Parliamentarian Lesya Orobets on the Myth of a Divided Ukraine
A rising star of the Ukranian opposition, parliamentarian Lesya Orobets sounds off about beating back the riot police and Yanukovych’s ‘geopolitical chess game.’
Ukraine Parliamentarian Lesya Orobets has not slept in days. Most nights, like her fellow opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, she is out on Maidan Square as both witness and participant in what is now a full-blown revolution. The “Euro Revolution,” as it has already been dubbed in contrast to its “Orange” predecessor nine years before. Yet it may not need this delineation. For a country that is in the midst of its fourth revolution since 1917, something very unique is happening—something unprecedented even for the Ukraine.
Protests first began in Kiev late on November 21st when Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych caved to Russian pressure (along with his own fears) and walked away from a trade deal with the EU that would eventually have led to European integration. Now, 25 days later, the crowd—fluctuating from tens to hundreds of thousands—has taken on a life of its own. You can watch the bustling revolution live via webcam, a city within a city. There is a strange intimacy to it—a lack of anger (when not provoked)—the birth of something else. There is no longer a protest in Kiev because the people standing out in subzero temperatures are no longer opposing the outcome of something which has occurred, they are constructing and assembling something which has not—something that has never been: a Ukraine that is both independent and free.
No one seems to understand or oppose this more than President Yanukovych. One of the many myths propagated in the press version of Euro-Revolution 2013 is that Yanukovych doesn’t understand what’s going on—that he has miscalculated his own people. The very opposite is true. The president’s actions since the start of the protests are the actions of a man who is desperate, afraid and quickly running out of options. He is well aware of the potential consequences. After all, this isn’t Yanukovych’s first revolution. The Ukrainian president knows exactly what he is doing. As one protestor in Kiev put it: “They attack only in the night, like beasts.”
This is not Lesya Orobets’ first revolution, either. She might be young for a parliamentarian at 31, but she is no naïve agitator. She has been a member of Ukraine’s Parliament since she was 25 years old and has made a career of fighting corruption to the extent that she began receiving death threats earlier this year. Then, in June, her husband fled the country because of alleged pressure from Yanukovych’s party.
In 2004, before being elected to parliament, Orobets served as a parliamentary assistant to her father, Yuriy Orobets, who was known for the rare Ukrainian political virtue of integrity—he fought against corruption and against election fraud. In 2006, he died in a mysterious car crash. In 2007, Lesya Orobets was elected to the Ukraine Parliament. In 2012 she was reelected and she is currently a member of the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party.
“This is not about the surname of the next president but the elections themselves being held, and the Ukrainian people having the right to choose to their own president,” Orobets explains. She is cordial but frank. She wastes no time. Even if she wasn’t a rising political star fighting in the midst of a revolution, she doesn’t seem to be the type to make small talk.
Recently the young MP has emerged as an influential opposition figure. Her composed acumen and parliamentary record of demanding reform and exposing rampant corruption at the highest echelons of government has certainly made waves in a political landscape where such corruption has become the norm.
Orobets spoke with me less than a day after riot police unsuccessfully launched a full-out assault on the protesters in Maidan Square, who had gathered in the -15 degree weather to demand the government’s resignation. One group of protestors occupying the City Hall, which has become a de facto command center for the opposition, used a high-pressure fire hose to hold off the charging riot police with cold water. The water quickly turned to ice, making their approach all the more difficult.
“Let me specify,” Orobets says. “First of all riot police were using against peaceful demonstrators gas and batons. They were trying to use force.”
When asked about the mood among the protestors after the previous night, Orobets explains, “First of all, the psychological effect. I mean we waited for that kind of victory for a long [time]… The bigger result is we do see that the world, particularly the U.S., Canada and Europe, have changed their position and have changed their mind about what’s going on in Ukraine—saying words like [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry [did] in his statement: that they do see the situation with disgust and they do not support the methods Yanukovych is using against his own people.”
More importantly, though, for Orobets is “the other big trend,” as she puts it. “They’ve started raising up the issue of personal sanctions. Before that, we spent three weeks trying to negotiate them—as we do see personal sanctions [and] bank account blocking and visa problems to be the only way out. As oligarchs are scared [of] such kind of sanctions and that will make them not support the bloody violent scenario which Yanukovych was trying to fulfill in this night [December 11].”
Like much of the world, Orobets was appalled and perplexed by Yanukovych’s decision to deploy riot police to forcefully remove the protestors while both EU Foreign Relations Chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were on the ground in Kiev. Nuland was reportedly handing out cakes and cookies to the freezing demonstrators. The blundering logic behind such a move indicates Yanukovych’s desperation and an emerging scenario where Yanukovych’s decisions are not those of a head of state but reactionary impulses of self-preservation. Of course he is also under pressure from Moscow, the current extent of which is unknown. Yanukovych himself may not even truly know. But lately every move has backfired on the Ukrainian President.
As for the Maidan protestors on December 11th, instead of retreating into panic and hypothermia, the crowd grew stronger and larger. The majority of the protestors did not respond to the authorities’ force with violence. Instead they prayed. They sang the Ukraine national anthem and they chanted. Powerful images have emerged: priests holding up crosses in the smoke, a calm grinning Vitali Klitschko towering above clusters of black helmets covered in snow, massive walls of pure ice and debris. One can tell the difference between the protestors and authorities, not by the protestors’ disarray but by the color of the helmets each side wears: orange colliding with black.
Within the opposition there are also hopeful signs of a growing trend of unity. For instance, when asked if Yanukovych will keep Tymoshenko in prison until 2015 to prevent her from participating in the presidential elections, Orobets says thoughtfully: “The truth is that if we have a united candidate for president from [the] opposition. He will be the winner of the presidential election no matter what his surname is. It is a matter of unity of opposition forces and NGO leaders to support one candidate. So definitely not only Tymoshenko but also Yatsenyuk and Klitschko have their good chances to become president in 2015. However this Maidan is not about the surname of this next president. This is more about whether there will be any kind of elections free and fair taking place in this country.”
Two weeks ago, the Ukrainian parliamentary opposition came up 40 votes short of securing a critical no-confidence vote that would have ousted the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, “whose Minister of Internal Affairs gave an order to use force against young people,” Orobets somberly explains. This leaves Orobets and the opposition with no legal options to force the cabinet’s resignation until February. “The only way out,” she continues, “is that the president adopts the decision that the government should step down… so Parliament has no option to do that as of now.”
As for why Yanukovych did not sign the EU Association Agreement, Orobets says, “What I can see from my own observations was that he never planned to sign it. He was playing a trick … Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement just because of his personal fear not to be reelected in 2015. This was his deepest fear. Yanukovych is afraid of elections and hiding under the economic crisis.”
Orobets believes that Yanukovych was also deliberately hiding behind the Tymoshenko case in order to avoid signing the agreement with the EU. “He was counting on [the fact] that not releasing Tymoshenko would make the Europeans not sign [the AA], so that it would be Europeans who refused and not him. But then the Europeans made a step saying that they will sign no matter what conditions were not fulfilled and [Yanukovych] panicked. Definitely there was an influence of Russia and a huge pressure but it wasn’t only about that. [It] was also about his miscalculation and his vision that Europeans will never support him to be reelected for 2015 as they see him as a symbol of human-rights violations and corruption…with [members of] his family taking astronomical [amounts] from the Ukrainian budget. So he felt he wouldn’t be reelected and that was one of the major reasons why he failed to sign it.”
Yanukovych, Orobets says, is playing the “old geopolitical chess game” with Russia. “Last week in Sochi, Yanukovych obviously initialed the strategic agreement with Russia, which is allegedly to be signed on the 17th of December of this year. This is not the participation in the Customs Union, however this will lead to no deal with Europe ever. So signing that agreement and ratifying it in the Parliament, as [Yanukovych] still has the majority in the Parliament, will lead to a situation where the Ukraine will be under the auspices of the Russian Federation for ages.”
She pauses and continues with a touch of pride now in her voice, “That is also the reason why people were so brave today standing all night on Maidan. They do understand the situation with Russia as well.”
This statement is hard to believe, taking into account the potential reaction of the protestors on December 17 and also considering Yanukovych’s adamant (and somewhat absurd) previous claims that nothing was signed or even discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet according to Orobets, “We have our sources in the administration saying that he planned his visit to Moscow on that day.” She explains that he will probably sign the document because he doesn’t have any options left. If Yanukovych doesn’t sign the AA, she says, then no creditors will be willing “to finance his budget gap… [he] has just a year left until the start of the presidential campaign so he has to be generous and spend more money on social security [than] he can afford right now. So he’s utterly trying to find those [funds] even putting [at] stake the actual independence and sovereignty of his state.”
When asked about probable outcomes for the situation which she has described—one where a president is desperate for funding, torn between Russia and the EU, with thousands protesting in the streets and an agreement with Russia possibly already on the table for December 17—Orobets provides both a positive and a negative scenario.
In the best of worlds, “The Western civilized world would not just feed us up with some neutral statements but actually start the procedure of imposing personal sanctions—not only formally but, I mean, informally as well, which will lead [to] the oligarchs putting their guns down and stopping supporting Yanukovych and finally he will have to leave his office. And probably somewhere in February or March we will end up with a free election of the parliament and a free election of the president which will mean generally a new start of the project called ‘Ukraine’ and probably somewhere in the spring the signature of the EU AA.”
However, she and the other protestors know that a much different future could occur if the West fails to impose personal sanctions or loses interest in Ukraine’s fate. “Then we see the bill of Russia scenario [where] all the active NGO leaders as well as political opposition and free media will be either put into jail or disappear or have to leave the country for political reasons and there will be no one to continue resistance as no one will want to go to jail. So the bill of Russia scenario will mean that Yanukovych will join the club of eternal dictators and Ukraine will continue to be very dependent on Russian money. And Yanukovych himself will be known as a vassal of Putin.”
Still, Orobets is optimistic for her country. “I do not see people generally supporting Yanukovych,” she says. “There are not as many people [as] it was during the Orange Revolution coming to Kiev protesting and supporting the government. So right now [the only ones] who really support Yanukovych are riot police, internal army and those two thousand people bought, as well as tetushkas. Tetushkas are known to be petty criminals organizing provocations against peaceful protests.”
Because of this, Orobets believes that Ukraine is actually more unified than the government would have the outside world believe. “This is a myth that Ukraine is divided in East and West,” she says. “Sixty to seventy percent of Ukrainians do support Euro-integration even in Eastern Ukraine. Another figure is that at least 50 percent of those who supported Yanukovych and his party in parliamentarian and presidential elections do see their integration course as European. So the country is more supportive of Euro-integration and there’s not much conflict inside the country between the population—rather between the population and Yanukovych and his team.”
As for the deal with the oligarchs she says, “A good signal is that today all channels, except for the only national channel UT-1, were showing the real picture of Maidan and the real actions of riot police rather than making it out as Russian channels are known to be. And as all Ukrainian channels are owned by oligarchs this should be [interpreted] as a good sign.”
Even after Yanukovych doubled back and announces that he will sign the EU AA after all, Orobets wouldn’t buy it. At this point, a majority of the population probably doesn’t either, regardless of whether they support him. Orobets sees this as the same game he’s been playing all along, “No logic. No trust to his words,” she says. Yet even if Yanukovych does sign the AA, it may already be too late. The impetus that first brought the people of Ukraine out into the frozen streets has transformed into something far greater than anger over a trade deal; it has become something constructive. Those protesting in Maidan now realize the power they have to take back their country and to make it better. They are unlikely to turn around now and go home.