Since 1932, the Odesa region was only once headed by a woman. In 2016, a 27-year-old Solomiia Bobrovska performed duties of the head of the Odesa Regional State Administration. The first and yet the only woman on this position. In 2016, Mikheil Saakashvili resigned from the office of the head. Solomiia stayed some months more. Later, when Maksym Stepanov was appointed the head of the ORSA, she left her job and came back to Kyiv. More than 2 years have passed. We are talking to Solomiia about herself and those crazy times. Solomiia had enough time to consider and reconsider everything which was happening to the country, to Odesa, and to herself.
You entered the office in the time of reforms. And as it often happens in such cases, you left after a while. Reformers usually leave the system quickly, because systems try hard to push such people out. Do you feel thrown out of politics and civil life? Especially after you were in the centre of the action and made your career so quickly.
I happened to get into politics as a part of a group of reformers, but I have never associated myself with a big and backstage Ukrainian politics. That’s why I guess I didn’t enter anything to be thrown away. I consider my work to be quite finished in terms of the state’s interests. I have always identified myself with civil, volunteer movement. Yes, I got more tools due to a political position, it’s true. But I know that some members of Odesa political establishment have never understood me. Neither has Kyiv political establishment understood Odesa. Odesa is a far region, dramatically important because of security issues, first of all, but nobody would interfere with local politics.
People here are keen on economic rights, first of all. When I found it out, I realised that I was an alien. If I don’t cope with it, my place will be taken by other Solomiias, Katerynas, Julias etc. But what ideas will they carry? Honestly speaking, what hurts me is not that I quitted the regional admiration work, but the fact that I wasn’t understood. Not only by Odesa residents but by some members of the Georgian team.
From the very beginning, I was an alien – I spoke Ukrainian (most of Odesa residents, as well as people who live in South and East of Ukraine, speak Russian), had a certain attitude towards ATO issues. It hurts. We didn’t push it, didn’t make an important thing in Odesa. We didn’t establish a Rehab Centre for ATO Soldiers on the basis of the military hospital. This problem still exists, nobody, except activists, try to solve it. And it is my personal defeat. It hurts me. I wish I could do more in Odesa.
I feel very calm now. I am into civil tools again. I can’t say they are more interesting because after you have tried to do something more significant, you realise that you are limited in performing. That’s why I take everything which is happening to me as reloading, searching for a team and realising – how and where I should head next.
But Odesa for me is, without a doubt, a start which cleared my political ambitions. It will love it forever.
What political ambitions do you have?
Of course, I consider a possibility to come back to politics. In the context of the parliamentary election in autumn. Yes, in summer, I tried helping a potential candidate Anatoliy Hrytsenko, but taking into account the fact that democratic forces didn’t have enough strength and sense to offer the only candidate who could win, the campaign is drowning now in inner fights and criticism. That’s why I decided to stop taking an active part in the presidential campaign.
But you, realising it all and having a certain experience, still want to go into politics. You are also kind of an alien for Ukrainian traditional politics. How are you going to survive in the politicum? What can you bring there?
I have started to study security issues – military as well as informational. It is an important issue for me. I am watching what is happening in the field of defence capabilities of Ukraine. I am concerned about the Odesa – Transdniester border. I am concerned about a big border with Belarus. We pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. I am concerned of why we speak about the Nord Stream – 2 but don’t speak about the Turkish Stream, the first pipeline of which was built for providing Turkey with gas, but the second one is being built for the European part of transit. I am concerned about why we don’t speak about what Donetsk and Luhansk regions can be like as a part of Ukraine and not as autonomous republics. I guess that Ukraine doesn’t have this public discussion and thorough work at all. That’s why I see myself in searching for ways to build Ukraine, especially in Donbas. As for the Crimea, it is a far more difficult issue. I reckon that Ukraine surrendered the Crimea. By the way, we also let them build the Kerch Bridge. We also let Russia imprison our guys. We have to know and study it, we have to stop hiding behind words about success. These are what I am keen on. I feel I should work towards these directions. As for decentralisation and roads issue – people work on it. People have ambitions and desires, they work towards these directions. People – partially! – have realised they don’t have to steal 90 cents out of a dollar to make something – build roads, kindergartens and schools.
I can see the Dnipro region performing great. I am jealous of what Reznichenko’s team is doing. I think that civil life will move forward. But I have some mental questions as for a historical area Polissia – it is part of the Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Volyn, Rivne regions. We focus on the Zakarpattia, Odesa, Donbas. But, for example, here, just near us, Zhytomyr and Kyiv regions have troubles with moving to the Ukrainian Church. People vehemently claim that they will stay in the Church they have always visited, that Moscow won’t come to them, they are comfortable in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is not surprising for me. But the question is what we are going to do with this phenomenon? It is also a challenge. A security challenge, first of all.
And then educational and cultural. Nobody articulates that. Polissia is known because of its amber and soil corrosion. In short, I see myself in a security field. I reckon that these are us who let this Russian-Ukrainian war for people’s minds happen. As Odesa residents said about Bessarabia – people felt abandoned there. It is true. Why? Because Kyiv is far away, officials didn’t come there, people had to deal with these notional feudal lords by themselves. These lords felt free to shoot people, come to their lands, use and grab them. People are frightened there, they are looking for help in Romania, Moldova. Where was Ukraine?
You raise very important topics. It is a level of national politics. What are you up to now?
I have a project I am planning to make Ukraine-wide – these are Classes of Women’s Political Collaboration. The idea appeared when I was working in Odesa. It is kind of political classes for women, girls who want to try going into civil, political life. Particularly, to try to run the 2020 local election. At first, women from eastern Ukraine joined the project, now there are women from East and South. These regions have a higher level of danger than Western Ukraine has. We can feel much safer there. They haven’t had Kateryna Handziuk cases (civil rights and anti-corruption activist campaigner and political advisor, who exposed corruption in her hometown of Kherson. She was attacked with sulphuric acid on 31 July 2018, and died from her injuries on 4 November 2018). When one can get 500 dollars to pour a litre of sulphuric acid and kill a person. On the other hand, I face a certain dilemma: we urge women to go into civil and political activity but we can’t guarantee safety for them. We call them to fight for their own and the community’s interests, but this community can stab them in their backs. I want it when we talk about women’s participation, we do not just speak about gender quotas in Parliament. I mean an adequate woman who can make appropriate decisions. Not just following some party interests, in a corruptive meaning of the word.
Solomiia, in your opinion, what problems, issues and challenges are the most important in Ukraine?
Infrastructure. These are our roads because they are veins of education, culture, domestic tourism as well as comfort and service. Except for roads, it is the accommodation infrastructure for IDPs. Situational decisions were taken in 2014 by the Cabinet of Ministers and local authorities. But the problem hasn’t been solved yet. It is very strange; when we have up to 2 million IDPs, but we just go into ostrich mode and don’t solve their problems – we don’t build houses for them. We have much land; we just need to apply an appropriate plan. We could revive villages at least. The most painful issue is the infrastructure of the Luhansk region. The region is isolated from the country, it is terra incognita. The region was given as a nut to former (Yanukovych) authorities. It takes 9 hours to cover a 270 km distance from Mariupol to Severodpnetsk. It is like flying from Kyiv to New York. It seems impossible to me. When people say they cover 1000 km distance from east to west in 38 hours, it is like flying from Shri-Lanka to Australia and then to Ukraine.
Many processes have been launched during these 5 years. I can’t criticize it only because I don’t like someone in the office. Of course, I support the healthcare reform. It is a large layer which everybody was afraid to pick up. And Ulana Suprun with her team dared to stir up an hornets’ nest. It is a huge work which will remain not understood for most of the people. I see many MPs who have difficulties in explaining to people in their regions why the healthcare reform is important. In Ukraine, only 5-7 % of people make changes while others just use them. Reforms are always accompanied by pain.
We haven’t finished the police reform. Georgia needed 8 years to accomplish it. We can’t make it in 2-3years, can’t establish an institution with men and women whom we won’t criticize, who won’t be corruptive, who will be perfect. Criticize them but give them a chance!
The defence reform – million questions. Starting from the UkrOboronProm (State Defence Industry Concern), which involves more than 130 enterprises – absolutely not transparent, strange, monopolistic with non-public budgets. While we can see the price of shells in the CIA budget, but in Ukraine, it is a secret, the information is non-public.
I think our State Border Guard Service needs to be reformatted. Nothing has happened there lately. It is the Service which isn’t paid much attention to. They just changed the uniform – that’s all. The State Academy of Border Security Force is half-damaged, it gives little motivation to study there. Our borders aren’t protected enough. It is a very obscure state organisation, which needs to be focused on properly. This institution needs grave changes, starting from monitoring of all the humanitarian help – to common attitudes. The State Border Guard Service is controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Why? This service can become an attractive face of the country. But to achieve it, we need to take pains and slap corruptive officials on their wrist.
One more institution is the Ecology Ministry. As for me, it is one of the most corruptive ministries which gets the least attention, nobody has paid attention to it for 27 years. It includes the State Agency for Fishers, national parks, forests, lakes. These are huge resources which are just being damaged and sold. I can’t get it why this field is still shady.
Business. In Ukraine, investors are not told 20 points on why they should invest in Ukraine. Our officials just tell them the percentage of a cut. And after that, you have to waste so many nerves to get all the necessary certificates and documents! Why not reduce taxes and let people breathe out just to live well?!
It is also very strange for me that big Russian business can still work in Ukraine. There is an alumina refinery in Mykolaiv which belongs to Deripaska! Does your hair stand on end? It is a fantastic story for me – guys, are you kidding? How? What attitude should I have to the fact that a warship Varyag with a tonnage of more than 60 thousand was sold to China for some ridiculous money because Ukraine couldn’t afford to maintain it?! They sold it for entertainment needs but now it is an aircraft carrier in the CPR called Liaoning. I am shocked.
Finally, I want to see services work good in Ukraine. I don’t want it to be controlled by just some people. Starting from a business certificate to an adequate, not political work of the Security Service of Ukraine.
I am not an expert, but I would be happy to hear specialists’ opinion towards when we will be able to fulfil our gas needs – private and industrial. It is enough of making up stories, enough of telling that we have to use Russian gas. If they are building new pipelines beyond Ukraine, let’s also become more powerful. I don’t want to speak about corruption, it is clear. Corruption is everywhere in Ukraine – criminal and politics, criminal and business. Corruption is in the Parliament, the Prosecutor’s General Office, the Administration of the President. I don’t want to see the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office just a more expensive solving of the problem, with all respect to them. I want our country to be controlled automatically, not in the way it is comfortable for some people. When a state is a service with a minimum of people’s participation.
We have many discussions on moral thought leaders – people who are shining examples of serving the country. Moral thought leaders – who are they for you?
I will tell about a person who was a breakthrough in young women’s politics – Lesia Orobets. I guess she has made many things being just a 25-year-old woman, at the beginning of her career she was blamed that she was taken to the Parliament as a substitution with her father [Yuri Orobets, an MP, died in the car accident on 16 October 2006 – ED.] But she became an independent and strong policymaker of a high level, with ambitions, she has shown many great results. When the Euromaidan started, she was there 24/7 there – and always in touch. She is an example for me to follow. I wish she was still in Ukrainian politics. Oh, I can also mention Liubomyr Huzar and Metropolitan Archbishop Sheptytsky. They are sources of something vivid and valuable. I have Plast (Ukrainian Scout Organization) in my life, I often mention it. It gave me many things, but the main one is guts. When I fail, I come back to what I learnt when I was a young girl. My mother and father are important, they are examples for me. They are my conscience, they criticize me a lot, but it is worth listening to, and I always will.
What do your parents criticize you of?
For not writing my theses (laughs). They criticize me for good reasons. They have understood the many challenges I have had. But they have always demanded two things from me – modesty and professionalism.
I know that you can fly a drone. Tell about this and about your hobbies – they are very different.
In 2014, I wanted to become an operator of an unmanned aerial vehicle, I finished classes, Hennadiy Mazepa was our teacher. I now read him on Facebook. I like snowboarding, dancing salsa, now I am into American dances of the 1930s – lindy hop. I love rock climbing, camping, basketball, alpha gravity. I am not good at embroidering. But my brother is – as well as at other crafts.
You have extreme hobbies. Do you lack drive?
Extreme and sport give people an opportunity to realise their possibilities, body and mind behaviour in irregular situations. I think that team sport is designed to check teams, to realise what function a person conducts. There is a nice story when we played rugby at the Ukrainian Catholic University. It is a painful gay I can say. I have played just several times. But it helped me to realise one more time – who and how acts, who I can count on. We retranslate our strong and weak traits in the game. We fight our fears, accept challenges.
What are you, Solomiia Bobrovska, afraid of?
I am afraid of betrayal. Betrayals behind the back make horrible things. When we speak much about trust, when we try to open our hearts within the community, then betrayals are very painful and always irreversible. I wish our politicians realised it. They don’t understand they are destroying trust which is followed by disappointment. This is why people don’t want to trust anyone anymore. We hide and begin living in the world of closed hearts…
Imagine, you are in front of many people and you can say everything you want. What would you say?
Don’t give up. We will live through the Presidential and local elections. Don’t think there is a better life overseas. It is the same there. The only difference, your personality would be devaluated there, you are not a person there, you are just a second-quality function. We all are needed here and now. Don’t leave our country – give Ukraine an opportunity to be.
Solomiia Bobrovska, 29 y.o., graduated from the Lviv Ivan Franko National University (Faculty of Philosophy), now she’s doing a post-graduate program, studies social philosophy.
Volunteer, a civil activist, a Plast member. Had an internship in the Parliament of Canada and the Women’s Council of the State Administration of Massachusetts (Boston, the USA).
She has worked in civil and state institutions and organised cultural, political, civil and rights-protection events.
In 2014, worked as an advisor of Oleksandr Sych, a Vice Prime Minister on Humanitarian Issues.
In October 2015-April 2016 was an advisor to the head of the Odesa State Administration Mikheil Saakashvili. April 2016-12 January 2017 was a deputy of the head and then performed duties of the head of the Odesa Regional State administration.
In 2017, was awarded Top 30 Under 30 by KyivPost which is given to young leaders of Ukraine who have significant achievements in different fields of life and who is younger than 30 years old.
She was awarded a medal of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate “For Sacrifice and Love for Ukraine” (2015).
interview by Zoya Kazanzhy
Photos provided by Solomiia Bobrovska