From the very beginning, when I was thinking of the questions for the interview, I decided to avoid personal questions. I wasn’t definitely going to ask her about bringing up the children, beauty secrets and recipes of her signature salad or borsch. “And I wouldn’t answer such questions,” she says when I mention it.
Frankly speaking, I wanted to ask her about age-old balancing – private and public, personal and political. How does she manage to find the balance? Do her family suffer? And she? Because I always see her in TV news in different places of the country and world. I wanted to ask because I still have stereotypes about women in politics. And it doesn’t matter how hard I struggle against these stereotypes.
Naturally, sometimes we began speaking about personal issues. Which is, anyway, quite tightly connected with political and state ones. However, the biggest part of the interview still was about the country and state, about politics and contemporary challenges.
Iryna Herashchenko, the First Deputy Chairwoman of the Verkhovna Rada. She is the first woman in the history of the Ukrainian Parliament to obtain this position. That’s why we started the interview from the Parliament issues.
Your position lets you not only observe processes but run them. What do you like and don’t like in the way current Verkhovna Rada works?
Our Parliament is a democracy, personalities, and emotions. In a new Parliament, we can observe the change of political generations, faces. People with western education, who know foreign languages have come here. I would also mention the presence of women in Parliament. Yes, we have only 12 percent of them, not many. But if we compare it with our commitment, it seems that there are more women than men. Our women are often more active, responsible than men-policymakers. We have virtually the first Parliament with women-policymakers. Not just those who were put in the list to achieve a gender balance – actresses, singers etc. It is the first time in Ukraine when women really influence decision-making. There are two women in the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada. Some women are heads of key Parliament committees. Women often have a casting vote. By the way, it is the first time when a Representative of the President in Parliament is also a woman.
But we also should mention that this Parliament is less responsible than the previous one, in many regards. It is lack of political culture and realising that politics is not a show, not a circus, not a theatre. It doesn’t realise that even in political fights, policymakers shouldn’t forget that they are people. We have made many important things – the adaptation of the legislation to the European one, visa-free regime, anticorruption acts, decommunisation. In the same time, this Parliament unlike the first, second, third convocations, shows its careless attitude to the work. It is awful that not only regular MPs but fraction leaders, presidential candidates don’t go to work, don’t visit committees for months. We observe an awful attitude to work within committees which are actually the sense of Parliament work. These are committees which work on bills, elaborate them, prepare them for the first or second reading. I should also mention that the current Parliament is a lack of political and personal culture. It is a painful issue for me.
If you have mentioned political and personal culture, I want to ask, what is your attitude towards offences you get?
I fend off. Because I realise that when you are being hurt, you can’t be silent. You should always fend off.
Are you speaking about Serhii Vlasenko now?
What concerns this story, it is still painful for me. It hasn’t been easy for my family as well. These are things which can’t be forgiven. When I was having a speech, which was absolutely correct, I didn’t call anyone by names, I was conveying my emotions, my political stand towards sailors captured by Russia and introducing the Martial Law, towards very painful issues for me – political prisoners and prisoners of war, I heard inappropriate words towards me. You know, from my workplace in the Presidium, I often hear such yelling from the first row [where members of the Batkivshchyna Fraction have seats – ED]towards many women-MPs. Actually, I wasn’t the first victim. But I was the first to answer publically and fend off. Women – MPs then came up to me and said, “Iryna, we are grateful to you, you have stopped what could be thrown at us next time.”
Do you say hello to each other with Vlasenko now?
There is a pause.
I haven’t’ seen him after that. And I have no desire to see.
Is this kind of behaviour – sexism, mobbing, typical for the Ukrainian Parliament?
She answers not exactly about the Parliament.
I am astonished by the position of the Batkivshchyna Fraction, as Vlasenko, its member, is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. One of the key issues of the Council of Europe is a struggle against sexism and sex discrimination. When we attended the last meeting, we saw papers on our tables which contained anti-sexism and discrimination in politics claims. It is strange to me that Ukraine is represented by people who don’t share the principles and values of this respectable organisation. And political forces don’t react to it in any way. It also concerns Oleh Lyashko, a leader of the Radical Party, who said that he advocated for introducing the death penalty again. How is it possible?? Abolition of the death penalty is Ukraine’s commitment towards the Council of Europe. Oleh is a delegate of Ukraine to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The person is a representative of Ukraine in the organisation which values he not just fails to share but claims opposite views! How is it possible?
Is it common among men-MP to use gender-based discrimination?
The example you have given isn’t the only one, unfortunately. Everybody saw how it happens. Everybody saw that it is possible and necessary to fend off. By the way, I have got serious feedback from women-militaries. They wrote me that they face it as well. And that I inspired them to protect themselves, to relieve such facts. This story showed that the problem exists and it is very serious in the fields where sexism and discrimination should be abolished. It definitely mustn’t exist in politics. It mustn’t exist anywhere – from Parliament to army. It is very painful to achieve it, naturally.
If we have touched this theme, I can’t but ask a question about ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Why doesn’t the Parliament ratify it?
Well, the Parliament not just fails to ratify the Istanbul Convention! Some MPs get worked up the Council of Churches. They say that the ratification will lead to the destroying of traditional marriage. Do you know who does it, who are advocates of “traditional marriage”? These are people who are divorced several times, who have many mistresses and aren’t even embarrassed about that. I call them a “Parliamentary Taliban”. Because they try to hide their complexes or play a wrong game this way. They are hypocrites. They really block the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. And they turn a blind eye to the fact that it isn’t the Istanbul Convention which destroys families, but domestic violence. Today, more women in Ukraine die because drunk members of a family, especially in villages, beat them and rape than because of car accidents. This is the problem. I think all moral advocates should stop this. There is nothing more awful than domestic violence. A husband’s violence against a wife, parents’ violence against children or even a wife’s violence against a husband. It should not just be judged, it should be punished. The Istanbul Convention has been ratified by many Orthodox countries. By Georgia, for example. And nothing has happened to their “traditional values” there. But this “Parliamentary Taliban” not just blocks but manipulates and cheats the society, Unfortunately, women MPs have had a blind spot and softened their position towards a public defence of the ratification. It is bad. I don’t see any chance for this Parliament – young, pro-European, with knowing many foreign languages – to ratify this extremely important document. The Istanbul Convention doesn’t destroy families. Vice versa, it protects families from violence and humiliation. I see the Istanbul Convention only as a protection of the institution of the family. Only like that.
I guess it is about values which a person shares. Everything we have talked about is about world outlook. The community lacks such discussions. What values do you share and protect?
I am lucky to have never changed neither my political nor universal human values. I have always been working in the orange team, in a democratic camp. I have shared pro-European views since I worked as a journalist. When Ukraine had just gained independence, it was clear for me we should head towards the EU and NATO membership. I am jealous in a good meaning of this word of our neighbours – Poland, Baltic countries who have managed to do it on time. I am a centre-right policymaker, but not a conservative. For me, the protection of human rights is crucial. The society, a civil sector has many non-governmental organisations which struggle against corruption. At once, human rights protection fades into insignificance. But all European values are based on human rights. For me, the priority of human life, respect to a person, to their thought are very important. I am an emotional person. But I try to respect others’ ideas and thoughts. If I hurt anybody, I worry a lot, I apologise. The borderline between political fight and the personal offence is elusive and we shouldn’t cross it. It is highly important to understand and realise it.
You are making, have made a successful career. Aren’t you afraid to reach the ceiling and lose motivation? Where are you going to head next after obtaining one of the highest positions in the country?
I don’t think now where to head. Because what is important for me in my career is fulfilling my ambitions. The point isn’t how my position is called. The point is what I have managed to do during this time. In my current story, the crucial thing is not that I am the First Deputy Chairwoman of the Verkhovna Rada but the President’s Envoy for Peace plan in Eastern Ukraine. Because 90 percent of my work connected with bills that concern Donbas issues, internally displaced people, prisoners of war, political prisoners. This is where I put my strength, my time, my nerves. The key goals for me are solving Donbas issues and releasing prisoners. That’s why it is not about where’s next but what’s next? I would put the question this way. Evidently, the key challenge for Ukraine is safety. Whatever I will be occupied with, I want to make Ukraine stronger. In a safety, informational, humanitarian regards. Where and in what position? The war will show.
We have many devalued words. For example, in my opinion, a word career, careerism. In fact, these are good words. Only when you have real levers of influence, you can really influence a situation. Iryna, are you a careerist?
I am not a ladder climber. But I am an ambitious woman, a really ambitious person.
What is the difference?
The difference is that a ladder climber wants a position. An ambitious person wants to influence decisions which concern reforms, important social and political changes. If I just sit here, there are many telephones, but they don’t make me excited! But a possibility to influence decision making is crucial for me. I care for what my friends and family think of my work. I don’t want to disappoint them. I care for what ATO veterans think of me. I often communicate much with men who were on the front or who are now there. I don’t want to lose their respect, trust. It is more important than a career.
You said you care about what your surrounding thinks of you. Famous people are known not to love when they are criticized. Manipulators can use criticism. Are you criticized?
Naturally. And it is normal. When you aren’t criticized, it means you do nothing. I learnt how to detach myself from foolery. How? Well, I have a Minsk. In three and a half years, I overcame so many and cruel obstacles that I just don’t pay my attention to foolery and aggression. However, sometimes it hurts, of course. But when people who are important for me, say some motivational things, I hear it. When some bill needs to be amended or when it is me who needs some changes, I definitely hear it.
The team you belong to is told to think of having you as a candidate in the next presidential election. What conditions will make you become a candidate?
I don’t even want to discuss it. A question doesn’t sound like that. Our agenda is 2019 Election – elections between Poroshenko and collective Putin. I won’t ever let, as a citizen of Ukraine, as a Ukrainian policymaker, I won’t ever let the Kremlin influence Ukrainian elections, elect the Ukrainian President and the Ukrainian Parliament.
And in five years?
In five years, we will have many candidates. Such issues aren’t on our agenda today so I don’t think about it. Sincerely. It doesn’t boost my ego. Unlike many people, I am a team person, and I realise well what the President’s job is like.
What is the President’s job like?
It is an extreme responsibility. Extreme. It is the absence of private life. It is the absence of free time. It is a big burden. The president needs to have intelligence, broad-based knowledge, good mind, bases of diplomacy and a deep understanding of safety and defence problems. It is an ability to make decisions – not simple ones when there is a war in the country. It is reading front news every morning. Speaking with mothers’ of the dead, attending funerals…
Iryna stops speaking, she closes her face with her hands. We can’t keep on speaking for a while. I ask her at last:
Do you attend funerals?
Aren’t you afraid? They can blame you – the war, soldiers die…
I must bow and I bow down to our soldiers – to those who are defending our country and all of us.
Can you say you aren’t afraid?
Well, it is a personal question. I won’t be original and won’t speak about private fears. As for political challenges, I am not afraid of anything. Let’s go on.
Please tell me as a person who is connected with state decision making: what are three key problems which need to be solved as soon as possible?
The first problem – which we need to solve with our international partners is dealing with Russia. Because its aggression kills Ukrainians, opportunities for our country and time. The second problem is connected with human resources. We have many good people but a few professionals. Ukrainians think that this is the President who has to solve all the problems – wash windows, sweep floors, shovel away snow, be responsible for batteries and toilets. Everybody wants to be a president, but nobody wants to become the head of a village and start from there. The third problem is the economy. If populists continue shaping a consumers’ society by promising cheap tariffs and free gas, subsidies and benefits, it won’t work. We, as a country, have a big and powerful potential. Ukrainians, as a rule, have a good education, we are a very hard-working nation. People who work here hard and much, need to earn well here, not abroad, to pay for insurance, tariffs and so on. People mustn’t be afraid of responsibility. Our people are used to thinking that somebody will decide instead of them, give them a minimum for surviving. People tell me in small towns – the factory is closed, where should we go? The post-soviet period took longer, something new is born in tortures. 30 percent of our economy was focused on Russia’s needs. It is very hard for us to learn, and we are afraid. We need a total change of rules. To make small and medium enterprises boost. Security agencies mustn’t interfere, they mustn’t look at a small candle factory like at a honey pie where they can come and steal a couple of candles.
I have heard many times and have been present to different public discussions where businesspersons in no uncertain terms tell about arbitrary actions of the Security Service of Ukraine. When they come to a businessperson and require money. Ukrainian business is really very concerned about this issue.
I am not pleased to hear it. I work with the Security Service what concerns prisoners and protection of informational security of Ukraine. During this time, I have been 80 times to the front. The Security Service works hard to provide territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, releasing prisoners – we haven’t released a prisoner without the Security Service. I know many people who work there as professional and decent officers, from the best side. When I hear such signals about untypical functions of the Service and complaints, it hurts much. There’s no smoke without fire. I am not pleased to hear it.
Can you name your achievement’s?
It is amusing but really very important – I made the hall of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine look decent, we put away all the posters. Maybe, it is a trifle for some people. But when I became the First Chairwoman and sat in the Presidium, the hall was filled with posters which were stuck virtually on gums. Posters told: that man is a fool, that one is a corrupt official, that one is a thief, we require, blame etc. We visit dozens of Parliament Halls around the world, and it is impossible to imagine someone come there with a megaphone and put posters on walls. I haven’t seen any poster or banners in any Parliament Hall which will cover a tribune, the Presidium, guest lodges. Respect for the institution starts and is shaped only when the room is respected. But what we had were constant breaches of order, megaphones, drones, tents, banners. Those MPs who have put posters in the hall, constantly go on business trips overseas, they work actively and effectively in the PACE. They know that they can’t breach order or put posters on walls there. But as soon as they come back home, they start to hang posters on walls. I demanded to take everything away. I heard bad words and yelling towards me. Now I don’t. But it is awful to imagine what the debating chamber will look like if we haven’t agreed with colleagues on respecting this norm of order – no posters and megaphones in the chamber.
Speaking about the crucial thing – it is about releasing prisoners of war and political prisoners and acts concerned supporting their families. In terms of the Minsk group, we managed to release 200 people. Each release has a hard work of a big team behind it. I am happy when we manage to release at least one person. If we speak about bills, it is an adoption of the law on the financial support of families of prisoners; about the status of the unaccounted; about humanitarian demining. As a lawmaker, I have worked on two issues all these years – on Donbas and European integration.
The visa-free regime was really under the threat when the Parliament defeated an amendment into the Labour Codex about the prohibition of sexual orientation discrimination three times. It was blocked by people with diplomatic passports who travel around the world without visas, they blocked a free passage for 45 million people. MPs not just blocked this norm, they didn’t want to present it in the chamber! They treated this issue with a laugh. What is funny? People have to work at work and not think of who is gay. I presented this norm in the chamber and I was supported. And look! It hasn’t influenced a social moral like populists were frightening.
The same situation was with the prolongation of the law on peculiarities of local governance in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Nobody wanted to present it, many MPs were frightening people that it is legalisation of terrorists. If this law hadn’t been adopted, all European lobbyists of the Kremlin would have got an advantage and sanctions against Russia would have been abolished. It was extremely important to bring this bill through the debating chamber, the adoption of the law helped our diplomats to strengthen sanctions against Russia.
And of course, during all these years, I advocate for Ukraine on the global stage. When Russian TV tells that I am a relative of Bandera and Shuhevych (Ukrainian nationalists of the XX century), I take it as a compliment. I am one of the first Ukrainian policymakers who has been included in Russian sanction lists. Three years ago, we were going to the trial of Savchenko. The Kremlin included me into the list to prevent me from attending the trial and to exclude me from the Minsk group. Russia and Belarus have one FSB database. There was a huge diplomatic scandal that Russia tried to influence the Ukrainian delegation in this way. And I am the only person, I guess, who is banned to enter Russia, but I can enter Belarus, at least, while Minsk group works.
What knowledge do you lack to perform better?
I am a very self-critical person and a perfectionist. I need to know foreign languages better. I learnt French at school and university, but it is far from perfect. Perhaps, it is because the Soviet educational system blocked the development of speaking skills so as not to let people have inappropriate connections (laughs). Now I need to release this block somehow. I also learn English, I want to speak and make speeches freely. Actually, policymakers should surf social networks less and read more. It will definitely give more knowledge.
Can you speak about your personal defeats?
Yes, I can. But I won’t do it now. Let my enemies speak about them. I know all my defeats, fails, failures, I analyse them, live through them. I am quite self-critical.
What would you change in your life if you could?
Nothing. We should be grateful to God for each day.
President Poroshenko – what is he like?
I don’t think I am embodied to characterise the President of Ukraine. But he has the heaviest burden – to run the country when there is the war. I think that his strong character lets him now take the heat and make many reforming things.
Then, can you please say why we should vote for him at the election? What are your proof-points?
Ukrainians have always been critical towards authorities. It is our national trait, feature. And, by the way, it is not that bad. It is normal that we are critical towards authorities and policymakers, we analyse their actions, demand more. Ukrainians are liberty-loving. Historically, we have high demands to a Hetman. But I guess there is an important proof-point – we should choose those who work, who act, who fight. Not only speaks. Are there mistakes when you work? Of course. Only a person who works can make mistakes. But it is crucial to asset real results of work. For example, the President has recently announced that he stands for the election. During the forum, he was one of 89 candidates who reported about what had been done! In general, this program speech included three important blocks which others lacked. The first is that he was the only who told what he had done for five years. And there is much in the list! The EU Association and Free-Trade Zone Agreement were ratified, visa-free regime, Tomos, we strengthened and modernized our army: we managed to make the world introduce sanctions against Russia, get weapons from our partners. Besides, the President went to the front 40 times, had hundreds of visits to Europe and negotiations with international partners, when sanctions against Russia were introduced.
The second is that Poroshenko is the on-ly one [she syllabicates it– ED]admitted that he made mistakes, he named them and apologised. Who has apologised for at least one missed day in the Parliament?! For multiple voting?! For lies?! Have three fractions – Batkivshchyna, Samopomich and Radical Party apologised to Ukrainians for their 5-year-old promise to work in a coalition? They saw the level of challenges and escaped. It is desertion. Have they apologised? Have other politicians apologised for missing meeting for weeks, months? They have nothing to report about. Have they apologised about gas contracts? No, they will say: due tour contracts, you won the trial. Have they apologised that Ukraine is paying now such high interest on IMF credits which were taken by previous governments, by Prime-Minister Tymoshenko in particular? 32 billion! Nobody will apologise for anything! Poroshenko is guilty, a neighbour, Vasia, Iryna – it doesn’t matter. Speak about yourself, about yourself! What you have done for this country, and why you have decided that you can do something obtaining a high position. The third is the President is the only one who speaks about really ambitious and presidential tasks, an ambitious goal for the future. About membership in the EU and NATO. Presidency really means leadership. It is not about mockery, apery, self-admiration. It is leadership. And responsibility. Why have people who can’t be leaders even in the debate chamber decided they will be good presidents?
In your opinion, who performs well among state top-managers?
I can’t tell because those whom I won’t mention will get hurt. But there are good managers. I reckon that at this historical stage, the President is in position. Of course, he makes mistakes. He admits them. I want our human resource policy to be better. This is what we should work on next. But I saw the army in 2014. When someone complains about what army we had then… You just didn’t see it! You didn’t! And I saw our men in slippers, hungry and without weapons. When they showed me a uniform of such size [shows a small uniform – ED]which were made in the times of one Minister of Defence!… It would be small for me – this uniform!
Why don’t you say names? Do you mean Hrytsenko?
You said it.
If you could talk to any policymaker of any epoch, who would it be?
Churchill. I’ve said it and I realise that sounds banal. Because our politicians like citing Churchill without having read any of his books. I have. I am interested in his motivation of making hard decisions, struggling against the stream, his cruelty and brilliant oratory and writing talents. I am fond of Thatcher because she was a Prime-Minister during the economic crisis. When miners were striking. She was cruel and confident in what she was doing. Ukrainian policymakers are often lack of confidence. They are not firm when it comes to standing for their principles under pressure of circumstances. Thatcher won and survived because she wasn’t afraid of standing for unpopular decisions. As for modern ones… I am extremely interested in Angela Merkel I think she is an outstanding leader. I saw her during the meeting with Poroshenko. She is impressive. She is very punctual. When a meeting is supposed to last 10 minutes, she hasn’t ever been late. And the meeting will last 10 minutes. But I am astonished at the intensity of these 10 minutes. 99 percent of our politicians would waste 9.5 of these 10 minutes.
Many women don’t want to participate in local governance. They are afraid, lack of knowledge, strength, successful patterns. What would you say to women?
If they aren’t satisfied with the environment they live in they have to change it on their own. We don’t wait for manna from heaven at our homes, we do what is important to do. The same is in politics. If you want changes – don’t wait for them. Women have to be more active when it comes to changes. The point is only that they just don’t have role models. Anyway. To make women participate in social and political life more, we have to create more possibilities for them. A partnership has to exist in a family. If your family doesn’t support you in any regard, and you are supposed only to cook dinner, it is impossible to fulfill your ambitions. A family has to understand and support. But there is also a public thing. When you are at work…
Suddenly, Iryna stops speaking. She is silent for a while. Then she goes on, thoroughly choosing words.
I had some situations when my work was more important for me than family… I am not sure now if I was right then… Once I had a meeting with families of prisoners, and my little son who was 1.5 years old then, got into a hospital. It was a difficult and even aggressive meeting. And I understood people’s feelings. They were yelling that we couldn’t release anybody, that we were doing nothing. And I was just… I was trembling inside…
I see it is hard for Iryna to speak about it. I appreciate her sincerity.
You see, my child is at hospital… He had an operation. My husband was there, I also came after the meeting. But I left my kid and went away. I was wrong at that moment, I was wrong…The operation wasn’t difficult, the meeting had recently been appointed, relatives were emotionally challenged. But… my little baby was recovering from anaesthesia. I was wrong that I didn’t cancel or postpone the meeting…
Does it still hurt you?
I try to analyse everything and spend more time with children, they are little and need mother’s attention. But let’s go back to our issues. You see, if you have nobody to bring your child back home form a kindergarten, you can’t think about any political or public work. For example, they have made a children’s room in the Petro Poroshenko Bloc office. I am not a member of the party, I am a part of the team. However, many people think I am a member. For many women who work there, it is a good possibility to leave their children there for some hours while they are working. I was there a couple of times – children were sitting and painting. Mother can focus on her work. A child eats a sandwich and drinks tea. Her child is safe, near the mother. It’s not a trifle if we want to involve more women into politics. We had crazy situations when our women MPs couldn’t bring baby strollers into the yard of the Verkhovna Rada to feed their babies. It is insane. They had to call the chairman, call guards. You know we were living in the Soviet and post-soviet society for too long. When children before three years weren’t welcomed anywhere. Because they scream and cry. I want our community to be friendly to children. Then, it would be friendly in general.
I have a certificate from the community of families who have children with Down’s syndrome. We support them. They brought me the certificate and said something that shocked me, “Well, you might not put it in your office, it is not what people usually hang on walls, there is a photo of children with Down’s syndrome.”
I almost cried. There was so much pain in the eyes of parents of special children. This certificate is hung at the best place. We have to remember about policymakers’ commitment to creating an environment of equal possibilities for all Ukrainians.
By the way, the VR has recently adopted the law on social services. Again, it was almost defeated. This law will help people with disabilities get a job. I think that our society, unfortunately, is very aggressive and cruel. But politicians also often provoke aggression, disrespect, offense, a humiliation of people’s dignity. They mustn’t. We have to be tolerant of each other. We lack that very much.
Interview by Zoya Kazanzhy
Photos were provided by the heroine of the publication