On today’s Sunday Show we are joined by independent journalist and co-founder of the Daleko-Blisko collective Sébastien Gobert, as well as Politico’s Chief Brussels correspondent David M. Herszenhorn.
We’ll be discussing some of the biggest stories from Ukraine this week, including the mounting diplomatic tensions between Ukraine and Hungary, Ukraine’s new presidential hopefuls, the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from European countries and the investigation into Skripal suspect Anatoliy Chepiga’s links to the fugitive ex-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych.
We also take a look at the latest from the Ukrainian parliament with the controversial new language law and the extension of the law on the special status of Donbas.
Nataliya Gumenyuk (NG): I think a lot of people here are not really following what is happening with the EU, with the elections for the European parliament next year. And, I've also heard that the politicians are already so preoccupied with the upcoming race that Ukraine is definitely not that much...
David M. Herszenhorn (DH): Well, remember – you're absolutely right – it's not just the EU elections, which will be in May of next year, but the campaign season is already beginning. But remember: Brexit, the departure of the U.K. from the EU. The deadline for that is March 29, so two days before the Ukrainian election. So, we'll have to see. Does that mean that Brexit will be done, and maybe the EU will focus entirely on watching the votes being counted here in Ukraine, or, will there be so much chaos and confusion around Brexit, right up at that last minute, that it might obscure the story to some degree. But, certainly there are many distractions and it's important for us, as journalists, to remind them there is a very important presidential race happening here.
NG: Another topic from this week is the fact that the Ukrainian parliament has voted to prolong this law, which the west refers to as "special status of Donbas" law, it's about the way people should vote on that territory. Yet, it was overshadowed by another law in support of the Ukrainian language. However, still, despite the battles, I think the president really pushed for that law. I feel like it was welcomed. It's not really supported here, but it's welcomed in the West.
DH: Certainly it's welcome in the sense that it's viewed as essential to the Minsk process. But I'll say first a word about the language law. For journalists, this is very sensitive because we use language, not for political reasons, but to be understood. And I live right now in Brussels, in Belgium, where there are three official languages: German, French and Flemish also, and you hope that people will be able to speak the language they want to speak, to be understood without this causing wars and conflict, and all kinds of craziness. Now, on the special status: it was essential for the Minsk process. The bigger question is, of course, what about the Minsk process, which is paralyzed. We heard news out of even Germany this past week that this is not going anywhere...
The Rada may be the most interesting parliament on Earth to cover because there is always something exciting. I was always interested to be there in the Rada, somebody yelling, screaming, passing flowers, punching...
NG: It's good to have a journalist speaking from Lviv, I expect you know better about what is going on. Obviously, one of the issues to discuss, especially in the context of another law, which had been adapted in the first draft regarding the general support of the Ukrainian language. Earlier, there was this moratorium on Russian-language cultural products in Lviv and the Lviv region. There has been criticism for that, there were different opinions in Lviv, you know better. So how is it going? Is it really enforced? How would this work? What are people saying?
Sébastien Gobert (SG): No, that's the thing, that, actually, it's not really enforced and most people here in Lviv consider it as a very useless, populistic move because what the regional council has decided is to ban all kinds of cultural products in Russian, so books, movies, songs, and so, but, of course, this is extremely hard to enforce and so, the radio still plays Russian songs, you can still find Russian books. In the bookstore Ye, for example, they haven’t heard about anything prohibiting the sale of Russian books. So this is seen here as just one populistic move that stirs up tensions and aims at positioning some political personalities ahead of the elections in 2019. That's basically about it.
NG: Was this law particularly focused not only on Russian language products but on individuals who are involved in anti-Ukrainian activities? Have you managed to talk to the police or anybody to understand how it might work?
SG: Yeah, I talked to some people mostly. I haven't had an official interview but I talked to people on the street, I went to see some policemen on the street, I went to see some people working at the bookstore Ye, and either they haven't heard of it, or they have absolutely no idea how it would work. Can you imagine, there are many Russian-speaking people, who actually live in the region on Lviv, but also many tourists who come to visit in the region and they come with books, movies on their laptops, or books in their luggage, and this is not possible to enforce. So what the regional council has done is to call on the regional councils and the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv to actually extend the prohibition to the rest of the country. But for now we don't see any sign of that happening.
NG: Sebastien, I'm talking to you as someone who has been in Ukraine for a while, and knowing not really just from the press, how big is the language issue in Ukraine. So how do you put this particular act into the general context? Because, obviously, internationally, there are always more interest with anything connected to the Russian language than inside the country.
SG: Yes, it's really part of the political agitation that we see now. You see that anywhere there is something very specific with western Ukraine when it comes to language, when it comes to protecting the Ukrainian language and also some kind of distrust toward the Russian cultural spheres, sometimes Russophobia, we know that last year or 2016, the city council of Khmelnytskiy, which is also in western Ukraine has banned the teaching of the Russian language from all public schools. So there is really something connected to western Ukraine, but, as we know, this is a political instrumentalization of an issue that most people on the street don't really care about. We may draw a parallel here to what is happening also with Hungarian community and with the other minority languages in western Ukraine: Romanian, Hungarian, Polish. And there is something very specific to western Ukraine, which is part of this trend in Ukraine to assert the Ukrainian language, to assert some kind of Ukrainian identity, but it's very hard to say what kind of consequences it's going to have in the future.
NG: Before we go to these other issues like the Hungarian minority, you are in Lviv and, this week, the Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi announced officially that he will run in the presidential elections. He was a really strong candidate, he had been considered a strong candidate a couple of years ago, but we know that, more or less, nationally his image was really destroyed on the issue of incapability to deal with the garbage in Lviv, which has been confirmed by many journalists that there was a lot of play from the government to make him look bad. And of course, his party is also aiming for parliament. But how does it feel? You also follow the story, so how are people feeling also about Sadovyi as the mayor? And how do you see this particular story about him running?
SG: Andriy Sadovyi has been in office for over 10 years now and people are kind of getting tired of him here. He was re-elected back in 2015, but, as far as I could tell back then, it wasn't a very strong popular support, it was also because of a lack of alternative. People understand that Andriy Sadovyi is a good manager of the city, but he hasn't developed any kind of long-term strategy for the city. So, Lviv is a place in western Ukraine, very touristically attractive and so on, that basically it's kind of doable to manage and to develop some kind of strategy planning. But Andriy Sadovyi has not managed to do that, so he's just surfing on the wave of Lviv being close to the Polish border and being attractive to tourists. And the inhabitants here, the residents of Lviv, they actually know that, and so he has lost a lot of credit, he has lost a lot of trust of the inhabitants over the past few years. And when it comes to his projection on the national level, no one really takes it seriously because, as you said, he used to be considered as a strong contender for the presidency back in 2014 -2015, but this has gone. He has made many strategic mistakes, he didn't step up when he had to step up and now his candidacy is seen as just something like a last hope.
NG: And another candidate which has popped up is another person who you, as a journalist, reported about. Michel Tereshchenko, who has moved from France to eastern Ukraine, to the town of Hlukhiv, which is not very well known but it is historic. And there are also debates because he was extremely popular, there were numbers of stories in the international media about him and today, you hear more today that we don't how successful he was, is he really just this Facebook character, what do you think? A lot of people are even excusing him of populism because he is really supported by part of the Ukrainian Facebook. But how else do you see it, as a French reporter in Ukraine, who has really looked at the story of this man?
SG: I have met him several times, I even went to see his town in the northeast of Ukraine. I wouldn't say that he is a Facebook character, he is a very, very concrete, very real character, he is very sincere. I think he is very honest in his patriotism and a very unique trait in Ukrainian politics is that he is really not corrupt. He is the kind of guy who would actually ask for someone to give him a bribe so he could refuse it. He's that not corrupt. The problem with Michel Tereshchenko is that, now that he ha launched his campaign and announced his candidacy to presidency, he still doesn't have a team, he still doesn't have financing and his still doesn't have a very precise program. So, we understand that his idea and his motivation is to fight against corruption in Ukraine, but, being a president actually means tackling a whole set of different issues, negotiating gas contracts, reintegrating Donbas, thinking about pension reform, and so on. And this is something that he still has to work on. So I would give him some kind of credit for the next few weeks to see how his campaign unfolds and how he really wants to convince Ukrainian people outside of Kyiv, and outside of Hlukhiv, to follow him, but, it's true that his candidacy is really raising a lot of questions.
NG: Another story you were working on, it's just about this week, but it's developing, is the story about the Hungarian passports given to Ukrainians in Berehove in the Zakarpattya region of Ukraine, where we have a strong Hungarian minority. Of course, it's very much connected to the inner politics of Budapest, which you are also aware. There was a bit of a fight, let's say, between the foreign ministers, the Ukrainian and the Hungarian, it's about the Hungarian consulate in Berehove, but as well about the Ukrainian consul in Hungary. A lot of people are looking at that as another separatist case, but to what extent do you see on the ground from your usual reporting, I mean over some period of time, that the more inner Hungarian story and the Ukrainian story, where are the things we have look at?
SG: Look, to me, this is really a political case and political instrumentalization again, because you mentioned that it's part of the inner politics of Budapest, but it's also part of the inner politics of Kyiv. The passport policy of Budapest has been on for many years. Orban came to power in 2010 and even before that, there was this policy to issue passports and to grant citizenship to Hungarians living abroad. So why is this issue being raised now? Why did this video of Ukrainians citizens receiving instructions on how to behave at the border and which passport to show and so on, why did it show up now? It seems to me that this is something that is also very much connected to the presidential election. It's also very much connected to Orban being a personal friend of Vladimir Putin and so, instead of tackling the issue of double citizenship in Ukraine overall, which would include the Romanians, which include the Russians, which would include, I don't know, even the Greek minority, they all have several passports connected to their ancestry and connected to ethnicity. But why the Hungarians? It's very much connected to the relationship that Orban has with Putin and with the fact that the authorities in Kyiv really want to assert themselves as protectors of the sovereignty, protector of independence, and how to do that? Well the Hungarian case is kind of an easy one. I went to report quite many times in Zakarpattya and produced quite a lot of reports on the situation with this community. It's true that they live very much aside from the rest of Ukraine. They have their own timezone, many Hungarians don't really speak Ukrainian or even Russian for that matter, but the thing is that the coexistence, the cohabitation of Hungarians, Ukrainians, Romanians in Zakarpattya is very, very [inaudible] and so this issue is very much a political one. One last thing that I may say is that you have to consider the region of Zakarpattya as something like a dead end of Ukraine. There is no industry, there is no economic activity and most of the one million residents make a living from cross-border trade, and sometimes contraband. And, for that purpose, many of them several passports, so attacking this issues of Ukrainian citizens holding several passports, making it a case of separatism, a case of disloyalty and so on, it's first and foremost attacking their way of life and attacking the fundamentals of the economic activities in this region. And this is something that, of course, the population is going to react to.
NG: So we've discussed Ukrainian-Hungarian relations, there are a lot of talks between the foreign ministers of both countries, but we also understand that there is something not unusual in terms of Budapest politics. How is it seen in Brussels? How can we discuss Hungary knowing its unusual role in the EU?
DH: It's a very tough subject for the EU right now because Viktor Orban has declared himself as the champion of illiberal democracy, and of course, the EU views itself as liberal democracy. He's declared himself the champion of Christian Europe, and of course, the EU wants a plural Europe, where all religions are treated equally. So there's been a lot of controversy. The European parliament recently voted by a large number to start a disciplinary proceeding against Hungary for violating some of the basic requirements of the EU treaties. This is a very tough issue right now in Brussels and for Hungary. There is also a concern about NATO. In Brussels, they worry about Hungary's close ties, continuing close ties to Russia. And in here is also a lesson for Ukraine, which is that moving toward the EU, moving toward NATO is not the end in of itself. There are issues that continue after that and they don't know what to do with Orban. His party, the European People's Party, was thinking of kicking him out, they've said no, they have to wait and see how this judicial process unfolds. Right now, we see Poland also struggling with the EU and it seems Hungary and Poland will protect themselves, each one the other, because you need a unanimous vote in order to take any action against these countries.
NG: Another story from this week, and every week we seem to have something connected to this story, is the investigation of the [attempted] assassination of Russian spy Sergei Skripal. So this week there was more news on the fact that, first of all, the Netherlands said that there were more Russian officers, intelligence officers, who wanted to either steal data from the investigation into MH17, also they were close to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. There's also a new book, published just this Thursday, by a British journalist, the only one who met Skripal last summer, there's a few more details on the way the GRU works. How big is this story? It's also dominating the information space here, but what do you think, in particular in terms of the European Union?
DH: This story is big and getting bigger. We saw a remarkable situation where there were joint statements issued in the past week about the GRU cyber attack from Washington, from London, from The Hague, from Brussels. So many countries in the west coming together and issuing statements. And, of course, we saw after Skripal was poisoned, an unprecedented coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by western countries. I think that this will end up being a turning-point. We still don't know exactly why Russia chose to go after Skripal in the moment that it did, but I think we'll look back and see this as a moment when the west really woke up to a problem with Russian intelligence operations in the west. Of course, we're not naive, we know there are western intelligence operations that go on in Russia, but we don't see these kinds of brazen assassination attempts, or even killings in the case of Litvinenko. So I think you'll see that this is a moment, and this is part of the result of that, where western countries are much more attuned to the danger, to the threat, and are speaking out much more quickly than they have in the past, not keeping it quiet thinking it's something to work on confidentially, but rather immediately going to a response.
NG: You were the New York Times correspondent posted in Moscow during the time of the annexation of Crimea, the Maidan revolution, which, I would say, are still the most interesting times. Looking at that, now being in Brussels and also following what the Russian media do, how do you see the case? For us, there is nothing new. We understand that there are way more people like that operating in Ukraine, maybe even less candidly. We found out this week, and we've been trying to back it up with more data, that this guy Boshirov, or Chepiga, could possibly be the one who evacuated ex-president Yanukovych from Crimea during the annexation. We got this from the Russian journalist Kanev, and with the result of the story we know that Yanukovych's bodyguards are also ready to give a testimony in court. Yet still, where does this come in the context of all of Russia's activities, not just in the west?
DH: One of hardest things back in the days of covering Maidan, when so many dramatic events were happening, was to be asked by Ukrainians: what do Americans think about what's happening here? And I would feel so terrible to have to tell them they really don't think about what's going on here, that it was not on the radar. But that's changed. Now they've seen Russian fake news, Russian meddling, interfering, in the US election. They've seen how Russian fake news can lead to protests on the streets in Germany, and this has now become a western problem as much as a Ukrainian problem. And so I think you have a whole different attitude now, at this point, to the recognition that this is a serious issue, that any of this kind of interference in democracy, in elections, in the presentation of news and information that becomes fake, that sends people to violence, that this is a problem for everyone and that there needs to be more response.
NG: For me, what's interesting is that before it was like: "Oh, that's what the Kremlin does in its own backyard." Obviously there are some Russian intelligence people, but it's very interesting to follow that they are often the same people who are acting in the west. but what else should we follow?
DH: Well, we have to keep an eye on the fact that this is a very new context with Donald Trump in the White House. And we don't have a clear sense of where he stands on Russia. He seems very soft on Russia, as we saw when he was in Helsinki with Putin, and yet, aspects of his administration, people in his administration, have been very tough, continuing sanctions. So we don't know. What is Putin up to right now? What are the goals here? The continuing Russian involvement in Syria, we know that Russia is reasserting itself on the world stage, and so what will this mean in the context where the transatlantic relationship is very, very tense right now. Europe and the United States are not seeing eye-to-eye, there's a trade dispute going on, but, more deeply, disagreement over values; on climate change, on the Iran nuclear deal. It's a very shaky moment, fragile moment, I think, for the entire geopolitical system. And this is factor that we can't know how this will all play together.
NG: To what extent is the US – apart from the sanctions, which were strengthened – also following the Skripal case?
DH: Well, we know that the intelligence services are working very closely and very carefully. There's a lot more attention now in Washington. For a while, it seemed that they'd entirely forgotten about Russia, while the focus was on terrorism in the Middle East, now I think there is much more renewed attention and the Skripal has been part of that. It's, sort of, woken up obviously the UK, MI6 is on top of it, the CIA is working hard on this. But again, what is the larger goal? Is this about an international operation that Putin has for his view of his country globally, or is there something going on domestically that he feels the need to sort of push back on the west harder? Sanctions, we know, are having a bite, but we're not sure how well those have succeeded. They certainly have not forced Russia to give back Crimea, to pull out of Donbas, so where is this headed? It's a really big question.
NG: Another story the Hromadske team is constantly drawing attention to is the condition of Oleg Sentsov, who is currently imprisoned in Labytnangi, almost in the North Pole, and this week he was forced to stop his hunger strike, which lasted up to 145 days, and, what we know from his lawyer and his cousin, he is really in critical condition, he was more or less told that he would be force-fed.
Even though he has stopped his hunger strike, it doesn't meant that things are OK because we have the case of the Soviet dissident Marchenko, who actually had to stop the hunger strike and died after. Oleg says that he was demanding the release of all political prisoners in Russia, we're speaking about up to 60 people, those who are connected to cases in Crimea, some of them are held in Russia, some in the territory of annexed Crimea. It looks like the west didn't make it to save him. I understand that it's not a top story, but still, a lot of people say at least his name was mentioned because of his actions, not because of anybody else.
DH: There's no question that he drew quite a significant global publicity and attention to his cause. The European Council President Donald Tusk personally issued a statement at one of the summits, I was there at the news conference, a very dramatic moment where he spoke of Oleg Sentsov. This is a moment when they're talking about the biggest politics on earth, and he reached out to point out a specific character, we know the PEN international writers' group has been extraordinary international advocacy on his behalf, trying to raise attention for his cause. I think that he may think that he failed his supports, but, I think, around the world, support of Sentsov feel that he's fought valiantly, and they continue to fight on his behalf.