The battle on the streets of Kiev has ended – and now Ukraine has no government, its president on the run, and the country balances on the brink of economical and social collapse, with some even warning of possible split and civil war. What will it take for the people of Ukraine to find the middle way between the warring sides? What role will Russia and the West play in formation of the new Ukraine? What future holds for one of the largest countries in Europe? To find this out, Sophie is joined today by Russian senator and a head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s Federation council, Mikhail Margelov.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Mikhail Margelov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s Federation council, it’s really great to have you in our program today.
Mikhail Margelov: Thank you for having me here.
SS: So many things going on in Ukraine right now, it’s talk all over the world. Now, in your view – what has taken place, is it a coup or revolution?
MM: Well, you know, as an arabist, as an orientalist, unfortunately I draw many parallels between what is happening in Ukraine with what is called Arab Spring. It started as a revolution; it started as a protest of people who were deceived by Mr. Yanukovych and his party, the Party of the Regions. Mr. Yanukovych and his party were advertising the agreement between the Ukraine and the EU for almost 2 years. They were promoting this idea, explaining that it is the best way of developing for Ukraine and Ukrainian people. And then, they turned in the opposite direction, overnight, and did not explain anything to the people of Ukraine. So, people were outraged, they went out to the streets, and again – the government, mr. Yanukovych were not able to talk to the people. So, after that, the peaceful protest was handed by the extremists, like it happened in Tunisia, for example, or like it happened in Egypt, when the revolutions were made y western-oriented people who were thinking about modernization of archaic societies, but as a result of the elections, the Islamist forces won. Here – the similar picture. It all started like a peaceful protest, and then, the extremists, the warlords, the field commanders appeared in Kiev. They started shooting, they started riots, they started real war in the streets of the European capital, and when I saw the pictures on the TV screen I was really shocked. It was not European capital, it was oriental capital.
SS: Why do you think that happened? I mean, for someone, like you’ve said, who’s drawing parallels – why do you think that happens, why do people come up peacefully, really want modernization and what you get in the end of the day is extremists taking over the rallies?
MM: Unfortunately, this is the logic and history of any revolution. In the February 1917, Russian Republic was the most democratic state at the European continent, but in October 1917, the Bolsheviks, the extremists of that time, took over and the civil war started.
SS: But what now? I mean, at this point, is Ukraine going to stay together, do you think it will split, maybe we will see self-governing regions, like in the United States?
MM: Well, last Saturday I visited Kharkov, the Congress of deputies of all levels of eastern-southern Ukraine and Crimea. Some journalists were calling this Congress “the Congress of separatists”… I would like to say that it was not true. I did not hear any separatist slogans there. I heard the words of responsible politician who cared about the territorial integrity of Ukraine, about the development of Ukraine, about the modernization of Ukraine, about eliminating the corruption from political life, and about the future of Ukraine as a unified state – maybe federal, maybe con-federal – I don’t know, and they did not know. But, they were hoping for unity and praying for unity.
SS: But do you feel like at this point the west of Ukraine will dictate what should happen in the east of the country, is the east losing its voice, or its pretty much the equal balance?
MM: The west of Ukraine sounds more loud today, and looks more active, more aggressive, because as we know, the overwhelming majority of the street-fighters in Kiev – they come from west Ukraine, of from central Ukraine. East Ukraine is more quiet, when I was driving along the streets of Kharkov, it was business as usual, I mean, it was a quiet city, the policemen were not carrying firearms, it was really quiet. But, it all changed: I came back to Moscow Sunday morning and UI heard the news that even in Kharkov the unrest has started. So, it looks like the domino effect going all around Ukraine and we see that there are demonstrations in Crimea, there are demonstrations in Sevastopol, there are demonstrations all around the country, and the temperature of political discussion between different political forces, between different political parties is extremely high.
SS: Also, I’m thinking about the security forces, because they are very discredited in front of the people, they were also betrayed by the government – will they in general be able to keep things in order in Ukraine?
MM: What I saw…I saw that, again, the policemen were not armed, and I know that the army is, let’s say, taking the position that is not involved in the political conflict, which to my mind is a wise position. When we talk about the security in Ukraine, there is another angle of looking at the Ukrainian security, not only from the point of security in the streets, or physical security of the citizens; also there is an angle of nuclear security – there are six nuclear power stations operating in Ukraine nowadays, there are 17 nuclear reactors, working in Ukraine, there are at least 2 or 3 thousand points of concern – I mean, chemical pollution, other issues… and no one from Ukrainian politicians is talking about that. No one, who positions him or herself as the current power says a word about nuclear security…
SS: Do you feel like it’s a real cause of concern?
MM: I do feel, because in January the protesters have already attacked the Energy Ministry, they have already the Zaporizhia nuclear power station, and we all remember that Chernobyl is in Ukraine…
SS: I do remember Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev actually say that the situation in Ukraine right now is a threat to Russia’s national security. Is that what he meant?
MM: This is one of the aspects, because when we ask questions about nuclear security, we do not have anybody who’s going to be giving us any responsible answers.
SS: Who’s going to be in charge right now of this aspect, of the nuclear plants?
MM: God knows! Because, we see that the new political generation, so to speak, which has come to power, they are more concerned about removing or demolishing of the statue of Kutuzov or the statue of the Soviet soldier – Ukrainian solider by the way – or the statue of Lenin, or Chekists… They are more concerned about the future of the Russian language in Ukraine, but they do not think about nuclear security.
SS: I do want to talk about the new generation – because ten years ago we saw the pro-western revolution, bringing the pro-western leader. Later on, people got disappointed and we saw huge leaning towards the east – now we are seeing a reversal of this process. Is this like a never-ending cycle?
MM: I am afraid that today we see a little bit different process from what we saw in 2004. It’s not a 100% pro-western movement, because the comments which we hear from the leaders of Ukrainian radicals – they sound like Ukrainian salafists, they say “Okay, Europe is not Europe which we are dreaming about, because the family values are undermined, the Christian values are undermined, the gay marriage is allowed” and blah-blah-blah and so on and so forth… It sounds like European Taliban, if one can exist.
SS: Also, I am wondering why are protesters still out on Maidan – what else they want, what are they protesting right now?
MM: That’s a good question. They are enjoying the process, to my mind, it’s the revolution for the sake of revolution, but not for the result of the revolution.
SS: But what’s going to happen now – I mean, in terms of who’s going to run the country? We saw Timoshenko come out of the prison, she was addressing the crowd – but is she really the one who can unify all these really different opposition forces?
MM: Well I think today Ukrainian political puzzle is one of the most difficult puzzles in the world. Yes, there is Ukrainian parliament, which adopts new legislation, but unfortunately this new adopted legislation is questionable, because its not signed by the president. The speaker of the parliament is considered to be an interim president, but again, there are certain questions – how does it coincide with the current Ukrainian Constitution, even the adopted version of 2004. To my mind we see today a very strange cocktail, a very strange mixture of different laws, of different legislations of different periods and it’s hard to say what is legal and what is illegal in Ukraine. Yes, we hope that Ukrainians will manage to organize democratic, transpartent, European-style elections on the 25th of May, and the new president, who will have much less authority than the previous president, Mr. Yanukovych – because the Constitution of 2004 will be in place – will have to eat all that borscht.
SS: Okay, but I want to hear your thoughts about Timoshenko – what do you think of her? Is she someone who can actually lead the country?
MM: Timoshenko wants to be involved, she was the banner of the opposition, she was the banner of the anti-Yanukovych protests when she was imprisoned, but now she’s out and she is on the same ground with the other leaders of the opposition who were on Maidan when she was imprisoned, and they’ll start asking each other difficult questions – who’s going to be the leader, who’s going take part in presidential elections, who’s going to take the responsibility for that transition period, because to my mind it will be one of the most difficult periods for Ukrainian economy and for Ukrainian people.
SS: But, I mean, to my understanding more than leaders between themselves, there are three main aspects – which is like, the people of Ukraine who don’t necessarily think that Timoshenko is the future of Ukraine, because they also associate her with the past…
MM: She has her history.
SS: Yes, she was branded by the West and at home as an oligarch puppet, so it’s not as if she was returning to be president from a clean slate and everything would be fine…
MM: And her best friend, Mr. Lazarenko, her business partner Mr. Lazarenko is imprisoned in the US by the way.
SS: Exactly, so what’s going to happen to that?
MM: That’s a good question. It seems like each and every Ukrainian political leader looks at elections as a commercial project, and it seems like people who come to power in Ukraine – they immediately think about their families first, and then about the people of Ukraine who elected them – that was the case with Yushchenko, that was the case with Yanukovych, who else?
SS: There’s also the aspect of West and Russia – the Western politicians are talking to Timoshenko right now and cutting deals as if she was the legitimate leader of Ukraine, which is not the case…
MM: We are kind of reserved today, we are trying to study the situation on the ground, that’s why, by the way, my colleagues from the state Duma are currently in Crimea, our delegation of Russian Senate goes to Ukraine on Wednesday to study the situation. We are sending fact-finding missions to work in the field, to talk to the people, not only to talk to the political leaders but also to talk to NGOs, to talk religious leaders. Ukraine is multi-national, multi-religious country, and you cannot solve the problems of the country only supporting the west of Ukraine or the east of Ukraine. There are Muslims, there are Tatars in Crimea, there are Russians, there are Azeri, there are Georgians – it’s a really colorful picture.
SS: But Timoshenko right now probably has the ambition to head multi-cultural Ukraine…
MM: She does.
SS: How does Russia view her right now?
MM: Well, we heard only very preliminary political statements of Yulia Timoshenko, she did not work out the presidential program yet, we do not know what is the team around Yulia Timoshenko… yes we are in contact with many politicians, with representatives of many political groups. We are just monitoring the process, we do not want to interfere, and we do not want to be blamed for the difficulties of Ukrainian political process.
SS: Does anyone know at all who the next candidate to head the country could be? Russians, Ukrainians – in your opinion?
MM: My opinion is that probably during this presidential campaign we shall see new faces, we shall see new potential leaders, probably representing the Ukrainian intellgencia or I don’t know…
SS: But not like the leaders that we saw during last…
MM: I am afraid that these people are more leaders of the past and the leaders of today, but Ukraine needs leader of the future.
SS: There are some radical groups that were also not very happy that the crisis was resolved or is being resolved – do you think they will continue to struggle for power?
MM: They do continue, as we know, even the car of Yulia Timoshenko and the car of Arseniy Yatsenyuk became targets of random search of these armed groups in Kiev. Yes, they want to be powerful, they want to be involved and as I’ve already said, they are enjoying the process.
SS: Do you think there is a chance they could come to power?
MM: Well, this is a question of how strong will be the interim president and the acting parliament.
SS: There’s also one nationalist opposition leader Oleg Tyahnybok, who is saying that all Russians will be stripped of citizenship…
MM: By the way he says the same words about the Jews. Not only about Russians, yeah, we are not the only target for Ukrainian nationalists.
SS: What happens if he really strips all Russians of citizenship?
MM: He will undermine the country, he will undermine the unity of the country, he will undermine the future of the country, because I’m sure neither Russians, nor Ukrainian Jews will be silent, neither Armenians or Ukrainian Georgians will be silent – because these people want to live in the country, and Ukraine is their country and – I heard that in Kharkov, at the Congress of the deputies – they position themselves as Ukrainian patriots, and they want to fight for their country and they will fight for their country.
SS: There are also some radical MPs in the parliamentwho have claimed that Russian armed forces are basically closing in on Crimea right now – are they trying to provoke confrontation?
MM: Our military are in Sevastopol, they are there according to the agreement that Russian legitimate power signed with Ukrainian legitimate power, and for us – we contain status-quo, nothing has changed.
SS: Are there any circumstances under which Russia will consider sending armed forces into Ukraine?
MM: I don’t think so.
SS: Are you worried about the future of Russia’s Black Sea navy base in the east Crimean peninsula?
MM: There are binding documents which we signed with Ukrainian government. We know that we’re going to withdraw our naval forces from Sevastopol at the certain point; we are preparing our naval base on the Russian territory, so I don’t think there is any kind of unpredictability of that part of our bilateral relations.
SS: There is common sight of EU and US politicians in the Ukrainian rallies- what’s that all about? What do they want there exactly?What’s their goal?
MM: Well their goal is to visible – like any politicians, they want to be visible, and they want be seen, they want to be heard, they want to be recognized.
SS: But, I mean, I know the Russia’s foreign minister has said that the West has geopolitical interests in Ukraine.
MM: It does, like Russia.
SS: What are their geopolitical interests?
MM: Well their geopolitical interest, to my mind,is very clear. Still, in the West, there are politicians with a Cold War mentality, and some people think that if they inspire anti-Russian forces in Ukraine or any other form of Soviet Republic, that will do good for, I don’t know, NATO, EU – and to my mind, it’s the biggest mistake. Being pro-western for a former Soviet Republic doesn’t automatically mean that they have to be anti-Russian. Russia’s main economic partner is the EU, and I think that for any former Soviet Republic the best way of development is having good relations with both the EU and the Russian Federation.
SS: But it did seem that at some point it was impossible – they had to choose whether they were with Russia or the EU…
MM: And I do not understand why, I really do not understand why, why Yanukovych and people around him were positioning the choice of Ukraine that it’s either with the EU or with Russia. Look, during the Cold War, Finland and Austria, for example, they were with the West, but they were not members of NATO, and they were with the Soviet Union in several aspects, and there are many examples from history when you can be friends with anybody, but not to become enemies.
SS: But see, the way it’s perceived in the West is that it’s not Yanukovych whodid make a choice, but it’s Putin who is pressuring Yanukovych and Ukraine…
MM: No. Come one, it was Yanukovych who made the choice, because he was responsible, he was the Ukrainian leader, and Yanukovych, again, he was bargaining for almost two years, playing that game of advertising the alliance of the EU and Ukraine, convincing the people of Ukraine that for them t’s the best way for development – and then he turned overnight, why? What was that frightening thing which Putin could show to Mr. Yanukovych?
SS: But what happens now, because Ukraine is on the verge of default. They need 8 billion dollars this year, they need 9 billion dollars next year, who is going to take care of that money? IMF? EU? Russia?
MM:Well there is only source, the financial G20 with IMF, there are several channels, like the European Bank of reconstruction and development and other international banks. I think that today it’s high time for pragmatic discussion about the future of Ukrainian economy because the future of Ukrainian economy has immediate impact on the political future of Ukraine.
SS: Russia already has sent 2 billion dollars to Ukraine – what happens to them?
MM: That’s a good question. I think when Mr. Yanukovych finally shows up, we shall ask that question.
SS: Well, no one really knows where he is, but since you keep bringing him up, what if he asks Russia for asylum?..
MM: I know for sure, he is not in Russia.
SS: So, Russia will under no circumstances give him asylum?
MM: Well, I know for sure that he is not in Russia.
SS: What if he asks for an asylum in Russia?
MM: I will not invite him to my home.
SS: But do you think Russia will accept him? In your humble opinion?
MM: Well, in my humble opinion, I think – no.
SS: Is Russia going to continue to give financial aid to Ukraine?
MM: We continue our ties, our relations with Ukraine, let’s say, in all spheres, we are not cutting anything. We called back our ambassador in Kiev for consultations because we really want to consult him and ask him what’s going on there…
SS: Whom to talk to.
MM: Whom to talk to, yeah… No, but our consulates are still in place, they are working in Kharkov, in Simferopol, in other cities of Ukraine, and – we are there, and we will be there.
SS: So as soon as the new government is formed, a legitimate government, Russia is going to continueto give financial aid to Ukraine?
MM: It takes two to tango.
SS:So you think they may not want it anymore?
MM: If we see a responsible partner, we shall talk to him. Or her.
SS: EU is now saying that they are ready to give 20 bln dollar to the new legitimate government of Ukraine – where were they before, during the previous government, why now?
MM: “To be ready” does not mean “to give”. They are ready, butthe question is – where is that legitimate government? To my mind EU is reconsidering its behavior prior to signing or non-signing that agreement of association between Ukraine and the EU, because we all remember that EU was standing firmly on the position that Timoshenko should be released first and then they are going to sign the agreement with Yanukovych. So, to my mind EU was putting more obstacles on the way of the alliance between Ukraine and the EU than Russia. And, okay, Yanukovych has disappeared, Timoshenko is free, there is no government, there is a revolutionary spirit overwhelming in the streets of Kiev – do you think that the European bank will be ready to give money in that circumstances? Of course not, they are waiting for the legitimate government, we – too.
SS: President Putin says that he will cooperate with any legitimate government in the Ukraine. Does that mean keeping gas prices unchanged?
MM: I don’t know because I’m not working for Gazprom, and these guys know the numbers much better than I do. What I know for sure is that for us there is no any other choice – we will work with any legitimate government of Ukraine, because no one can take geopolitical eraser and erase Ukraine and Russia from the globe.
SS: Thank you very much for this interesting interview.
MM: Thank you so much, indeed.