”The only thing I was asked to do — not to organize rallies and sabotage”. Member of parliament Oleksiy Kovaliov on returning to the occupied Kherson oblast, communication with Russians, his business, and Channel 4

Author:
Oksana Kovalenko
Editor:
Dmytro Rayevskyi
Date:
”The only thing I was asked to do — not to organize rallies and sabotage”. Member of parliament Oleksiy Kovaliov on returning to the occupied Kherson oblast, communication with Russians, his business, and Channel 4

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Member of Parliament from the "Servants of the People" faction Oleksiy Kovaliov became famous when at the end of 2021 he bought Channel 4, which was in opposition to Volodymyr Zelensky. Now the channel is broadcasting a nationwide telethon. Kovalev found himself in the occupied territory in Kherson oblast— before becoming a deputy he was a Kherson agribusinessman. Currently, his business is registered to his parents. When Russia launched a large-scale invasion, Kovalev went home to territories already occupied by the Russians. He was passed in and not detained. A few weeks ago, the Russian military came to him, spent a few hours with him, and left. The MPʼs decision to return to the faction was received with great suspicion. He was expelled from party chats. And Vice Speaker Oleksandr Korniyenko told Babel that the faction is conducting a poll on Kovaliovʼs status. Korniyenko was surprised that Ukrainian activists, Kherson politicians and officials were being abducted in Kherson oblast, and Kovaliov was only "checked for documents". Babelʼs journalist Oksana Kovalenko spoke with Kovaliov about his reasons to return to the occupied territories, the situation in Kherson oblast, as well as his business, and Channel 4, where the journalists have not been paid since February.

Where did the war find you?

It was a parliamentary week, I was in Kyiv. But it was unclear when we would meet next in the Verkhovna Rada. Therefore, on February 28, I decided to return home to Kherson oblast.

Wait, but in the first days, were there meetings?

It was only on February 24 that martial law was imposed. The meeting was scheduled for 8 oʼclock in the morning, and I didnʼt have time to get to the Rada because there were huge traffic jams, you remember. And after February 24, there were no sessions of the ParliamentSincethen,theparliamenthasheldsevenmeetings:February24,March3,March15,March24,April1,April14,andApril21.

"> at all for a week or two. So whatʼs the point of sitting? They say: wait. What to wait? We need to act! So I returned home. In addition, they talked a lot about online voting then, I was hoping for that. It was a difficult choice, but I made it.

Before the war, you were interested in how Territorial Defense units were established in your district, and whether people were given weapons?

Nobody had time for officials and defense. People said that on the first day for 4 hours in the city in principle there were no law enforcement officers. We had two security services in Kherson oblast. One was responsible for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the other one — for the oblast. Both departments left. So did the others. That is, all those who had to defend — they disappeared.

Clear. And the defense?

But there was no full-fledged Territorial Defense Units. Funds were allocated for it, and no one knows where they went. Our oblast was the first [on the path of the Russians]. Thatʼs why I have a lot of questions for law enforcement agencies. Didnʼt the security service know what was going on? I felt that there would be a conflict on Monday when I was going to the Verkhovna Rada, when Putin declared the independence of the so-called "Luhansk and Donetsk Peopleʼs Republics". Now they have questions to me, but, in my opinion, they are not justified. Many deputies, who were in particular minions of the leadership of the "Servants of the People", left the territory of Kherson oblast on the first day. Some deputies of the oblast council and city councils have remained on the ground and are helping people with humanitarian issues. But the head of the oblast council, a number of deputies who used the resources of the Kherson oblast, worked with the budget — on the first day they left Kherson Oblast.

Letʼs return to your departure to Kherson Oblast. Did you leave on February 28?

Yes. I arrived in Kropyvnytskyi, where my car broke down. It couldnʼt be fixed, I couldnʼt take another one, so I bought a Daewoo Lanos. I spent the night and left. I reached the village of Yelanets in Mykolayiv oblast and stayed there for two days. It was necessary to decide what to do next because there was fighting not far from Mykolayiv, I didnʼt understand where to go. Then I went to Mykolayiv and lived there for about two weeks. And when I learned that there was a corridor, I went to Kherson.

In Mykolayiv, did you simply wait for an opportunity to get to Kherson?

Yes. At first, it was not possible to drive in or pass on foot. All roads were blocked.

When you left, part of the oblast was already occupied, as well as Kherson. That is, did you understand that you are a Member of Parliament and you are going to the occupied territory?

Of course, I understood that I was the incumbent Member of Parliament and was going to the temporarily occupied territory. This is important: occupied and temporarily occupied territories are different things.

And how did you get in?

I was driving over the Dnieper River, there are the villages of Oleksandrivka and Stanislav.

Was it aт official green corridor?

No. There are no green corridors between Kherson and the unoccupied territories for evacuation of people and there were none — they were not organized. I learned about this privately by myself.

How?

There were our checkpoints, and then — theirs [Russianʼs]. I just drove at my own risk. At our checkpoint there was a serviceman of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, he said that it was dangerous that there were hostilities at night. I asked whether I could pass He said if you really need, you may drive. He checked my passport to that I am really a resident of Kherson oblast, and that I am registered there. I showed the MPʼs ID, but they were not interested in it.

Did cars drive from Kherson to meet you?

No, there was no car in my direction or from there. And I saw cars on my way between checkpoints. And when I approached the Russian checkpoint in the village of Bilozerka, I showed my passport. They looked at the residence permit and let me through. They inspected my car, all my things, my bag, saw that there were no weapons, and allowed me to go. They didnʼt ask who I was.

I came to Kherson because I have housing there. And the next day I went to Hola Prystan.

What did you see in Kherson? Your first impression?

I have never in my life before seen tanks and large military equipment. Therefore, the first impression was horror. I drove home, called my parents, spent the night, and went on to my parents in Hola Prystan.

And are you now in Hola Prystan?

I am now moving throughout the oblast, as we carry humanitarian aid not only in my district but also in others.

Ukrainian soldiers make a patrol in the entrance of the Kherson region, very close to the russian postions, in the frontline of Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

Can you then tell us about the situation in the temporarily occupied territories? Are there foods, medicines? Are people paid pensions?

There is no food. Food is now imported to people from Crimea. As there are no green corridors, there are people who carry the Ukrainian products from Mykolayiv at their own risk. There is a serious problem with medicines in general because no one establishes a humanitarian corridor. Several times, as far as I saw from the media, Russian humanitarian aid was there with medicine. But I donʼt know what was in that aid. Itʼs very sad situation. They have a problem with medicines in Mykolayiv too because Kherson oblast is very big and usually it takes away the main medicines. If you want to find Spasmalgon, you may find it only in the 6th or 7th pharmacy in a row.

As for the situation, our friend drove from Kherson to Henichesk yesterday, it is 200 kilometers and passed 32 checkpoints.

And how long did it take him?

It takes an hour and a half to drive 30 kilometers because each checkpoint is a full inspection of each vehicle. So you can count.

What about peopleʼs moods?

People want peace, that there is no shooting and people are not dying. This is the main thing.And to end it as soon as possible. The second is, of course, that they want to live in Ukraine. I have not met such clearly pro-Russian sentiments.

And how do Russians behave?

They took away someone — members of the anti-terrorist operation, former and current law enforcement officers. Some are kept for 20 days, some — for 3 days, and some — for 5 days. Someone is not taken away at all. They didnʼt take me. I think it may depend in part on the personʼs initial behavior.

What do you mean?

If you behave normally, do not get nervous, and do not come into conflict, then actually I have not seen such people being taken away. Houses are being searched. And a lot of people say, they visited their houses. But nothing valuable was taken away from them.

So do you think that only behavior determines what they do with people?

No, no, thatʼs one of the factors. I do not know what information they have about each person. I see that they have up-to-date information about my weapon. So that there would be no misunderstandings I immediately said: I have a weapon. They said they knew. And named specifically what weapon. It was not taken because it was officially registered.

I wanted to talk about it later, but if you mentioned it, letʼs talk about the visit of the Russians. When did it happen and how was it?

They came because they were told I was in town. I guess who told them, but I wonʼt say. It was April 11, 8 pm, I wrote the day after they came. My parents called me and said that people had arrived and asked me. I am registered in the house of my parents, but I have my own house. I came there. There were Russian soldiers or the Federal Security Bureau, I donʼt know — they didnʼt introduce themselves. There were about 30 people around. 4 people came in, obviously the leaders. I was asked to open the gate, went to the adjacent territory, inspected it, all premises and cars. They asked if they could enter the house. I understood that if I refused, they would still come. They were let into the house, they inspected it. They looked at my passport, I showed them the weapon. They stayed on the ground floor and we talked.

What were you talking about?

I reported that I am a Member of Parliament, a member of the Committee on Finance and Tax Policy. I said that I did not have access to classified information. We talked in general about the political and economic situation in Ukraine. Then they went down in history, about Potiomkin, Catherine II.

Did they try to persuade you that Ukraine does not exist?

In general, just about history. Just historical facts: "Do you know that you have a village Heroiske, how many heroes of the Soviet Union are there?" I say: "There are 4 heroes of the Soviet Union and 2 heroes of socialist labor". Oh, they say, and you know. Of course, this is my land, I know its sad story.

And what was the purpose of such conversations?

I do not know. They just talked. They inspected the house. "What do you do? And where do you work? Where is the father? Who do you live with?" and so on. They did not offer me anything.

Didnʼt they talk about the business of your relatives?

No.

You said they had information about you, and gave an example of a weapon, what else did they know?

I donʼt know. I know that the Security Service of Ukraine did not take out all the documents classified as "secret". Maybe something was taken out, but some were not taken out for sure.

Did they warn you about something, did they ask for something?

The only thing was that rallies sabotage and so on were not organized here. I said that I did not deal with it — only humanitarian issues. I said that I had a district, that people voted for me and that it was my duty. They did not object.

But the question arises. Everyone came to you and talked. And others are kidnapped: mayors, journalists, activists. The mayor of Hola Prystan Oleksandr Babych was also abducted. He was not released, and it is not clear what happened to him.

We donʼt know if he was kidnapped. Maybe he was abducted and returned, maybe he is on the territory of Ukraine. I had a political conflict with him. I admit that there is a mayor of Hola Prystan who was legally elected on the territory of Ukraine. All. I am not interested in his fate. I know that he took his family and thatʼs all.

Still. They kidnap people. In Melitopol the mayor was kidnapped, and why werenʼt you kidnapped?

You see, a MP of the Verkhovna Rada does not make administrative decisions on the spot. The mayor can organize humanitarian aid, is responsible for social issues, citizens, organizes the life of utilities. He organizes, for example, places of probable deployment of humanitarian aid, probable deployment of servicemen.

But you are also organizing humanitarian aid.

These are different things. He organizes all the processes of life in the city. I canʼt sign anything. The Member of Parliament must represent the people in the legislature. I think the logic is in this. I think it is also clear to them that I am not a supermedia person, but I communicate with journalists. Maybe they wanted to show that they donʼt take everyone away. I did not ask and did not understand how the conversation with me would end. They left, and thank God. And I do not understand why Russians may be interested in me.

Well, for example, you may be recruited to then promote some solutions, or get some information.

They can also recruit in the territory controlled by Ukraine. I am ready to undergo a polygraph if necessary.

Do you have information about the number of abducted people in Kherson Oblast, the number of killed? Were you interested in that?

The vast majority of people were killed in the first days, it was the Territorial Defense in Kherson. Honestly, there was such a tragic situation when they wanted to throw Molotov cocktails at armored cars. It is impossible to burn a tank with a bottle of Molotov cocktail. People looked at social networks and thought that they would be able to fight cocktails with the regular troops of the Russian Federation. I believe that it is the responsibility of politicians to stop people from such actions. Unfortunately, there is no exact information on the number of dead. I also donʼt know about the number of abductees.

Letʼs return to questions about life in the temporarily occupied Kherson region now. Is it possible to receive Ukrainian pensions or not?

As far as I know, they are paid. As for the payment of Russian pensions, I think this is not true. Because I communicate a lot with retirees, none of them talked about it.

And salaries for state employees?

There were huge delays. We wrote to the Ministry of Finance, to the State Treasury Service. The situation with salaries for teachers and doctors was especially critical. As far as I know, they started paying.

Did the Russians offer them any payments?

They wrote that 10,000 people received it. But none of the people I saw said they were handing out or transferring money. Maybe there is, but I donʼt know about it. Now only salaries and pensions are financed. And capital expenditures are not. The city budget had money, but it canʼt be used to clean up the garbage. People decide for themselves.

Are they trying to offer someone to lead the temporarily occupied territory?

I was not personally offered. Maybe someone is offered, I do not know. But I know that military administrations are being created. What it is and what it is about — I do not know.

Did they turn on their propaganda channels? Is it possible to watch our television?

People watch our television. I donʼt watch myself, because I have a work schedule from 6 am to 9 pm. But when I go to peopleʼs homes, they have Ukrainian television turned on, itʼs the only broadcast. Maybe there is Russian television, but I did not watch it. Also 3G works on Ukrainian mobile operators, and cable TV works.

Are they preparing to hold a pseudo-referendum on "independence"?

I doubt. [Liudmyla] Denisova wrote that there would be a referendum soon. As an ombudsman, I suggest that she come to Kherson and see what is happening here. I see no reason to hold such a referendum at all. Why make such statements, and raise panic? People believe in these fakes about referendums, that they will try to mobilize them and flee, as they can, partly — through Crimea, then to Georgia and Europe.

Do you think they should stay?

They have to make their own decisions but based on truthful information. So, about the referendum. I read that these bulletins are printed in Nova Kakhovka. And why in Nova Kakhovka, why not in Crimea? Some facts are unclear.

Have you been to Nova Kakhovka?

I have not been to Nova Kakhovka, my friends have. There are many Russian soldiers.

And in Hola Prystanas well?

No, there are not many. There are not many of them in Kherson. They are around the city.

On Monday, the Russians seized the Kherson City Hall, which had stood under the Ukrainian flag for two months. A Russian flag was also hoisted in your Hola Prystan. Canʼt this be considered the beginning of preparations for the referendum?

I hope not. I am sure that there will be no referendum because there is no preparation for it, I do not see it.

You said that you were carrying humanitarian aid. Have you started doing this for a long time? Before or after the Russian visit to you?

No, I have been involved in humanitarian aid since the third day of the war. I drove it from Mykolayiv. I have been doing this, I am doing it and I will do it.

Have your party colleagues contacted you since you left?

From the first day of the war, no one, neither the head of the party, nor the head of the faction, nor the vice-speaker, nor the speaker, no one called, did not ask how things were, whether we were alive and well.

Did they know that you went to Kherson Oblast?

I wrote in the official chat that I was in Kherson. He said that if someone needs to evacuate people, we can arrange it. At that time, to Mykolayiv. In Mykolayiv now there are serious attacks, massive artillery attacks therefore now it is difficult to speak about evacuation.

Nobody answered anything. The reaction came after I commented on Radio Svoboda. Although a week earlier, I had publicly announced on Facebook that Russian servicemen had come to see me.

Did you report this in the party chat?

No. I do not have time to write in the official chat of the faction. There are many incomprehensible things, unimportant information.

Now there is information that you were expelled from these party chats, is that true?

Yes. They excluded me from 3 or 4 chats. And my main question — I was expelled in silence. They didnʼt even talk to me.

Tell us about your business. You have it in the occupied territories. What about him?

I donʼt have a business, my relatives have it. And it is destroyed by 80%. Many things burned, and many things disappeared in an unknown direction. I think our stole quite much also. We found things from the office at the houses of several people who worked for us, such as office equipment. We found money in other employees, money that was supposed to be in business. The vehicles were not in our warehouses. For example, we tracked and found agricultural machinery on GPS. There were beacons on the equipment, the personnel did not know about it. This is a separate painful story.

And you learned about it when you arrived in Kherson Oblast, or from Kyiv?

From Kyiv. One of the motives [for leaving] was that everything was just being stolen. In addition, the statements of the mayor of the Hola Prystan were added. I thought we had just a political conflict with him, and I didnʼt know that he would go so far, because he started saying that Russian equipment was being hidden on our bases, that it was being refueled here. And people could take it for granted.

And how was it actually?

It is not true. The Russian Federation has enough fuel and oil. We had to explain to people that it was not true, we even brought them to objects, showed. It turns out that my political opponents used this to gain political points. Or maybe it was revenge.

Tell us about your channel, whatʼs wrong with it?

We have a salary arrears for February, we will pay the sallry off. At the moment, I canʼt put money in the account and pay the salary, because the banking system in Kherson oblast is not working. As soon as it works, we will repay the salary in full. I told the employees about it. But employees do not understand the current situation in Kherson Oblast. I donʼt think any of them were in the situation I am in now. Someone understands. Someone does not understand and writes that I am a traitor because I did not pay my salary for one month during the war. There are different situations, but I want to confirm to you that we will not deceive journalists and we will pay salaries for February as soon as possible.

You are talking about February. And now itʼs April. What next?

Next, I do not know. The channel did not work in March and April. I donʼt know how it will work, I donʼt know what will happen next… Do you understand what will happen in the country in a month?

I want it to work. Maybe the state will help, because now it uses our broadcaster — there is a nationwide marathon. Maybe we will receive at least a salary from the state. I will pay for the license myself, there will be no problems with it. Letʼs see how the situation will unfold further. We increased the salaries of the remaining companies by 30-35%. Those who work, who are at least break-even and can work.

Do you have a feeling and understanding when itʼs all over?

I think it will end in a month or two. It will not be for years. There is an internal belief that Kherson Oblast will remain part of Ukraine. I canʼt argue with that, but I have life experience, I can even see it in peopleʼs behavior.

After Donbas, the battles for Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, we will understand in general how the country will move forward.

You have already said that if the meetings of the Verkhovna Rada last the whole plenary week, will you come to them correctly?

Of course. As a legally elected Member of Parliament. Iʼm ready to go back.

But if Kherson Oblast remains temporarily occupied, will you live there or in Kyiv?

I have no place to live in Kyiv, I now want to understand what will happen next. I am currently in Kherson oblast, in the temporarily occupied territory. I do not understand what will happen in a week or a month. Of course, if necessary, I will move to another oblast center, to another territory of Ukraine. So far I have not thought about it at all.

I donʼt know how realistic it is for the Verkhovna Rada to work for weeks. What exactly should the parliament consider in order for you to come for one day?

If it concerns the issue of Ukraineʼs non-accession to NATO, I will certainly come. The question of peace, that is, if there is a peace treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. On specific global issues. Iʼll tell you honestly, we only know about the agenda in two or three hours. There are a number of issues that will be resolved without me by the general majority of MPs. Going under fire at checkpoints just to take a selfie and show what I voted for? The trip to Mykolayiv lasts approximately 8 hours, it is 50 km. And in peacetime, it is less than an hour.

Do you get a deputyʼs salary? Because the work of a deputy is not only work in constituencies but also work of the Verkhovna Rada, work in committees.

Honestly, I didnʼt even check it. Apparently, I get it. Now there are issues that are more important than my salary. In addition, I do not have online banking, and there is no money in ATMs.

By the way, in Kherson Oblast, it is possible to pay by card or more in cash?

90% require cash, 10% — non-cash payments. This is the situation.

Clear. Well, thank you.

Yes. Glory to Ukraine!

Glory to heroes!

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