On today's episode, we are joined by Serhiy Leshchenko — a distinguished Ukrainian politician, former investigative journalist and public figure — currently serving as a member of parliament.
Mr. Leshchenko is a member of the Verkhovna Rada’s Committee on Corruption Prevention and Counteraction.
While Leshchenko is a member of Block of Petro Poroshenko, he is also one of the loudest critiques of current Ukrainian president.
He was formally the Deputy Editor-in-Chief for the Ukrainska Pravda publication and is known for his work as an investigative journalist.
Leshchenko was the reporter who had starter to investigate Paul Manafort when he was still working for ex Ukrainian president Yanukovych.
In today’s episode we’ll be covering the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections, including President Petro Poroshenko’s position as incumbent, Tymoshenko’s maneuvers, and if comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has a real chance to beat both, as well the most actual issues of the current week - from the dismissal of acting health minister Ulana Suprun to the recent clashes between police and far-right.
You kind of went to the Parliament with the Petro Poroshenko Block. [Today] you're one of the most fierce critics of president's current policy.
Yeah, it's true.
But you're still in the parliament within his faction.
Because by the constitution I have no option to leave it. I have to stay in the political force I was elected by people.
That's why I think there’s parliamentary slavery in Ukraine, so it's called imperative mandate. It does not exist in most European countries, so this is [this] kind of not democratic Ukrainian political system, I believe.
So, Serhiy, we're now in this kind of a cycle of programs, because it's just seven [weeks] prior to the presidential election. They will take place on the 31st of March. Yesterday we had yet another President Poroshenko event. A couple of weeks ago he announced that he would run, then he declared his program - there were a lot of people. What would you say at this position? You've been very critical of the president for the last two years - speaking at a lot of international events, speaking in front of the international audience. At the same time, then when I talk to western partners analysts, it looks like the choice is still between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, and Poroshenko still looks like the least evil. What would you say on that?
I think it's simplification and quite possibly it will be a mistake of the Western establishment to make such choice, because by turning a blind eye on violations of law, on bribing voters, on corruption, they just escalate these worst examples of political system in Ukraine. Secondly, it's quite possible that Poroshenko can lose the election and they will be pushed by the situation to restore relations with the winner of campaign. And there are two possible candidates who can win the elections, even more maybe. But for today, it's Yulia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy... And if the West puts all bets on Poroshenko's side, it means that after the elections there can be stupid situations as it happened many times before. And the European and American governments made very, let's say, arrogant positions toward Ukrainian independence in the 1990s. You remember the "Chicken Kyiv" speech of President George Bush senior at the Parliament of Ukraine, when he argued for Ukrainians to stay in the Soviet Union. Also, when Ukrainian President Yanukovych was represented in Europe and in the U.S. by a number of lobbyists, establishments of these countries decided to accept what he was doing almost until the end of his presence in power. And I think it's a typical mistake, which our friends abroad make with Ukrainian politics.
So I will ask you the same questions, which I usually ask because since, for instance, in autumn they're more or less the same, especially about Tymoshenko. That, for instance, Yulia Tymoshenko is very known in the West, still people are concerned about -- I know you're not speaking...we had her team speaking here and critics -- they would say that...there is this trick: we have a war with Russia, and what if Yulia Tymoshenko makes a deal with Vladimir Putin?
Poroshenko makes this deal every day. He has a direct representative of Putin in his closest inner circle called Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the worst examples of the political, let's say, zoo, in Ukraine. He's a political animal and he's a member of Putin family and he's a member of Poroshenko's team. They have conspiracy. And if you look at what the state's secret service made for Medvedchuk: they helped him take control over property of Rosneft in Ukraine, to have more than 40% in Ukraine's inner market of LPG -- liquid petrol gas -- which is used a lot by Ukrainian citizens. And the property of Transneft Russian state monopoly was also acquired by Medvedchuk with...not just the permission, but the support of Poroshenko a few years ago. So Medvedchuk is a very close partner and an ally of the current president.
What would you say...
And what we see with Poroshenko now, we just have a deadlock in everything. He's not the person to make Ukraine progress in the relations with the occupied territories. We have a deadlock situation, nothing's going on. Is it the best option for Ukrainian citizens, for Europe, for the West? I don't think so. This is just the President of status quo: to do nothing and to sell his position as the best one. I think it's not the best one.
So another hope of the Western partners was that you will have this new generation coming. But it's already been four years, you kind of already have the fourth year of your term in the Parliament. There were a lot of talks that, for instance, [rock singer] Svyatoslav Vakarchuk would run as a representative of these new forces.... [And] that you or the people you work with, like Svitlana Zalishchuk or Mustafa Nayyem, would probably support him. But that didn't happen, so in the end we're coming, you're coming to the elections. Of course, there are a lot of people you may criticize. But what would you say: why is there still no such political force so far? Why you didn't manage to get to the..
In the presidential elections, there is no candidate representing the new generation. But for parliamentary elections, I believe, a number of parties will represent this generation of young politicians.
Why, why was it impossible for the presidential election? At least like to have the voice.
In the presidential elections the main asset of a candidate is their recognition within the society. If you're recognized by the society, you have a starting chance of running. If you're not recognized by the society, if you have less than 60-70%, there is almost no point to run. That is why the favorites of campaign, they are the people with 100% recognition. That is why the young generation, nobody from the young generation has such recognition from...I'm taking about members of the parliament. If we talk about Svyatoslav Vakarchuk -- he decided not to run. It is his right to make such choice. In some sense, supporters of Vakarchuk will partly support [comedian-turned-presidential candidate] Volodymyr Zelenskiy. And this is another surprise of the Ukrainian elections, this is another signal for our international audience not to be arrogant and not to be biased toward other candidates, not only [think] about Petro Poroshenko. In this sense, I advise you to read a very sharp article by Brian Bonner, Editor-in-chief of English-language newspaper Kyiv Post published a few days ago about the wrong approach of Americans, the American Embassy and the American chamber of commerce toward Petro Poroshenko. It's a very smart article.
Serhiy, there is a photo of you where you were invited to a meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. And we see this arrogance from a lot of, let's say, people from the civil society towards Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a comedian, as a puppet of [oligarch Ihor] Kolomoyskiy, as somebody who is not very serious, especially during the time of the war. I know you don't represent him, still, what's your opinion? Can you explain a bit what was the environment of that meeting? What were you talking about?
There was a number of civil society activists, anti-corruption watchdog people trying to push anti-corruption agenda forward. And for us, it's important to engage as many candidates as possible in this agenda. It's very important for as many as possible of them to back this agenda. And we visited a number of candidates. I was not...
So it was your idea?
It was the idea of the civil society but I totally support it. And I was not just at the meeting with Zelenskiy, but at the meeting with [presidential candidate Anatoliy] Hrytsenko, for instance. As you know, the group of activists also visited other campaign leaders, so that is why I... It's not about Zelenskiy. I think the main problem, not a problem, but why this hype about Zelenskiy was because nobody considered him seriously. But this guy has a number one rating in Ukraine for elections now, and it means that quite possibly he [will] represent a big group of voters in Parliament in autumn of this year or maybe he will be in the second round. So his voice is important for the society. It's very important for us to keep him engaged in our agenda, to push our agenda forward using his recognition, his support in society, to have him as an agent of our values, which is important for Ukraine, which is important for public money, for public socials, for transparency of politics. And he totally supported it, he publicly sided with this anti-corruption agenda which is, believe me, works in the interests of the whole society.
Can you tell a bit more about that meeting? Because, of course, everybody knows Zelenskiy in Ukraine as an actor...
You're not interested in the meeting with Hrytsenko where I was also present?
No, I'll ask, I just have to finish. I will definitely ask about Hrytsenko and your position on him. It's just curious that you had a chance to talk to him already after he had announced that he will run. Did he answer your questions? What were your questions to him?
Our position on this meeting was not to ask questions but to propose him to sign our contract and he signed it. So we are not considering him like... it wasn't a press-conference to ask him about something. It's a political dialogue, a political conversation to engage very popular politicians or candidates or possible leaders of political factions in the next Parliament in our agenda, to protect institutions, to protect achievements that we have now -- not really 100% impressive but quite good, let's say it this way. So we have something to present, to achieve. Our parliament voted and I was co-sponsor in a number of legislations. And we want to protect these achievements and we want to engage as much as possible of political spectrum in this agenda. And we had this conversation and he supported that the independence of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) is crucial, he supported the replacement of the special anti-corruption prosecutor who was involved in conspiracy with corrupt individuals, he supports independence of Supreme Anti-corruption Court, he supports cleaning secret service from corrupt people [that are] raiding and racketeering business. So these are really important things and if he starts to be agent of these values, it's also important. We understand that we use each other. He does not really need advertisement because he's well-known in Ukraine and he has very high support within public, in civil and online platforms, social media. But maybe he needs somebody to see and to sit down and have a conversation. We also need support in political establishment, that is why we visited not only him but other candidates as well. But only this meeting with Zelenskiy had this big, let's say, hype in the Internet, because, I think, because not all of the people really understand reality. Reality is that he is number one and he will be very possibly popular not just as a candidate for presidency, but also a leader of political group. And there is still chance he can win elections, we cannot exclude even this.