, you should find the big compromise between the biggest political groups, factions that represent current parliament and the future parliament. Because we definitely know that in a couple of years there will another composition of the parliament. The current authority does not have a lot of support among the wide population, the latest poll said. So you need to agree on the national level what are the next steps. This is the first thing.

Second, you definitely need to agree this policy with our international partners that are backing up with the Russian war.

And third, maybe also for me, it is very important, is the people who lives in Donbas right now because it will be policy imposed on them, on their relationship with those who are on occupied territory right now. It should be the policy that’ll say to them and send the signal, what will be with job places, what will be their school, kindergarten places, what will be with the cities.

So it should be really professional, sophisticatedly drafted. For these purposes, it needs to be discussed. Unfortunately, we don’t have the discussion. We only have some speculation in the media. We have the Russian response, they say we hate what Ukrainians are doing. This is, I guess, the reaction that the current authority is trying to achieve. Play the game on Russia. Play the game on international community. Improve the political situation here, but not to do the policy.

Before we go to the question of international partners, I was really impressed by you mentioning the people who live in the occupied areas, because not so many politicians remember or mention those people. But what could you tell me and the Hromadske International viewers about how often such people are consulted at all? Maybe the fact that they have not be consulted about the supposed law is an exception or a rule of the authorities?

Alex Ryabchyn: We should differentiate people who live in this occupied territory who still carry the Ukrainian passport. So for myself, being a Ukrainian politician, they are Ukrainian citizens, and have the same rights as another one. And we go about, so-called authorities, or self-proclaimed people or puppet administrations. I don’t want to speak about this. I don’t want speak about them thinking that they have some power. What I care about is the people who are suffering there and their voices need to be heard. How can it be heard? This is really a problem for the authorities. But for example, what I’m doing, I’m dealing with the exiled universities. We have more 18 universities that fled from Crimea and Donbas, and they are now relocated into the government-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk, to Vinnitsa, to Kyiv. And they have professors, they have students, students have their families. Often they lie in occupied territories and for example, we adopted a law allowing these students, these scholars, school people who just graduated from school from Donetsk, occupied Luhansk to join the university in exile without all Ukrainian exam let’s say. If you were able to do to pass it, you could go to join Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odesa, people are doing this, even from occupied territories, but if you are not able to do this, because you have an emergency situation or some other.

You still can go to Ukraine and join Ukrainian universities. And several people called me, and texted me on Facebook, to say, this is the only thing the Ukrainian government did for us and thanks for this. We’ll stay here, but our children will have some future. And that’s the kind of signal that we are sending to them, so if you are willing to consult, you’ll do this. There are many mechanisms. But the governmental position is we are fighting for the territories, not for the hearts and minds of the people. And this is key solution to winning this war with Russia.

Alright, now to the international partners. When Hromadske was asking and searching for this document, we’d been told a couple of times, well actually more than a couple of times, that this supposed draft of law was aired to international partners and it got the approval/confirmation and things like that. However, when later our correspondents talked to international partners. It turned out that they had no idea about the document. You have quite a lot of international connections, what do you know about this international goings-on?

Alex Ryabchyn: Let me up it that way. I’m pretty sure that our authorities, those who made this document. They spoke with our international partners about the concept, not about the whole text, ideas. Our international partners did not have the translation. They had, for example, when they asked, we have five ideas, and we told about five idea that we’ll rearrange management, and procedure on military, so blah blah blah. So the concepts themselves, but how will the concept be implemented into law. I could also write and register a law saying blame Russia for everything. And it’ll receive the number, the title, and it will also have support. The mechanism of implementation of this would be unknown, it’ll just be fake, fake law. The concept was discussed, but sufficient enough.

For example, two weeks ago, was in Berlin, the Hegreberg Foundation, we discussed about the rule of area, we learned about the German experience about the restructuring of the mine industry which is also a very big problem for Ukraine right now. And had the opportunity to go to Chancellor Merkel’s office and to the ministry of foreign affairs, because they are two different branches led by two different political leaders, Chancellor Merkel and now, the representative of SDP, Social Democratic Party. And in both of these institutions, they were asking about this document. They heard about this, but they don’t know any of the details. And before coming to Berlin, I was in Luhansk area, I was in Donetsk area. We will have the election in the amalgamated community in October. And we are with Batkivshchyna faction that represents, speaking with the candidates, and I went to the local authorities saying, asking, do you know about any of the details, because there are a lot of rumours that Donetsk and Luhansk oblast will be merged into one.

There will be a different type of management, that there won’t be elections. People on the ground also heard a lot of rumours, but never heard about direct orders. This is not the right way to do policy in Ukraine, especially in these territories. We need to communicate more with the people, we need to communicate more with the people who are responsible to represent the Ukrainian state there, because we’re still fighting for the hearts and minds of these people, and they are all the time, trying to compare, how it used to be, what is it right now, whether the roads have been built, whether the shell hit windows are restored. So people, I think not only in Donetsk and Luhansk, but all over Ukraine trying to assess the professionality of the current authority. And unfortunately, it’s not the best, not the best example of how it used to be.

From what you know, Mr. Ryabchyn, how likely that the document, the concept, obviously I understand that we still don’t know the details, but will it agree or will it contradict the Minsk Agreements? Will it stand in the way of the Minsk Agreements?

Alex Ryabchyn: The thing that irritates me in this law is that it writes that everything will be done according to the Minsk Accord, agreement is the best way to represent this type of thing that was agreed in Minsk. But it’s never been said about the Constitution. In this law, it said that everything is up to the Minsk Accord. No, everything should be up to the Constitution of Ukraine. And by elevating the status of the Minsk Agreement and put it to the text of the law, it’s not the best way of protecting the national interest. Yes, in the first stage, the Minsk agreement helped to secure the situation in Ukraine, but it was a huge mistake to put security issues and political issues to one paper. And we see that it’s not working. Let’s imagine that if Minsk Accord led to the peaceful resolution to Donbas. We start to ceasefire, exchange of hostages. We return to normal life. Nobody will be sad about this, but this mistake will be done by authorities who signed it, who elevated it to the status, United Nations Council signed it also. It’s graduated to legal status, but to put it to the Ukrainian could be the biggest mistake we could do. We should do everything according to our constitution, not to put the Minsk Agreement to the status of law.

Mr. Ryabchyn, do you think it is right or wrong to write a draft law or a document concerning the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk region and not link it with the Crimean issue?

Alex Ryabchyn: It’s also a question mark for me. Because we also have three laws registered in the parliament which have been heavily discussed in the committee of the Verkhova Rada [Supreme Court, ed.]. And I have been to all of these discussions, there was like more than 100, 150 people representing different branches national power, international community, expert. And it was a professional discussion. These three laws is not yet perfect. I didn’t sign any of them, and personally did not support them. But some of colleagues fromBatkivshchyna supported them. But they were a lot things in them mentioning Crimea and this one I’ve never heard about mentioning Crimea. Although I saw 40% of the text consist of the same paragraph we saw in these three laws that’ve been registered. But they are not professionally drafted. I won’t go into the details, but definitely, there was an intention to remove anything mentioning Crimea in this document that was leaked out. I guess from the people who is chairing the security council, because people representing the President, diplomats are not very happy with the leakage, because they have different concepts. So we also have bad thing that the different branches of the government of Ukrainian authorities are having some kind of competition which version of the law would be better or would be politically acceptable for their voters. And this is the worst thing you can do with regard to solving this situation in Donbas.

And finally, as a lawmaker, would you try to explain to me as a citizen of Ukraine who’s interested in getting back those people and those territories, why do we need a special law at all?

Alex Ryabchyn: You know this is the situation, as you said at the very beginning, this is not a war, this is a so-called anti-terrorist operation. That this territory is not occupied, when we have clarity about the status of Crimea, that’s annexed. And everybody in the world understands it. And here we have the situation where we have some kind of instability, we have no clear definition. It is better to have the clear definition in order to help Ukraine to win. I wouldn’t say that I support, as I said, we need a law on the de-occupation, on occupation, on reintegration or anything else. In the law, it should be clear for people living in this territory what will be the future of them. It should be nationwide consensus over the cases of this law helping to protect our national interest. Because unfortunately, I’m a person from this territory and I’ve already, for some period of time I hope, I’ve lost my home, but I don’t want to lose my country. In regards to the international pressures that could be put on Ukraine from our Western partners, from the state who did aggression on our country, so we need, in order to have our international interest protected, we need to have a clear definition and a clear plan of what to do with this territory, how we will be re-integrating territories, how we will be re-integrating people. This would only be possible after the security norms will be implemented. First, we need to have control over our border. Second, we need to stop fire. We need to exchange prisoners. And then, we’ll see how we’ll re-integrate the territory and the people. And we will do this, definitely.

/Interview by Andriy Kulykov

/Text by Chen Ou Yang