As I enter the foyer, a young woman waves to me and asks me to wait until she finishes a conversation with her colleague.
I’ve come to the Parliamentary Committees’ building on Sadova Street, a place hardly known to most Ukrainians, let alone foreigners. It stands at the intersection of the two infamous streets which entered the vocabulary of many people following the Euromaidan revolution last winter – Hrushevskoho and Instytutska. Though both streets have been restored since the change of government in February 2014, they still mark the sacrifices of the Heavenly Hundred – those who lost their lives in violent clashes with the police.
Olena Sotnyk, 32, MP for Samopomich (“Self-Reliance”) Party, is one of the young professionals who has entered politics for the first time in an attempt to reform the inefficient governmental system. Although Ukraine made its choice in favour of European integration, reflected by the historic majority achieved by pro-Western parties in the October elections, the road towards prosperity and democracy for Ukraine remains twisted.
“I do not have any illusions about the perceptions of Ukrainian MPs in society – it is more of a swear word than a respected public position. We need to completely reform the country to break this trend and restore trust in the government.”
Sotnyk is hardly a novice in the intricacies of the Ukrainian law. Prior to joining Samopomich, she worked as a lawyer for 12 years, specialising in real estate, land and corporate law. During the financial recession of 2008, Sotnyk was one of the few Ukrainian lawyers who investigated cases of white collar crimes. Her expertise is timely given the new cases brought against former President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates who fled the country – now subject to the European and American sanctions.
“During the Euromaidan, I used my knowledge and skills to give legal aid to protesters. After the tragic events with the Heavenly Hundred [the shootings of 18-20 February in which more than 100 protesters were killed by snipers. The investigation to identify the organisers of the shootings remains open], I represented families of the victims in order to push investigations of their deaths forward. It was a pro bono work but it has taken up most of my time in the last eight months,” Sotnyk says.
“I thought that these investigations are a much bigger priority; they are important not only to the relatives of victims but to the whole Ukrainian society. This was the main reason why I went into politics. I saw that there was no changes in terms how the government operates.”
The Heavenly Hundred lawsuits could be seen as a test-case whether the Ukrainian politics – especially the judicial branch, which acquired reputation for rampant corruption.
“It is very hard to talk about any progress so far, especially after the main suspect – Dmytro Sadovnyk [commander of the Berkut riot police unit accused of being one of the shooters] – has fled Ukraine after his prison sentence was replaced with a 1.5 months house arrest. He possessed a lot of valuable information and was the main player in these cases.”
However, the cases of victims of last winter are only part of the story. Vitaliy Yarema, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, became the subject of numerous grievances due to apparent ineffectiveness of the Prosecutor General’s Office for stalling criminal cases that undermined the image of Ukrainian authorities as a reform-minded force.
As an expert in white collar crime, Olena Sotnyk explains that Ukraine is not merely a corrupt country, “corruption exists in any country but the situation in Ukraine is rather different. We have a complete embezzlement of state funds and cases of power abuse; virtually every level and every branch of the government is permeated with this process,” Sotnyk advocates a more comprehensive approach of reforming the country, “You will not solve anything if you just change the people on the same posts; changing processes is much more productive.”
Interestingly, Olena Sotnyk recalls how Ukrainian courts underwent a brief period of change after the Euromaidan. “I noticed how judges were afraid of being fired after the Maidan. A lot of people were positively surprised by how judges started to adhere to the judicial process in the first three months after the change of government. They became very attentive and responsive to the public. But this went back to business as usual once it became clear that nobody is going to investigate their past misdeeds. Judges abandoned listening to sound legal evidence and continued to approve unlawful decisions – the case of the Berkut commander Sadovnyk is only one of them.”
Olena also collaborates with Yehor Sobolev, chairman of the anti-corruption parliamentary committee, on the issue of judicial reform. She argues that despite the positive nature of the law “On restoring public trust in the judiciary” approved last April, it does not have the instruments to implement necessary changes.
“I prefer a more systematic approach instead of over-reliance on a blanket lustration. We should use specific tools, such as requalitifcation and re-appointment of judges, as well as conduct a transparent review of their good intentions. Western companies who have both qualification and experience could be hired to do this in Ukraine – this would prevent attempts to abuse power and would pressure judges to force through changes,” Olena explains.
Another major problem that Sotnyk promotes in the parliament is how to deal with more than 600,000 internally displaced persons from Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.
“I think the actual number of IDPs is higher than 600,000. We do not have a systematic support programme for these people. Many of them find employment and funds to survive on their own or thanks to numerous volunteer organisations,” Sotnyk says, “All of us should understand that the state is in the middle of a financial and military crisis – we will have budget sequester anyway because problems of such a magnitude can be solved only through cutting expenses, since there are no additional revenues to come in the near future. We simply cannot continue squeezing everything from the businesses that are still in Ukraine.”
Sotnyk sees the main solution to filling the coffers of the state budget through bringing the Ukrainian economy out of shadow, which is estimated to be 50% of the country’s annual GDP. “Only through a long-term structural effort that will provide us with sustainable levels of revenue, we will be able to afford ambitious social programs. Until then, we should focus on efforts that can be done with a modest budget. It can be informational and legal aid to internally displaced persons, and more opportunities to find a job or master a new specialisation which is more popular on the market.”
Sotnyk also suggests to share the burden of helping the IDPs between the government and the private sector. “One of the big issues for the IDPs is housing. Public-private partnerships is a common tool used in Western countries to provide people with social housing available for a long-term lease. Thus we will be able to solve at least one of the social consequences of war.”
At the end of discussion we turn to some positive changes that happened as a result of parliamentary elections – the record-high number of female MPs and the election of Oksana Syroyid of Samopomich Party as the first female Deputy Speaker in Ukrainian history.
When questioned about different attitudes toward parliamentarians, Olena shakes her head. “I think we should finally put an end to allegations of gender inequality among parliamentarians. Women can learn things from men, just as men should look at problems from new perspectives. It is great that Oksana Syroyid became a Deputy Speaker, but she is a professional at the foremost and only then she is a woman. I would not divide MPs according to gender but rather account for different inputs that can result in a productive collective effort.”
“I think it is crucial to have women in politics in times of war. This time a lot of military men entered the parliament alongside with a record-high number of women. I think it means that Ukraine wants to protect itself but also strives for peace and stability, as women usually bring a calm and good-natured atmosphere,” Sotnyk smiles. “Just to finish up with one example. Negotiations about the coalition agreement were always smooth, balanced and more productive when women were present. It is a promising sign that finally a dialogue supported by evidence is replacing groundless polemics.”