Politique Ukraine

Anna Herman: « Building Democracy is not easy »

Below is the full transcript of an interview conducted with Anna Herman in Kyiv, on 20 October 2012

The « dissident » Anna Herman (born in 1959) is one of the most intriguing character of the ruling team in Ukraine. Coming from Western Ukraine, she was once a well-known journalist. She was the correspondent of « Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty » in Warsaw, Poland, from 1997 on before heading the Kyiv office of the Radio from 2002 until 2004. In 2004, she went from independent journalism to becoming political spokesman for the then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Despite fierce critics from Western Ukraine-based political forces and some alleged disagreements with other close Eastern-originated supporters of Viktor Yanukovich, she has remained close to the latter and proved him an unfailing support. She reached positions of deputy chairman of the Party of Regions and deputy head of Yanukovich presidential administration after his coming to power in early 2010. She is now considered as his private advisor.

Anna Herman runs now for Parliament as n°13 of the Party of Regions list. I sat down with her in the press centre of the party in downtown Kyiv.

Nouvelles de l’Est: Back in 2010, you declared that were Viktor Yanukovich to win the presidential election and to come to power, you would quit your political activities and return to journalism. How do you explain that you kept on the job and that you’re running again for Parliament this year?

Anna Herman: I had such an intent, but the President asked me to stay in and help building the information policy for the new presidential administration. Later on, I realised that within this administration, I am the only representative of the Western regions of Ukraine and of the people of these regions, who had mainly voted for another candidate. I understood it is important that Western Ukraine has someone to represent it and the interests of its people to the adinistration. Because the interests and concerns of Western Ukrainians very often differ from the interests of Eastern Ukrainians. It is very important that someone can understand these interests and help represent them.

NdE: Do you feel successful in that respect?

AH: Indeed, I see that I am successful.

NdE: Yet we can clearly see that positions between the East and the West get more and more radicalized. On the linguistic level. On the ideological level. On the geopolitical level…

AH: Building compromising and values that would be close to all Ukrainians and represent all-Ukrainian interests is the most important task for the Ukrainian society today. Ukraine as a state would cease to exist if all parts of the country are not taken into account. Each conflict, each time regions oppose each other, it ruins Ukraine. I belong to that kind of politician who will always look for a mutually-beneficial solution, regardless who you have to turn to in order to reach a compromise, be it the majority or the opposition. I look for mutual values that would unite regions. Only on those values, we shall be able to build up a strong Ukraine. Otherwise it would turn into a confederation, which would eventually threaten its unity.

NdE: And you have the feeling that the law on minority languages is a good compromise?

AH: Only if amendements are made to the law. The kind of amendements that would build a compromise. And the President said that such amendements would be made. The law as it exists now, it only escalates confrontations between regions. It does not bring any solution. And the President already said that he will sign the law only if very precise amendements are made to it.

NdE: But it is already signed. [The President signed it on 8th August and it came into force]. Some regions and municipalities already adopted a second official language along Ukrainian. Do you think it is still time to modify the law?

AH: Yes, the President said that some amendements will be added. Probably after the elections.

NdE: Back in 2010, you talked about the need for Ukraine to build its own kind of democracy. Two years after Viktor Yanukovich came to power, do you have the feeling that the conditions are gathered for such a development?

AH: For two years, Ukraine succeeded in avoiding conflicts. Building democracy is not easy. But we are preserving stability and peace. We are trying to avoid conflicts between religions, as you know that there are many different confessional groups in Ukraine; conflicts between regions and all kind of conflicts. We are trying to reform the judiciary system, change the institutions, build an independent justice. We adopted a new criminal code as you know, which was not done before. Ukraine never had an independent judiciary system in the 21 years of its existence. Now, our task is to create such an independence from the very bottom. And in order to do it, we need to preserve stability in our society. These are not easy steps that we are taking. In order to achieve these goals, we need to maintain stability within the society and not to allow other political forces to clash, which has become very usual during the election campaign.

NdE: But it’s not only during election campaign. I have been living in Ukraine for more than a year, and I see conflicts everywhere. Chernobyl liquidators. Afghanistan veterans. Pensioners. Businesses being victims of so-called “raids”. Opposition politicians being victims of what is globally considered as “political persecution”. And yet you talk about stability?

AH: These are no conflicts. These are daily issues and problems which occur in the society and which we are solving on a daily basis. There is no state in the world not facing that kind of problems, where social groups face problems and request the governments to solve them. And our government is solving all these issues in a peaceful way.

NdE: So you would call the accusations of “political persecution” of opponents a daily issue?

AH: I do not know any case of political persecution in Ukraine. When we were in the opposition in 2005, some the leaders of our party, namely Yevhen Koshnariyov and Boris Kolesnikov were accused of different things. And somehow, the world did not talk about political persecution at that time. I was myself summoned to the General Prosecutor’s office many times while we were in the opposition, and questions I was asked were quite funny. For example, I was asked what I was doing in the 1970’s, when Viktor Yanukovich was working in Donetsk. I replied that it was easy to check that in those years, I was a pupil in a primary school in the Lviv region. They answered: “We know that. But we have an assignment to summon you to the Prosecutor’s office and to ask you questions”. At that time, I did not cry out loud over political accusations.

NdE: And so, the fact that Europeans denounce a rise of authoritarianism in Ukraine; the fact that international observers such as “Reporters Without Borders” or “Freedom House” downgraded Ukraine in terms of fundamental freedoms and democracy, it does not concern you and you call that a daily issue?

AH: You are a journalist. You live here. You can come here [to the press centre of the Party of Regions] as freely as you want. You ask any questions you want and you get answers. It is up to you to decide whether there are some worries with the situation of freedoms in Ukraine. Open any newspaper. Watch any TV channel. Check any Internet resource. You can see that journalists can talk about whatever they want.

I think that there is no worsening of the situation of the freedom of press in Ukraine. Maybe one can agree that the situation with the judiciary system is not matching European standards, which we aim to. But we are working on it. We are the first ones to carry on these reforms and no one before us had even started to do this. For 20 years, Ukraine did not change its judiciary system. The system is as it is. But we are trying to break it down, to change it. But it does not take only one year or two. This takes a very long time.

NdE: Which is why you want to run again for Parliament…?

AH: I believe that the Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine’s Parliament] needs more independent people. The kind of people who, regardless of party affiliations, would work in favour of comprehensive reforms. And I believe I am one of those.

NdE: So I understand that according to you, there are no concerns about freedom of press in Ukraine. Yet there has been quite an outcry, in the country and abroad, against the so-called “law on libel”. Viktor Yanukovich said he would not sign the law, were it to be adopted in second reading by lawmakers. But how to explain that his presidential majority, lawmakers from his Party of Regions, passed the law in the first place?

AH: The President is a leader in a literal sense of the word. Because he sees processes from above, more correctly, from the point of view of democracy, than some of his colleagues with whom he started his political career. Many of them have remained on the same level of understanding and development than they started on. But he has learned a lot. From his experiences and from the world. And he grew up. He is a much more progressive person today than many of his colleagues with whom he started his political career. This is why he enjoys a strong authority over his political colleagues. That’s why our faction in the Parliament, despite its diversity of views, always try to listen to his opinion. This helps us very much.

NdE: And yet, they passed the law in first reading? As a leader, he did not consult with his majority beforehand?

AH: But executive and legislative powers in Ukraine are separated. The President cannot influence the Parliament. When the Parliament starts studying a draft law, they have internal discussions and commissions and no one can interfere. The President can express his opinion only after the draft law is adopted. He has no right to go to Parliament and tell lawmakers what they should and should not do. He could do that when he was the leader of a parliamentary faction or majority. But now he is President and he cannot interfere with other branches of power.

NdE: Lawmakers of the Party of Regions already hinted that after the elections, they would go back to this issue and propose a new draft law. As a former journalist, do you support this initiative? Do you believe that there is a need for more responsibility of journalists in Ukraine?

AH: I think that a coming back to this draft law will never happen. And my position, when I will seat as a member of Parliament, will be against. Ukraine is a state of laws. All we can do in this case is to make the judiciary system more equal for everyone. And this would be enough to prevent diffamation. I can also tell you that journalists do write insulting and ungrounded things in their publications. Against me, for example. If I would have to take them to court over these information, I would have to do it every day. It is obviously the problem of our development as a state. I believe these problems should be more treated with an ability to pardon than to punish.

It is very important that Ukrainian journalists get used to the fact that freedom is forever. And afterwards, they will understand that a sense of responsibility is required to maintain this freedom. Because the freedom of the press, it is also about assuming the responsibility of what one can say. In order to learn this responsibility, journalists need to understand that they are free today, tomorrow and for the next 20 years and forever.

NdE: It is nice to hear. But apart from the aborted law on libel, there is a new bill under consideration that would restrict the freedom of speech, that is the nr.8711 against the “promotion of homosexualism”. In an interview you gave yesterday [19th October], you said that Europe has to listen to Ukraine’s specific concerns, while Ukraine has to respect international standards. In that case, I don’t really see how both requirements are compatible. Would you elaborate on that?

AH: A person should not be discriminated for his or her choices. A person should have the right to choose, also when it comes to sexual choices. But every person has also the right to be protected from the propaganda of other people’s choices. For example, you have to be protected from the propaganda of a way of life that is inacceptable to you. This is why we have to look for a compromise regarding the 8711. This law must guarantee that no one is to be discriminated against. And at the same time, Ukrainian national traditions have to be protected, that is to say, people’s choice for more traditional sexual orientations. And people who choose these orientations must be protected, just as much as people who go for non-traditional orientations.

This is what I call the Ukrainian context, and this is what I meant yesterday in saying that Europe should listen to Ukraine and that Ukraine should listen to Europe. Ukraine has its own particularities, its own ancient traditions. It would be unfair not to take into account these traditions. And you know we are under strong pressure from all churches of Ukraine on this topic, as the President discussed with heads of different churches on 18th October.

I have many friends who have different sexual orientations and I do not think that they are better or worse than other people. It is their right to make their choices. It is a very delicate issue that should be worked on with care.

NdE: When I walk on the streets in Kyiv, I see posters and advertisements basically offering Ukrainian wifes, inviting to strip clubs and encouraging prostitution. This a kind of a propaganda of a way of life I have not chosen for myself, and that I believe is quite unacceptable. Why focusing so much on the LGBT community? Isn’t that also the kind of propaganda the state should work against?

AH: I think that what you are talking about should be condemned in the first place. It is a disgrace to women and any attempt to exploit a woman’s body is totally unacceptable. I have talked about this for a long time. A low level of culture in the society has led to this image of the Ukrainian woman as easy. I believe this problem is even worse than the attitude towards sexual minorities. Yet the awareness within the society is still so low that it cannot understand the problem fully.

NdE: Reflecting on one more of your statements: you said that you would like to ban the communist ideology. Yet the communist party is a traditional ally of the Party of Regions and it is possible you will have to work together with them in the next Parliament. How do you see such a ban happening?

AH: I am still thinking about this issue. It should be approached in a very balanced way. Of course, we should treat with respect these numerous people who took only the best things from the communist ideology, such as class equality or gender equality. We should not upset them. It is the hate speech of the communist ideology we should ban, for example the denial of the mass killings, the disrespect to freedoms and rights of the people. We should work very carefully on this issue. It is not an easy task for me.

NdE: But what you say, does it question the Party of Regions alliance with the Communist Party?

AH: I hope the Party of Regions can form a majority on its own, without the Communists. If not, then yes, I will be in a pretty bad position. But I am used to taking risky steps, I have been acting so for all of my career. So let’s hope that fate will be graceful towards me.

Journaliste et voyageur, je suis un Européen d'origine française et observateur insatiable de la composition, décomposition et recomposition du continent. Depuis 2011 en Ukraine, je suis en permanence sur les routes, afin de suivre les évolutions et révolutions qui secouent ce pays. L'occasion d'affiner mon regard sur les différences - et ressemblances - qui font cette autre Europe.

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