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Svitlana Zalishchuk: “We Understand That the EU Is No Paradise”

One revolution won, more ahead. Paweł Lickiewicz ( talks with Svitlana Zalishchuk about post-Euromaidan Ukraine, civil society, economic struggle and Russia’s presence in Crimea. Svitlana is a panelist of this year’s edition of the Personal Democracy Forum 2014 in Warsaw, Poland.


Svitlana Zalishchuk is a journalist, activist and initiator of number of influential civic campaigns in Ukraine, including the CHESNO movement, the New Citizen civic platform, and the journalist movement Stop Censorship! She is working as a founding director of Centre UA, a Kiev-based nongovernmental organization. Previously Svitlana was an anchor of the live political TV show “From the Other Side” and an international reporter at the 5th TV Channel – the only media that broadcasted Orange Revolution in 2004. Also she has an experience working at high positions in the Government and in the Administration of the President from 2005 to 2006. Svitlana is a panelist at the Personal Democracy Forum 2014 in Warsaw, Poland.

Svitlana Zalishchuk, source:

Svitlana Zalishchuk, source:

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Paweł Lickiewicz: According to the SCIS polls, almost 30% of Ukrainians support the concept of civil society. What exactly could the Ukrainian civil society do to solve the current political crisis? How far does its responsibility go when we discuss the country’s future?

Svitlana Zalishchuk: First, there’s a common perception that a civil society is just a group of NGOs. In fact it’s more a reflection of a country. And the goal of democracy is to transform a society into a civil society.

Answering your question, yes, we, as the civil society, should contribute to solving the crisis because we are an active participant, not an observer.

Who should play the main role in this process? Politicians? Maidan? Civil society actors and leaders?

The real change should start at the most fundamental level. We should transform the whole relationship between the government and society, including all channels of communication: listening to voices of the street – where citizens express their opinions –  as well as elections, building a system of responsibilities for the president and government and the parliament in accordance with citizens’ requirements.

We have witnessed how people taking to the streets to protest evolved into a self-organization social phenomenon of Euromaidan. What will be etched in your memory from this period?

Most of all, those revolutionary, self-organizing people peacefully fighting for a new system and a fundamental change for the country.

I believe that for the first time we – the Ukrainian society – witnessed such a level of self-organisation, willingness to support and donate. It could be called a spiritual reset, an upraising involving also people outside the Maidan.

During those days, we have seen citizens donating great amounts of money to support families who lost their members during protests. The flowing donations were given for clothes, food, medicines. We’ve seen great initiatives: self-organised kitchens or the Automaidan of convoys, travelling through cities, suburbs, even the whole country, just to inform people what’s going on and warn them.

At the same time we faced horrendous situations. One infamous example was when we had to move injured protesters to hospitals, where police was ordered to detain them. The thought that people who suffered that much couldn’t even receive appropriate medical care is just horrifying. On the other hand, communication and volunteers where great: so many responded and kept watch 24/7 to prevent Militsiya from removing Maidaners from hospitals. There were dozens of heartening stories like this one.

Is it a spiritual or a technological revolution? How big was the role of technology during protests? Could you name your own Top Three?

I’d say the number one was streaming. First, it was a revolution broadcasted online. We were able to watch unfolding events live and simultaneously, from all corners of our country. Then there was Facebook. In a normal situation, at peaceful times, media with help from newsmakers are usually just showing what’s going on. But here we’ve had hundreds, thousands of active participants becoming media and newsmakers themselves. Hundreds of people using Facebook were reporting much faster than normal journalists, shaping both the main narrative and background stories and minor facts – something traditional media mostly wouldn’t do. For example, one of the most prominent newspapers was reporting on the situation in Donetsk, one of the biggest cities in eastern Ukraine. At the same time we could cover cities in the north, east and west. We relied on videos and photos as proofs, trying to check all incoming information and authors – we had a network of trusted informants and contributors. Still, only 1 information out of 15 could be confirmed. You must be aware how huge the propaganda mill was – lies and manipulation were in abundance.

Russian authorities were responsible for a whole media mechanism, focused on scaring the Russian-speaking audience so they wouldn’t join protesters. After the recent so-called victory of Euromaidan, we saw at last ministerial and administrative documents, issued by the government and Yanukovych himself, showing the brutal approach how to deal with demonstrating citizens, leading also to destabilising the country and manipulating people through controlled information flow.
Back in 2013 at the Warsaw Personal Democracy Forum, you were talking about the role of civil leaders. What’s your view after recent events, from the Maidan perspective?

Globally, there wasn’t that much change and the role remains the same.

In one of your speeches, you said that the civil society and government don’t like each other but they still have to cooperate. What is the situation in 2014? Is it possible to work together?

I think it is. And it’s a must. Without cooperation in such fields as legislation, there’s no chance that civil society leaders can make any change. The main task however is to keep an eye on authorities, because, for instance, the level of corruption in Ukraine is unacceptable.

Speaking of monitoring, it’s been the mission of your organization, Centre UA. Authorities, in response, opened an investigation to make your job harder.

Authorities want to control and prevent any actions “against them”, and opening a criminal case against my organization was only one among many methods they used to intimidate us. We know about kidnapped and brutally beaten activists, who sometimes were just kids. There were people killed just to hide the truth.

Was the criminal case against your organisation closed after the Maidan won?

We have not received any further requests from them since the so-called victory of Euromaidan. I wouldn’t be as optimistic as it’s not over yet. In March, Yanukovych travelled to Russia and hold there a conference, claiming he’s still the president soon to return. He asked Russia to react and… they went for Crimea. It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next. I don’t believe that Yanukovych is going to come back – it’s not an option. But the situation changes daily.

Beck to the criminal case: I believe that right now we are not the prime concern of the general prosecutor. There are bigger challenges ahead them!

Are there still citizens supporting Yanukovych?

Yes, you can find them in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country. I’d say it’s a result of intensive propaganda. 80% of people still watch TV news, controlled by the Yanukovych Family clan or pro-Yanukovych oligarchs, having their puppets in all media. However, I wouldn’t say that Eastern Ukrainians are protesting against recent change in politics. At least I don’t have information of any significant movements. What we see right now is the Party of Regions voting together with those recently called the opposition, electing a new interim government together to prevent any escalation of the crisis.

Not all members of the Party of Regions appeared in the parliament.

Many attended sessions, therefore changes were lawfully voted by constitutional majority. It means they support decisions and the direction Ukraine is going. I don’t believe they are motivated by deep faith in changes, rather by fear.  They are afraid of consequences and imprisonment.

The electorate of Party of Regions comes from eastern and southern parts of the country. Its members’ support of Verkhovna Rada’s recent decisions gives a clear message to their voters. We don’t have any surveys yet but it’s possible that politicians who supported Yanukovych now turn to former opposition.

How high is the support for the new government?

At least higher than for the former one. Though they must deal with much criticism – we paid a huge price in blood. The economic situation is worrying. Without the IMF aid, the Association Agreement, political willingness and painful reforms Ukraine won’t survive.

Are Ukrainians ready for those reforms?

Higher gas and energy bills? It will be hard to accept and the society may not be ready. Why? Because the former government in its populist rhetoric didn’t prepare citizens for the consequences. No real debate on how reforms are implemented and what they would change for the better took place. The blame also goes to the opposition, who was silent on this matter.

In this situation, could the Euromaidan become a factor making the division within the Ukrainian society bigger – the much discussed East vs West concept?

Yes it could. Back in 2005, during the Orange Revolution which was created as a part of political agenda – who should win presidential elections – it became significant and Victor Yushchenko wasn’t able to unite the country. Later, authorities led by Yanukovych deepened this rift.

But we must remember that Euromaidan goes beyond Kyiv. Protests and actions took place all over Ukraine, with smaller “maidans” in almost all cities. Many local governmental buildings were taken over by protesters. The scale of events in western parts of the country was bigger, with more successful actions. Still, this movement engaged a majority of citizens because Ukrainians know they need to change of this system. They want to live in a European country. I’d say we have 30 million people supporting the change.

Polish famous writer Andrzej Stasiuk in one of his recent articles on Ukraine was comparing Europe to a “ghetto of self-satisfaction”, where people live and die in fear and boredom. Is it really something you fight for?

I think it’s a kind of manipulation. I can bring other opinions and quote somebody else. The European Union is the biggest and strongest economical mechanism in history. It’s one of the most powerful political actors. In majority, people live there in good conditions, peace and stability. That’s why we want to sign the Association Agreement, to come closer to Europe and achieve the same. Of course we understand that the EU is not a paradise. There are no societies and countries without problems. We know that. And it’s not even about the EU membership, but a change of relations between authorities and people. It’s all about equity and equality before the law.

Should Poles be afraid of Ukrainian nationalism?

I think not. We have to stress that Euromaidan have peaceful protests at its roots. Yes, radicals are present, as it’s natural for every mass movement, but it’s more the answer to actions of authorities, using unacceptable methods. But this problem is not specifically Ukrainian. You can see radicals in Greece or Spain, during their protests.

In Poland, Euromaidan has been frequently compared to Solidarity movement and transformation process after 1989. Is it a correct perception? And what’s your opinion on Polish engagement in Ukraine?  

I think that every democratic movement has the same core: fight for equality and dignity. Such comparisons may be useful – they show the path that should be followed. We are grateful for Polish support and political efforts to put Ukraine high on the EU’s agenda. Poland is an active advocate of Ukraine in the European Commissions and European Parliament, facing opposition of other political actors with different missions. We also remember the engagement of Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Paul Cox in the negotiation process between my country and the EU.

P: Have you watched Viktor Yanukovych’s conference in Rostov-on-Don? What about his former allies in the government?

S: It was disgusting. I actually believe that former members of the government should be punished. They should undergo lustration. What we see now is Party of Regions – Yanukovych used to be the head of this party – blaming their former leader. Everyone says, including the former speaker of the parliament and many more, that it’s Yanukovych and his very close circle who are responsible for violence, justifying themselves: we were blackmailed into voting for certain decisions and worried about the well-being of our families, they used all kinds of leverage within the party to make us do what we did…. What kind of impression does this give? At the moment we don’t have up-to-date opinion polls on how the East and South understand and evaluate the current situation. Indeed, it will be very interesting what the results would be. It’s a very confusing period.

P: Regarding reforms: the government will sign the Association Agreement, reforms will be started and most likely the economic situation of many people will be much worse than it is right now. The Association Agreement won’t make the crisis disappear – first it must get worse to get better later.

I would not simplify the situation so much. The Association Agreement is not only a quick way to create big salaries. First of all, it’s a strategic course for development of the country in the upcoming decades. Second, it is a choice for integration with the European community. Third, of course, it is a package of many economic reforms. It will not happen in one day – more like five or ten years of adopting all legislations and their implementation.  It’s a civilizationial choice. From now on we are not going to accept corruption, abuse of power, obvious manipulations and populism. We need real changes and this is what the Association Agreement brings. The new government has actually no chance to use it as a populist blah-blah-blah – the only way to survive, and also to prevent Maidan people from protesting against new authorities is to implement reforms.

Can you imagine a scenario in which the current government, or the next one, will implement such reforms and the Maidan says ‘’no’’?

I think it will be a real challenge, but much depends on the way the government is going to “govern”: its transparency and accountability. In my opinion the Maidan itself is ready for painful reforms. They understand that the next two, three years will be harsh, but in the end it will be a different country, a better one. And this is why we were standing there, ready to sacrifice our lives. We are not ready to accept a government with people that reinstall old mechanisms, steal gas money and rebuild the vertical corruption system strengthen by Yanukovych and his crew. This is what Maidan will not accept.

P: Let’s go back to the civil society in Ukraine. What is its role in the new government?

S: First of all, there is a number of civil society leaders as ministers or deputy ministers. However, in the very moment they enter the government, they cease to be a part of the civil society and become governmental policy makers, controlling institutions and with obligations to governmental programmes. But it doesn’t diminish the role of the civil society. Once, again, I do believe that the government alone is not able to launch all the changes we want. Only together with the civil society we can transform the country. We had a revolution already – after the Orange Revolution we elected a president, had big protests against election manipulations and Viktor Yushchenko became the new head of state. However, next we went back home to our TVs and did nothing to force him to do something substantial. Neither the president nor his team wanted reforms, limiting themselves to maintain the existing system. Of course, Yushchenko wasn’t as notorious as Yanukovych. This is the lesson that we have learnt.

Changing people in power is not enough…. We must stay vigil, we need to continue the revolution in every working place, in every office, in every head. We have to organise ourselves further in order to create controlling instruments and mechanisms to make our government accountable for their actions.

P:  What role do you see for Tymoshenko in current politics?

S: In my opinion she has to remain the symbol of the Orange Revolution and allow young people to take over, understanding that it’s high time for brand new politicians, for a new system and new rules. She should take this very difficult and responsible step to leave politics. Though if she stays, she doesn’t have to be a president or a prime minister. We are a democratic country and nobody can prohibit her to run in elections, though in my opinion she also takes the blame for the current situation. People of “ancient regime” should  stay in the past.

What’s happening in Crimea right now?

The situation is dynamic. What we have at this moment is Russia’s direct aggression against Ukraine. They took control over the parliament and governmental buildings, civil and military objects, local transport and communication – two airports in Crimea are blocked by Russian troops, the air space can be closed over the whole territory of Crimea.

Troops – most of them with unidentified tags on their uniforms, we do know they are Russian troops though – are blocking all many mentioned objects. From what we understand, it’s Putin’s revenge for the victory of Euromaidan. First, he’s humiliated and wants to show the EU that he’s not going to give up his imperialistic ideas. In Putin’s head, Ukraine is the key country in this whole scheme. Without Ukraine, the idea of the Eurasian Union can’t exist. It’s also a definite attempt to repeat the Abkhazian scenario. Russia’s trying to provoke civil unrest in the region, while Yanukovych just gave a press conference, in which he appealed to President Putin for help for Ukraine. The newly appointed – illegally and against authorities in Kyiv – prime minister of Crimea asked: “Please come and help us!” and Russia said “But of course we are going to respond to this request from the Crimean government”.

We know that the Russian parliament was debating how to return Crimea to the Russian Federation. So we are on the edge of annexation of a part of Ukrainian territory. We are even on the edge of – and it is scary to even say that word – but we are on the edge of war between two countries. Let me get something clear: it’s more than a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, it’s a conflict between the whole civilized world and Russia. In 1994, Ukraine gave away its nuclear weapons. In exchange, the whole world, including Russia, the Great Britain and the US, guaranteed us peace and protection of our borders. Now, according to those treaties they have to help Ukraine. We wonder what will be the exact role of the United States and the EU. I do hope neither the Balkan tragedy nor the ‘’Georgian scenario’’ will be repeated. The probability is very high though…

Thank you for the interview and see you at the Forum.

Personal Democracy Forum 2014

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