Real changes in Ukraine – a must for a successful future

04 February 2019

On 22 January the British Ukrainian Society hosted Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, social activist and frontman of Okean Elzy, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Real Changes in Ukraine – a must for a successful future‘.

This event was part of the Society’s ongoing lecture series that takes place at Portcullis House.

Lord Risby introduced Mr Vakarchuk and moderated the Q&A session afterwards.

Sviatoslav began by drawing attention to the centenary of proclamation of the Unification Act which unified the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic creating united and sovereign Ukraine.
He discussed Ukraine’s struggle for independence until the end of the Soviet period, and from 1991 the battle to make Ukraine a strong country with a cohesive political class.

He then touched upon the upcoming elections and the frustration that many Ukrainians feel – that those running for office will be no different to politicians in the past, and that there is nobody who will provide new and lasting solutions for the country.
Outlining the challenges that Ukraine faces, he argued that each Ukrainian is responsible for making change happen, and that whilst Russian aggression is a significant problem, the primary focus should be first on eradicating internal problems that have left Ukraine weak. He said,

“There is no solution for the war without first examining our internal enemies – a lack of strong institutions, a lack of equal justice, the presence of over-arching corruption, a lack of trust between the people and the government, the non-existence of real free economic institutions…these things constitute as serious a threat to Ukrainian independence in the future as any external threat. The Russian authorities want to create chaos in Ukraine and distract us from this goal of reform”.

Mr Vakarchuk further elaborated on this point of how to fight Russian aggression successfully. He focused on utilising the talents of individuals, and the power of unity between them. He stated,

“What is the weapon for Ukraine to fight such a powerful enemy? We sometimes don’t realise what a strong weapon we possess – over 40m Ukrainians and their brains, their hands, their desires, their abilities, their energy…this is an unbelievably strong weapon, and we don’t use it properly. The trick is complete coherence. The power is in cohesion. We need to unite together”.

He also focused on renewing the political culture in Ukraine, again encouraging a new generation to rise up. He stated,

“The solution lies in leaders, new people. They can provide us with real change. We need a change in political leaders. For the nearest future our task is to bring as many new professional people to power – young or old, age doesn’t matter as long as they are young in their minds – for whom justice and state interests are above everything else. This is my personal mission. It’s a discreet process that will take time. We need to make way for a sustainable and irreversible evolution which will bring us to a new height and will show us new horizons. And it’s not mine or yours, it’s our joint venture”.

“So my simple message to you is: it’s about us. Are we a small bunch of idealists? Are we just crazy? Are we thinking about the unthinkable and doing things that are incredible, and are we too naïve? Or are we just feeling something in the air that perhaps others do not? Do we have courage to step ahead and be the first conductors of these new changes? My personal answer is: I’m in. It is up to you to come. But be honest with yourself. If your answer is ‘I’m out’, there will be nobody else to step in. So if you say ‘I’m out’ or ‘I abstain’ or ‘it’s not my business’, just make sure you understand that it’s the fate of your country. And if you say ‘I’m in’, make sure you understand that it’s only the first step. It’s gonna take a long time with a lot of injured elbows and knees, a lot of frustration and disappointment and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. If you’re ready for this long-term dream, let’s go and do something”.

After his speech, Sviatoslav was asked how he would mobilise the disaffected to become more involved in politics and change-making. He was adamant the only way politicians can gain voter confidence is if their words are followed by actions.

“Unfortunately, many Ukrainians are very eager to follow those who say, but do not do; politicians who say words that sound really great but there’s no substance behind them. It frustrates me.” He made mention of the misguided priorities of politicians, who spend a fortune on campaigning and far less on the country’s basic needs. “…we organised a charity concert in Kyiv and raised more than 4 million hryvnias for the families of Ukrainian soldiers who died in the East. We did it in three weeks. And I wonder, if all these guys stopped paying money for billboards and ads and just used the money to help families or education…with all these millions of dollars, we’d have a different country. Instead they are accumulating all this wealth to spend on getting re-elected and get power and to have it over and over again”.

Mr Vakarchuk was also asked how he would achieve the changes he’d like to see in the economic sphere, in delivering equal justice and in fighting the war. In answers to all of these questions, he was adamant that politicians need to follow up on campaign pledges and lead by example, not just with words but with actions.

“The leadership should show their own personal example of how they treat people. Sometimes people ask me, okay, if you’re new leader of the country, how will you deal with vested interests and traditional Ukrainian political norms where even the President cannot change things in a day. There are no simple solutions. Some problems might require you to be a great chess player but there is one simple thing you can do without anything like that: just use your personal example. Say different things. Act differently. Fulfil your promises. Sometimes you fail, then you explain why and do something to try to eliminate these mistakes in future. You live differently than others. It’s really easy, much easier than some might say. My simple message for all these new leaders is: show different behaviour.

Other questions from the audience included whether a new generation of politicians could realistically come up with a united platform, how long he felt it would take Western democracy to take root organically in Ukraine and how Britain can best be helping Ukraine at this time.
Sviatoslav concluded by reflecting on his next steps.

“You can secure a place in history in different ways. Ukrainian politics is not the easiest way to do that. I don’t have easy solutions. I’m still thinking and will figure out what’s the best thing to do”.

(UPD on Jan, 28 Sviatoslav announced that he was not going to run for President in 2019

Lord Risby ended proceedings by saying,

“We have issues here as well, with Brexit, but nobody has taken a chunk of our country away from us forcibly. Nobody is conducting a war within the boundaries of the United Kingdom, causing massive displacement and death. Nobody is trying to strangle one of our key ports by behaving in an utterly medieval way, and what I would like to say is that all of us who think about Ukraine in this extraordinary Palace of Westminster, just want to admire the resilience and patience of the Ukrainian people who were to be subjected to this treatment by somebody who wanted to destroy the country. The country has not been destroyed and it will never be destroyed. And in a way, what ghastly activities have happened in the country has brought people closer together in a way which didn’t exist before. So I just want to say that we have a bilateral relationship which is extremely good, and there is great interest in what happens in Ukraine, and great support. So I just want to thank you most profoundly for coming, this has been a wonderful talk, so open and refreshing, and I simply make the point that you have set up the way you want the country to go. And I think I speak for every single person in this room when I express the hope that you will be tightly, centrally involved in that process. Thank you very much.”


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