Expression "To hear the Donbass" became common. Like the very concept of "Donbass". Some demonize it, others stigmatize and the rest do not want to notice at all. This is skillfully used by those who have their own interests and do not care about the Donbass by and large. Meanwhile, Donbass is real and very important factor in the life of Ukraine. These are millions of people, this is a significant part of the country's GDP, this is the war, this is the electorate and this is a sheer hope for the country's renewal. Because without renewal – we all will go round in a circle, to which the old-present System has brought us. And the Donbass pays the highest price for every step in this rut. Therefore, it is the Donbass and patriots who grew up on its ground, who most acutely feel the falsity and are most interested in real reformatting of Ukraine for people, and not for the oligarchic elites. OstroV talks with the former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada Yehor Firsov about it.
- Yehor, you have recently announced that you are going to create a new party - Alternative, which will work with the Donbass. Explain the reasons for your decision. It seems that parties appear in our country like mushrooms after the rain. Is there really a need to create one more?
- We ourselves thought about this for a long time, and eventually came to the conclusion that we would have to create our own project because there is no political force out of those that really exist, which would work productively in the East of Ukraine and understand what is needed to be done there. Unfortunately, Ukraine has such a situation when the Ukrainian parties mainly work for the electorate of the western and central oblasts, as they see them more promising for themselves, while in the southern and eastern oblasts, where it is most necessary to raise people's awareness and fight against anti-Ukrainian sentiments, they work residually. Because the leadership of these parties privately believes that the Donbass is hopeless, they will never love Ukraine, and therefore it makes no sense to spend efforts and resources on it.
As a result, we get a situation when only pro-Russian forces are productive in the southeast, which are totally dominant there, exploit people's fears and superstitions, and continue to come to power due to this exploitation. Now we have a situation when the popularity of these forces grows in the country again. This means that the prospect of revenge for the people of Yanukovych takes on quite real outlines.
- But it is really not a secret that the popularity of pro-Ukrainian parties in the Donbass is not high. Why do you think that you will manage to reverse this situation? For example, Tymoshenko had once sent significant resources to the Donbass, but still received very low level of support in the end and lost the election despite all the efforts.
- I think there is a vicious circle here. Conventional national democrats (let us call them in such a way) rather imitated work in the east than worked here in fact. Many party's chapters existed in Donetsk just nominally. Many were associated with the regionals, took money from them and played with them in giveaway. What kind of Tymoshenko's success in the Donbass can we say if this region was occupied by Natalia Korolevska? And Our Ukraine became alma mater for Yanukovych — Klimenko, Arbuzov were the members of the "orange team" in the past. It is no surprise that there was no result with such work. Local cadres had just discredited these parties.
- But you had the experience of leading the Donetsk chapter of UDAR too. What was the difference between your work and the work of the other national-democratic parties? Were you more effective?
- UDAR was really a bugbear for the local authorities. We had almost no financial resource, but at the same time, we managed to run campaigns that drove the regionals mad. For example, we opposed the semilegal metallurgical production in Makiivka, we gathered a rally there with hundreds of participants. No other party in Makiivka did anything similar. We held "Museum of Yanukovych's Promises" action in the center of Donetsk in the summer of 2013. That action had a very good media effect, there were calls to our officials from Kyiv with scolding for not being able to stop this "indecency".
It was for this reason that the regionals fought against UDAR more than with other parties. A whole campaign for our discrediting was invented. They hired some people who claimed that I owed them money, made scenes at our rallies. They tried to "grab" the Donetsk chapter in a raider way —by infiltrating their people into our organization.
- What exactly do you want to offer the Donbass? Apart from the fact that you are in favor of unified Ukraine and accession to the EU. What will crucially distinguish Alternative from other political forces?
- We are in favor of elite change and renewal of politicum. And this is a problem of both the Donbass and the whole country at large. Look at the top five leaders of the presidential rating. Three out of five — Tymoshenko, Lyashko and Rabinovich - have prison terms and records of conviction behind them. These are terrible indicators. We will forever remain a morass of corruption with such candidates.
All the Top-rated Ukrainian politicians are people from the 1990s. These are the children of Kuchma and system that he had created. Technically, the country's leaders change, and in fact Ukraine is controlled by the same people — Akhmetov, Kolomoyskyi, Firtash, Medvedchuk, Pinchuk, Poroshenko. Some of them pale into insignificance from time to time, some vice versa — gain momentum. But in general, the picture is the same. We are in favor of breaking this system up.
An important step towards liberation from these oligarchic chains is the demonopolization of the economy. Back in the day, Leonid Kuchma contemptuously called Poland "the state of small shopkeepers" and boasted that he created large financial and industrial groups in Ukraine. We see what the use of such a policy was. The country is controlled by several oligarchic families, but the middle class, in fact, has never appeared. Our "small shopkeepers" were oppressed by corruption and stupid repressive taxes. But you cannot even dream about any development without them.
We are in favor of exactly these "small shopkeepers", of Ukraine without oligarchic monopolies. And this is a particularly burning problem for the south and east regions because the assets of the oligarchs are basically there.
We are also working on a plan for the economic development of the region, since the problems of economy, workplaces and welfare in general have now top priority. The Donbass was badly damaged because of the armed hostilities, some enterprises experience serious difficulties, what, of course, affects people. Unfortunately, neither the current government nor the opposition can offer an actual reform plan in the economic sector. They only give out empty promises while about 40% of the region's residents spend almost all their wages on utilities and food. We want to bring new qualities into politics, get away from empty slogans and offer particular actions. I am sure: our people appreciate it and are ready to support it.
- How do you plan to develop the economy of the region, if almost the entire infrastructure is either "on the brink" or has already been put out of commission?
- Of course, there is a huge infrastructure problem. The roads in Donbass are simply in tatters. It is a real experience to get to Mariupol, which thousands of people are forced to pass every day. These problems must be actualized before the governor, just yesterday the European Union has once again agreed on the allocation of 50 million euros for the restoration of Donbass. And this is not for the first time, but infrastructure projects remain not running except for some point repairs.
One of the main tasks that Alternative sets itself is to control the spending of international funds. We will trace for what and how hundreds of millions of hryvnia will be used. I, for one, have grave reservations about their targeted and effective use. I remember perfectly how Zhebrivsky literally buried USD 77 000 in the land, building logistics centers, which did not work even for a day. Such miscalculations are simply unacceptable in the Donbass - this is unprofessional. Our initiative was created for the control, creation and promotion of normal "working" projects.
- On what result, in your opinion, can Alternative count in the east of Ukraine?
- Well, according to the poll conducted in May in the Donetsk oblast, about 25% of the people living there are patriotic, advocate for integration into NATO and the EU and are against separatism in any form. The same situation is usually confirmed on local elections. Now this electorate is very disappointed. People no longer want to support Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk, Tymoshenko, as well as the former Party of Regions. We believe that we need to offer these people some kind of alternative to the old politicians. Therefore, we took such a name for ourselves.
In addition, there are a lot of people in the Donbass who were brainwashed and who do not have any kind of consistent hostility toward Ukraine, but at the same time support federalization, believe that there are some enemies and spongers in western Ukraine. This is the result of a long false propaganda, but I think that a significant part of them can still be persuaded. It is important to simply talk with them and explain that the real situation of the world is different from what they were told. They need to be reached. Switch their attention from political issues to the economy. It is important to explain them on simple examples that the old elites, who rule the Donbass for 25 years, brought only grief and ruin. There will never be any progress with them. They only lie and manipulate, they try to turn some citizens of the country against others.
I think that the pro-Ukrainian political force can get 15% and even 20% in the Donbass. For example, in Slovyansk in 2015, mayor candidate Oleh Zontov, who served in the ATO, got 20% of the vote, while being self-nominated. Yes, he eventually lost to the representative of Opposition bloc, but his result was also very high. And he proves that the monopoly of the regionals is becoming a thing of the past, and patriotic sentiments are growing.
In addition, we will rely primarily on local residents, representatives of the Donbass and southeast of Ukraine as a whole. Every resident of the region can join our political force, if he or she is ready to fight for the economically successful, modern and pro-Ukrainian Donbass. Journalist Denys Kazansky, the head of the association of migrants Ruslan Kalinin and other people have already joined Alternative. In addition, mentioned above Oleh Zontov told us about his support. And believe me, this is just the beginning. By the autumn we will try to find representatives in every city or village.
- Political activity requires significant financial support. Where are you going to take money for the party?
- We will try to raise funds through fundraising. At present, we are registering a fund to which donations can be sent. It is clear that in this way we are unlikely to be able to raise enough funds to have budgets comparable to those of the parliamentary parties. And yet, this is the right mechanism. It works in Europe and the USA. Sooner or later, Ukraine will come to this.
- But so far, no one in Ukraine has managed to maintain the party only at the expense of party members and donations of ordinary citizens. Nobody has succeeded yet without support from oligarchs...
- I think we will try to manage without oligarchs. Of course, I look forward to the help of business, but not oligarchic clans. They have enough of their politicians - there is always someone to give money to.
In general, I am sure that you can achieve a positive result in the elections without big funds. Modern information technology makes it possible to reach a huge audience at a relatively low cost. Earlier, to cover a million people, it was necessary to pay for advertising on television, print hundreds of thousands of newspapers, leaflets and buy billboards. Now the same coverage can be achieved by having a popular Facebook account, using Twitter and YouTube. Even if you are not allowed on TV channels, you can still find an approach to the voters. For example, Denys Kazansky’s blog was visited by 1.3 million residents of Ukraine. If you combine these tools with visiting different cities, meetings with voters, I am convinced that you can achieve success without huge budgets.
- And what does "reaching success" mean in your understanding? What is the ultimate goal? Is it participation in local elections in the east of Ukraine or parliamentary elections as well?
- First of all, we certainly would like to change the situation in problem regions, take part in elections of territorial communities, help to manage adequate people who support Ukraine and want to make the country better. It is too early to speak about parliamentary elections. But I am sure that if you work hard enough, this peak can also be conquered.
- Do you think that the votes of the southeast will be enough to overcome the 5% barrier?
- I believe that if we really work efficiently, we will be able to cover not only the southeast. We need to start with the Donbass because now it is the most difficult area, but it is not necessary to be limited by the Donbass. In the history of Ukraine, there are several examples where regional political forces eventually developed into all-Ukrainian ones.
- Some time ago the unification of young politicians into one political force was announced. First led by Saakashvili, then without him. Your colleagues from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc joined the party Democratic Alliance. Why did not you find common ground with them and decided to go your own way?
- I would not say that at the moment there is some real union of young politicians. I would love to work in Democratic Alliance if it worked itself. But, unfortunately, they do not conduct real party work. I did not see, for example, that Serhiy Leschenko was positioning himself a spokesperson or leader of this party at briefings. Therefore, we have to work independently, without looking at anyone.
- How do you plan to start your work? What is the action plan for the nearest future?
- Right now we are planning to hold several rallies against the collaborators and separatists. We have already gathered for a small picket at the Presidential Administration with portraits of people who unleashed a war in the Donbass three years ago. On June 5, we reminded of them near the main office of the SBU. Unfortunately, a number of representatives of local authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts escaped punishment and remain in power. And this means that no one was punished for thousands of deaths. This means that the tragedy of 2014 can be repeated again. And if there is at least a small risk of that, it is necessary to minimize it by any means, which is why the issue of national security will always be the main for Alternative.
In addition, in summer we plan to create a full-fledged program. We will try to answer the most acute questions: economic reforms, electoral legislation, law on the occupied territories. And, of course, party organization, this is the most important task for now.
- How can people join your political force? Is there a coordinator or a hotline?
For those who are interested in our initiative, we have developed a special form, you can fill it here.
We will contact each person and individually identify possible cooperation options. Thus, we will look for the core group, and then work through the coordinators. Our priority is personal meetings, especially with our supporters. Our team and I personally will go from town to town to shake hands and look into the eyes of those who, like us, see Ukraine successful and strong.
Interviewed by Ivan Popov, for OstroV