“Nobody was ready that they would be so f*cked up.” First Vice Speaker of Ukrainian Parliament Oleksandr Korniienko on Putinʼs motives, opposition to the government, Petro Poroshenko and his TV channels

Maria Zhartovska
Yevhen Spirin
“Nobody was ready that they would be so f*cked up.” First Vice Speaker of Ukrainian Parliament Oleksandr Korniienko on Putinʼs motives, opposition to the government, Petro Poroshenko and his TV channels

Press Service Kornienko

In the now-distant life before politics, Oleksandr Kornienko, the first vice-speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, was a business and personal development coach. Korniienko is still interested in psychology, and in an long-negotiated interview with Babel correspondent Masha Zhartovska, he said that he wanted it to be not only about politics but also about life and the transformation of society during the war. During martial law, MPs met in the Verkhovna Rada several times. At the last meeting, they supported a statement on the genocide in Ukraine, suspended the activities of the pro-Russian OPzZH (Opposition Platform — For Life) faction, banned the symbols of the occupiers and much more. We met with Korniienko in Kyiv at the Zavertailo cafe, which was one of the first to open and where itʼs possible to buy coffee and pastries for Ukrainian defenders. Korniienko uses this opportunity. Taking a poppy-cherry croissant, he talks in an interview about the current work of the parliament, communication between the Presidentʼs Office and Oleksiy Arestovych, self-proclaimed moral authorities, traumatization of society. and turning TV channels "Priamyi", "Espresso" and "Channel 5" off the air.

There will be questions for you and I: we drink coffee and tea in rather quiet Kyiv, while hundreds of thousands of people across Ukraine are much worse off. Are we doing the right thing or should we feel guilty?

The guilt topic went through several waves, at least on Facebook. My newsfeed consists of psychologists, psychotherapists, IT specialists, creatives, and members of parliament. And I see what topics are more or less popular in the Kyiv "bubble". I would now say this: those who feel really bad are, generally, donʼt use Facebook. I have many relatives, friends, acquaintances who were without communication and light [due to the war]. It was very difficult to understand how were they. I donʼt think you need to judge, no matter what position you are in. Each of us has a story in this war, and competing with the complexity of those stories is not a really good thing. Some have lost their homes, some have lost their limbs, and some have lost their lives... Some have lost their loved ones, some have lost their jobs, and some have lost their usual level of comfort. We never compare it. I know people who say: “Iʼd rather lose my home than my health”, and there is an acquaintance who says that “it would be better for me to lose an arm or a leg, but to understand that there is a future in this country”. Therefore, itʼs difficult to compare. And returning to the question — the fact that we are now sitting in a cafe does not mean that we will not be under fire in an hour. Unfortunately, the war is all over Ukraine.

The usual quarrels are slowly returning to Facebook — people are measured by the degree of patriotism and the level of pain they felt, and you are observing this. Is there a plan for how the government can influence the level of radicalism that is growing in society?

The fatigue accumulates. Many people, based on their own ideas and some information, thought that the war would end quickly. Many people have set tactical goals for their lives — now I will go, and then I will come, and everything will be as before. But, unfortunately, it wonʼt be like this. It takes a long time to rebuild the country according to the war reality, and to change peopleʼs thinking. Iʼm not saying there will be a war for a long time, but there will be realities of life in a country with a dangerous neighbor. So it causes emotions and fatigue, and in this fatigue many people feel powerless.

I think that as the Ukrainian economy awakens, there will be less time for unnecessary conversations, and on the other hand, society largely regulates such things. We recently witnessed a post about how to get back to Kyiv [that post is here], and then there were many posts saying it was the wrong post. Because you canʼt measure the degree of grief, of loss, of actions. We even had a discussion in the parliament — how to honor the memory of the dead doctors, repairmen, civil servants who, for example, sat in the office of [head of the Mykolayiv Oblast State Administration Vitaliy] Kim… Moral authorities have to enter such discussions. For example, I really like the position of Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, who gives concerts wherever he can, playing in the cold on an untuned piano, or just singing "Everything will be fine" a cappella! But when people come to him to ask if he maybe did something wrong, he offers to talk later.

The government is lucky now — it hasnʼt been asked many questions yet…

Well, I wouldnʼt say that.

Press Service Kornienko

Many questions are left for "after the war". But in December, one of the ministers, explaining why there would be no full-scale invasion of Ukraine, advised to read the book "Reality Surfing". We also all remember Zelenskyʼs video address about shashliks in May. Was it a conscious policy not to talk about the war, or the government didnʼt believe in a full-scale invasion?

Oleksiy Danilov said this: the information that Russia was ready for anything was on the table and we understood it. We also prepared for the work of the parliament in different conditions. There was a plan, and in fact we are working according to one of them now (with some adjustments). One of the plans was to do such work in Kyiv, coming here occasionally, because we realized that if there is a full-scale invasion, the majority of deputies will be in different parts of the country. And thatʼs why I wouldnʼt say that we didnʼt think about this [full-scale invasion], but again — now we see a lot of reflections in the Western press on the topic that their intelligence thought things will evolve in the other way, and so on. I donʼt think anyone was ready that all this will be so much fucked-up. One man [Putin] decided that we do not exist as a nation, as a state, and then acts on this basis. But the desire to completely overthrow the world order was only during the wars. I think the world did not really understand what borders Russia can cross, and there are no borders [it canʼt cross]. No one will be surprised if they use chemical weapons, and the things they do to the civilians is impossible to imagine even in a nightmare.

A question about official communications of the authorities. For example, there is an adviser to the head of the Presidentʼs Office Oleksiy Arestovych, who on the one hand says that Kyivans may return to the city in April, which may give false hope, and on the other hand suggests a missile war on Russiaʼs part. What is this strange communication?

I think what he is doing as a representative of the commanderʼs communications headquarters is correct. We now have a high level of cooperation between the central government and the local governments, no one talks about opposition to each other, everyone cooperates, but sometimes the local governments see things in its own way and communicate as they think is necessary. What exactly Oleksiy is doing and what I agree with him about is that you shouldnʼt wear pink glasses either, you need to objectively assess the risks. Now many people want to return to the suburbs, but is that really safe? It is worth waiting for the security situation to get better.

Returning to Arestovych and the fact that no one criticizes anyone. I would not agree, criticism is still there. Itʼs on Facebook, itʼs from people I call self-appointed moral authorities. Among them there are real moral authorities, but most people have somehow appointed themselves. I observed this during three years of political fights. It often turns out that the government is not a traitor, but there were circumstances that provoked specific messages. Now we are experiencing something like this — “this is betrayal”, some people say, and a few days later it turns out itʼs a victory. I would not like to believe that this is politically inspired. Why? I hope everyone understands that political quarrels now only help Russia.

One recent example of communication: Ukraine is the new Israel, the war could last until 2035, and for those who arenʼt ready for it, there are other countries, such as Spain. Is this official communication via depreciation?

Letʼs divide it: there is Oleksiy Arestovych as the military speaker of the Presidentʼs Office and his official agenda, and there is Arestovychʼs personal position — ideological things that he writes on Facebook and talks about. This ambiguity has always existed, and he does not deny it. When he asked "how you will be rewarded?" he once wrote that he will be recognized as a traitor and this is the highest award in Ukraine. Based on this, he makes such communication — he has an evening broadcast with Mark Feygin, and I would not consider it an official product. This is his reflections and point of view. The question is how ready you are to communicate publicly through social networks, based on political circumstances and the agenda. I can also say a lot, but will it be useful? But in essence, it is about societyʼs readiness for long stories and the realization that this readiness cannot be in the classical sense of democracy as we know it. When you elect the government every five years, you periodically quarrel with it, if you donʼt like it very much — you go to rallies. But in general, you have been doing your own thing for five years, and the government has been doing its own thing. If we are talking about a "new Israel in the heart of Europe", it requires the readiness of all citizens, regardless of their attitude to freedom and liberal values. Liberality can be in economics, human relations, in church issues. But if the government, whatever it is, passes a law that every private house should have a bomb shelter, it will have to rebuild all private houses. If we pass a law that 10% of GDP should go to defense, and 3% of it to self-defense, it means that in every household there has to be a gun, and every third house should have NLAW, and everyone will have to do that. Various attacks by the aggressor country are also possible — terrorist attacks, escalation of the war, this must be taken into account. We have not been in such conditions yet, we need to be ready. So, of course, there will be people who do not want to live in war. Unfortunately, there is a tendency that many people are reluctant to return from Poland and other countries. We would like them to return.

Sarakhan Vadym / «Babel'»

The other day, six Ukrainian journalists had an interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky, after which they were criticized for not asking the president, why RRT state broadcasting authority shot down Pryamiy, Channel 5 and Espresso TV Channels from the digital broadcast. Sevgil Musayeva wrote in comments to the post of Lb.ua editor-in-chief Oleg Bazar that they simply did not have time to ask questions, so I will ask you — why were the channels turned off, because at first it was decided that they should take part in a joint telethon?

It is necessary to ask RRT why it was technically switched them off. As for the telethon, I will not say that he is a great expert, but as Oleksandr Tkachenko explained to us, it was really a difficult conversation with them [TV channels] and there was no understanding that the marathon is a unifying format, and they had a position they will broadcast a part of the marathon, and a part of the content will be their own. It is clear that they are trying to make a political story out of this, because the channel leaders are members of the [European Solidarity] parliamentary faction. I think this issue is important, but not the most important. You can always find understanding. The issue is not only with these channels, there are also issues with the Rada channel, which is financed from who knows where, because the costs of it are not protected and are not a priority during the martial law. There are issues with the media market in general, because there is no advertising, and now we will have to provide support to oligarchic channels.

You already had requests or specific talks for this?

I havenʼt heard any specific conversations, but there is no advertising market, and several thousand people work there. It is clear that the owners somehow support them inside the holdings, but it canʼt last for long. The marathon gives the channels the opportunity to make production cheaper.

Honestly, I hardly watch it, but I read about its main topics on “Media Detector” website. There are two key questions regarding the marathon — mostly government speakers are there, and many of the presenters used to work on pro-Russian channels, promoting pro-Russian narratives, and now they are running a joint marathon, how come?

I think it is better not to ask this question to the media market. We can mention Oleksiy Semenov, who managed 112 [pro-Russian channel], then Pryamyi, [pro-European one], and then advised the restart of Rada, Parliamentary channel. We have about 100 presenters and 15 channels, it is clear that these presenters go here and there. This is not a question of a marathon, but of our media community as a whole.

At the beginning of the war, political forces emphasized unity in every possible way, but is it there now? For example, after the Neptune missile strike on the Moscow cruiser, we saw a dispute over the missile program of Petro Poroshenko and Olexandr Turchynov, saw posts that the air defense in Kyiv exists thanks to Poroshenko... Is it a political competition or an attempt to remind who did what?

On 23-24 February there were meetings with parliamentary political forces, where I was also present. Indeed, there was absolutely open communication that it is better to move together. While the war was unfolding near Kyiv, there were strikes on the capital, secret meetings of parliament with a consensus agenda, it somehow held together, but then the same self-appointed authorities on Facebook began to throw information about conflicts in the team, that the commander in chief is not the main person in charge, but some other people who have nothing to do with the army at all, and various other narratives. Perhaps it they did this voluntarily, without any such order, or perhaps it was some plan from the headquarters of political forces. I donʼt know and it doesnʼt matter. The important thing is that all politicians are in unity: starting with the top opposition politicians, and we should pay tribute to them, they do not comment on anything in public. But the blogosphere is doing the same thing it did before. Of course, if it were now possible to conduct opinion polls not only by telephone, we would see that the ratings of the "patriotic opposition forces" are about three times lower than the ratings of the presidentʼs party, whatever its name may be. Therefore, if people have started a political process, we do not mind. But we would like to answer other questions — have we signed a peace treaty? Did we win? Is the war over? Just holding a position for a percentage of the ratings is understandable, but how useful is it for the country?

As for the parliament, we have been working in consensus for a long time, but ideological issues are already being activated, so we are gradually moving from a regime of fully harmonized laws to a regime of work in the parliament hall. So far, it will not be possible to return to the normal rules during the martial law, but by the end of the week there will be a meeting in a more familiar format, colleagues are going to amend the bills as usual. There are bills that we would like to pass, but various opposition forces oppose certain bills. For example, together with the Cabinet of Ministers we believe that the law on privatization should be adopted, because any way to attract investment is important now — and it is a way, but Batkivshchyna faction is against privatization, especially now. There are many other discussions. There will be no live broadcast for security reasons and the fact that the information marathon does not include a live broadcast of the Parliament, but there will be media coverage.

Press Service Kornienko

The OPzZH faction has suspended its activities in the Rada by the decision of the National Security and Defense Council, will they be non-partisan or will they create a new faction [Several hours before the interview was publisher, the deputies from the OPzZH faction created a "Platform for Life and Peace" group]?

Honestly, I donʼt know what they will decide. I understood that they had different processes, some people came out who, they say, are focused on Vadym Stolar [one of the MPs], and they said that they would make a deputy group — thatʼs their business, their rights will be the same as in the faction. But, of course, now their group will be smaller than before the war. And we will need to reconsider quotas in committees, the PACE representation, parliamentary delegations, but now there is no time for that. As for the parties, the story is more complicated here — some of them will have to leave the political landscape. I donʼt know a worse lustration than the peopleʼs one in Ukraine, they will be reminded of everything during the upcoming elections, regardless of when and what they changed their name to.

But the people who were in OPzZH, didnʼt disappear. Itʼs the same story with the [pro-Russian] Party of Regions, which after 2015 turned into the Opposition Bloc, Nash Kray and other parties, whether they have the opportunity to participate in politics now, especially after the arrest of Viktor Medvedchuk and all the atrocities of Russians that we have seen and will see.

Perhaps under a different name, but with an ideology where there will be no Russia, they will continue their activities. I donʼt talk to them much, but they say they have deputies in the Defense Forces now. And then you need to look at each situation. There are people who have commented on something, there are collaborators — and this applies not only to MPs from the OPzZH at various levels. We see that many experts have disappeared, I think, and there will be some lustration for them. I can say without names and surnames that this month there was one ideological discourse in the Servants of the People factionchat, which ended in ten minutes. Everyone understands that itʼs not the right time for this.

You recently traveled through the regions, were in Mykolayiv and Donetsk oblasts, why?

Now trips to the regions are not what they used to be. I canʼt announce and I make all the photo reports some time after Iʼve been somewhere. Colleagues are even offended sometimes, they say: “You were in our city and did not tell…” We went to the specific militarymen, with whom we have long been friends. We brought something — something they canʼt find quickly. Also on behalf of the Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov awarded weapons to some guys, I can not say what they did, but later it will be written in books. Also we were in Zaporizhzhia hospital and in Mykolayiv, the situation with the Mykolayiv Oblast state administration looks worse, than we saw on the pictures. There really were a lot of people in the workplace, officials, about 50 people.

Do you understand why the officials worked in the building?

We need to understand why. We also visit our workplaces in the Parliament. In Mykolayiv in general the situation is difficult — the cannonade doesnʼt subside…

Another question about the regions — recently an MP from the Servant of the People Oleksiy Kovalyov said that he returned to the occupied Kherson oblast, where his district and business are located. He says that he does not cooperate with the occupation authorities, but do you, as the first vice-speaker, understand this situation?

There are two lines — parliamentary and factional-political, David Arahamiya and Olena Shulyak deal with the latter and there is a position on it. As far as I know, the faction now conducts polls on the status of Kovalyov. As of the Parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk and I were a little outraged by the position that he allegedly did not have time to come to the parliamentary session, but there were people who went to the session for 50 hours, the public request is to go to the Rada, as the district is not the main working place of an MP. Further questions are to be asked to law enforcement agencies, but for me it all looks strange. In the first days Russians occupied the village near Kyiv, where my parents live. They managed to leave, but for those who remained, for example, I could not help personally, because at best I would have been killed, at worst — would have been taken prisoner. Many politicians and officials are being kidnapped, killed, our party activists are being chased all over Kherson, and here is the MPs and all that Russians have done was checking his documents… So there are questions. I think this is not the end of the story, but only its beginning.

After the war, there will be a huge number of questions as to why some things happened this way and not the other way. Perhaps there will be questions about some of the people who are being glorified today, and they were not heroes at all. That is, disappointments are inevitable?

There are many accusations that sound, but they canʼt be verified. If someone knows how to fight — he or she must go to war. It seems to me that we need to move not in the direction that we should ban quarrels, but as a result of the war to direct them in a constructive direction, so that they end in something for the country. Because earlier the quarrels influenced some processes. I will not name the names, but the law on Territorial Defense could have been passed in August last year, but due to political discussions it was passed earlier this year and we actually lost half a year to deploy, as it turned out, not the last link in our countryʼs defense. In my opinion, it is necessary to choose several topics where itʼs better not to deal with quarrels — defense, European integration, security. There will be many questions about what kind of society we are building, because there are people with different worldviews. Well, now if a person is Soviet in his or her worldview, then Russia is cut out of this worldview. But still, people who disagree with European values and consider them a "creature of hell" have not disappeared, as well as people who are in favor of European values.

You said that you are involved in the Parliamentʼs cooperation with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, because you are the co-chair of the NATO-Ukraine Interparliamentary Council group. What is this work?

There is the NATO Parliamentary Assembly — each NATO member country and candidates delegate deputies there, and this is a great gathering of these NATO deputies. This assembly meets several times a year. It was supposed to meet in May in Kyiv, but it is clear that we are talking about other countries, although we still invited to hold a meeting in Ukraine, and even better in Kyiv. We have not been officially denied, but informally we are talking about other countries. As part of this cooperation, the NATO-Ukraine Inter-Parliamentary Council, called UNIC, has been established and I am co-chairing it. This thing is more mobile, there are fewer people and we gather more often, the last time it was in January. There was a fairly open conversation off the record. I had to speak directly about everything, and there we saw, diplomatically speaking, some differences between the views of NATO parliamentarians, especially the Baltic ones, and the bureaucracy sitting in Brussels. This is a total reformatting of the world order, processes, elites. Therefore, it is now clear that the voters of the countries are ready to support Ukraine more actively, but the governments of the countries are now in favor of Ukraine, but if the first rocket arrives, for example, in Poland, there will be a different position. That is, it is good to be for Ukraine while itʼs Ukraine who fights. Iʼm not saying this is a public policy, itʼs just that. However, thanks to the support of the population in most countries, we have a large amount of aid, and it has recently started coming faster.

Sarakhan Vadym / «Babel'»

How is your interaction with the Presidentʼs Office is arranged now as with one of the leaders of the parliament, do you come there?

The office is not a place for walks now, but Parliament Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk and I are often in contact with David Arahamiya [chairman of the Servant of the People faction], who comes there more often. And now it is clear who is doing what.

Have you thought about what kind of society will the authorities deal with after the war, especially regarding the trauma it has already suffered and is still suffering?

I think about it all the time. We will definitely get a renewed political society in which there will be no division into pro-Russian and pro-European components. We have always had the preconditions for this [separation], which in 2004 were “legitimized” by Russian political technologists, and in 2013 we had an attempt to stabilize it by a pro-European majority. It is clear that support for Ukraineʼs accession to the EU and NATO or for the formation of new security alliances has now increased greatly. There will also be a new axis that has emerged in all post-war societies — there will be many temptations to take advantage of the trauma [of society]. For example, there will be statements that those who fought are great people, and those who were in the rear are not so great. We need to understand what to do with it, not even politically. You can make parties of the military or volunteers, and they will be popular, but itʼs not about that, itʼs about how to respond to the challenges that will arise in society.

Unfortunately, I think there will be many temptations associated with the restoration of Ukraine. I would not like the aid that will be sent to Ukraine to settle somewhere. And now the public consensus is clear, it is about victory, and then it will be about reconstruction. For a while, this will become a unifying national idea. It is still very important to appeal to those who have left the country that it is better to return, because rebuilding in all senses — economically, infrastructurally and psychologically — needs to be done quickly.

As for the therapy of society, as we donʼt have that many crisis and military psychologists, maybe you are already working on a solution?

This is a difficult issue, the scale of injuries can be compared to World War II, because there is genocide, and in addition, large areas have been affected, various cities, there are many refugees, many destroyed homes. What I would like to emphasize is that we do not lose the small communities of existing psychologists in the migration process, because many people who have left could help here. We have had several trauma management activities since 2014, and there have been American and Israeli psychologists who have taught trauma and military post-traumatic stress disorder. So far we do not have a massive psychological infrastructure, but now many of us are helping refugees in Europe who suffered violence, or the loss of loved ones, of housing. In fact, the experience of Japan and Germany shows that involving people in reconstruction is also a kind of therapy. We must always remember what we are fighting for and what we want to build here. One of the main challenges is that in 2014 the injury was more related to the military — members of the anti-terrorist operation and a small group of IDPs from the hottest regions. Now the situation is radically different — the main trauma will be for civilians who suffer from the actions of ruscists. A separate story is the traumatization of children. Many questions about how to get out of this.

Do you have an understanding of when and how the war will end?

With victory and prosperity of Ukraine, but when — I wonʼt say. We need to build our defense, our diplomacy and believe in the Armed Forces.

Press Service Kornienko

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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